Nebraska and USC will play for the fifth time in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 with the Trojans holding a 3-0-1 record in the series.
But that 1970 tie might be the most important in Husker football history. “Devaney: Birth of a Dynasty” by The World-Herald’s Henry J. Cordes includes a look at that 1970 season, including the 21-21 tie in Los Angeles.
The season began with high hopes for Nebraska, as NU players for the first time openly expressed a goal of a national championship. One of the most confident was Jerry Murtaugh, a rough-and-tumble linebacker Bob Devaney had recruited out of Omaha North.
Of course, all teams start their seasons with ambitious goals. You have to go out on the field and prove it. Murtaugh figured Nebraska now had a great opportunity to do just that. If the Huskers truly were going to be a title contender, there was no better way to launch the bid than flying out to L.A. and knocking off USC’s mighty Trojans. In fact, talking to a reporter when the skywriters came to Lincoln before the season, Murtaugh had boldly predicted that the Huskers were “going to beat the hell out of USC.”
That statement was bound to cause Murtaugh some problems. Devaney always warned players about inflammatory talk. The story making the rounds at that time was that Kinney had to pull Murtaugh away from the skywriters, telling him, “You just look pretty, and let me do the talking.” The two tried to explain the statement away, saying Murtaugh was just joking around, but it was too late.
Murtaugh’s words were sure to end up on the bulletin board in the USC locker room.
Devaney was livid when he heard about it, but that wasn’t unusual. The coach always struggled to control Murtaugh, a player who was constantly in the doghouse. To hear the stories years later, you’d wonder how Murtaugh survived four years in Lincoln. But if you saw him on a football field, you’d understand why Devaney continued to trot him out every Saturday. On the field, Murtaugh was a holy terror, one of the nastiest players ever to put on a Cornhusker uniform.
The biggest drama for the Huskers entering the game against No. 3 USC was who would start at quarterback.
Van Brownson, who had led the team to a Sun Bowl victory at the end of the 1969 season, had missed the previous game with an injured elbow. Jerry Tagge had taken a helmet to the thigh and hadn’t practiced for a week.
In the end, Tagge was able to convince Devaney he could play and led the Huskers to the USC 5 in the first quarter before a fumble ended the drive. But Nebraska’s players knew they could play with their highly ranked opponent.
Husker Dan Schneiss, the offensive captain, typified Nebraska’s physical attitude early on. The hard-nosed Wisconsin native and fellow fullback Jim Carstens drew the assignment of blocking Greg Slough, the Trojans’ preseason All-America linebacker. Schneiss returned to the Nebraska sideline after one early drive with blood all over his white road jersey.
“Are you all right?” Carstens asked.
Schneiss pointed to the blood on his shirt. “You mean this? That belongs to Greg Slough.”
Fullback Schneiss had a hand in the Huskers first touchdown, which came off a trick play designed by offensive coordinator Tom Osborne. Schneiss took a handoff and threw a 17-yard pass to split end Guy Ingles early in the second quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The teams traded scores, with the Huskers pulling ahead 21-14 on a spectacular 67-yard run by I-back Joe Orduna in the third quarter. But the Trojans tied it again at 21 with a little less than 7 minutes remaining in the game.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Trojans made short work of the Husker offense and, for the first time all night, had the upper hand. They had the ball with good field position at their own 42. Most importantly, they had all the momentum. The Coliseum crowd could sense the swing.
Three hard runs netted the Trojans 9 yards, setting up fourth-and-1 near midfield with three minutes to play. (USC coach John) McKay kept his offense on the field. He was going for it. And he had his quarterback turn and hand the ball to the running back most likely to get that yard: fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham.
A bruising 210-pound sophomore, Cunningham had left his mark — lots of them, actually — on the Bama defense the week before, ripping off 135 yards and two touchdowns on just a dozen carries. In the mythology of college football, that game has gone down as the day Bear Bryant became convinced that he needed to start recruiting black football players. But as good as Cunningham was — a future NFL standout — on this night in Los Angeles the Trojan battering ram met his match.
Cunningham charged into a gap in the line and was met headlong by Murtaugh. The sound of clashing pads rang through the Coliseum. And the Husker stopped Cunningham cold. The officials didn’t even bother to measure to see if he’d gotten the yard. It was the last of Murtaugh’s 25 tackles on the night, and it ended the last serious threat by either team. The clock ran out on the 21-21 final.