It was a Saturday for troublemakers, one of those fierce fall afternoons when the coaches of college football's top-ranked teams wish the world would go away and leave them to dot their T's and cross their T's. But instead the world had turned out in enormous numbers to witness their trials: 85,000 in Columbus, where Ohio State reduced No. 1 Purdue to No. 0 on the scoreboard (page 52); 81,000 at Stanford, where No. 2 USC and its O. J. Simpson were tormented to distraction before escaping by a dram of Orange Juice; and 67,000 at Nebraska (the largest crowd in Big Eight Conference history), where the most distracting and surprising troublemaker of them all was on display, the Kansas team of Pepper Rodgers.
Startled coaches throughout the Big Eight have come to know—and agonize over—Franklin Cullen Rodgers of Kansas University as an unmitigated, foursquare, upstart Apostle of the Unexpected. Why, he might lead his team onto the field with a brisk 37-year-old's version of a double somersault. He might pass on fourth and one at the 10-yard line. He might pull out his miniature chessboard without warning and challenge the nearest stranger to a game. And now, although there is no sure route through the trackless terrain of the unexpected, he just might—in his sophomore year as a head coach—have turned one of the Midwest's doormats into a conference champion and a national power.
At the very least, Rodgers and his men took a solid step in that direction on Saturday. In a rugged showdown with a typically formidable Nebraska team, KU's once-hapless Jayhawks took wing in a high-flying fourth quarter that gave them a 23-13 victory of considerable significance.
The game was the Big Eight opener for both teams, and both went into it boasting 3-0 records and a ranking in the Top 10. To Kansas' credit, the battle was met and won in Nebraska's notorious madhouse-red Memorial Stadium. Except for a teaspoonful of 5,500 brave, blue-blazered Jayhawk fans, the vast bowl overflowed with red wind-breakers, red Stetsons, red berets, red feathers, red boots, red ponchos and a distinctly blood-colored demand for revenge—last year Rodgers had gotten his maiden victory as a head coach by beating the Cornhuskers 10-0.
This year, given a dismal pregame drizzle and the seriousness of the situation, there was no somersaulting onto the field by Rodgers. "I may do the unexpected, but I do not do the suicidal," he said. "No sane man turns somersaults in the face of that many enemies."
Not entirely unexpectedly, Kansas was a slight favorite. This largely was due to the preposterous scores it had run up against Illinois (47-7), Indiana (38-20) and New Mexico (68-7), and while the Jayhawk offense had averaged 51 points a game, Nebraska had totaled only 61 in defeating Wyoming, Utah and Minnesota. But in the course of its success, Kansas had not faced a really strong opponent and some of the team's more stimulating statistics—such as an average of 6.5 yards over each of 213 offensive plays—were not likely to be repeated against the kind of defense that Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney insists upon.
Nevertheless, Rodgers is considered by many to be something of an offensive guru—last winter Texas' own bright young man, Darrell Royal, spent a week in the study and meditation of offense with Pepper—and he has constructed an impressive attack at Kansas, where a 5-5 record so startled the Big Eight in 1967 that it named him Coach of the Year.
Rodgers' most brilliant move has been the resurrection of Quarterback Bobby Douglass, a left-handed howitzer who fires the ball so hard he once split a six-stitch cut in a receiver's palm. After a dismal sophomore season Douglass responded brilliantly to Rodgers' tutoring. He became the Big Eight's Back of the Year in '67 and in his first three games this fall he completed four touchdown passes, scored four himself, and had pro scouts calling him the best prospect among the college quarterbacks.
Rodgers' mastery in the craft of quarterbacking is well known: he was a good quarterback himself at Georgia Tech 15 years ago and his work as backfield coach at Florida and UCLA was a major reason behind the Heisman Trophy successes of Steve Spurrier and Gary Beban.
But good as Douglass is, the Kansas offense does not move by quarterbacking alone, and Rodgers has plenty of runners, the most distinguished of them being Tailback Donnie Shanklin, a 5'9", 168-pound sprinter who had a 16.7-yard average in 17 carries, and a 19-year-old sophomore fullback, John Riggins. It was a lot of offense to hold in check, even for a Devaney team.