When there was a football game out there to be won, which was not very long, it was difficult to see anyone but those old familiar Nebraska heroes doing what few people except themselves and Bob Devaney knew was possible. Which was the modest stunt of taking Bear Bryant and Alabama and making them look like your neighborhood Texas A&M with a little dash of Oklahoma State thrown in. The 1972 Orange Bowl (see cover) was the game of what decade? The 1950s before Bear got to Tuscaloosa? The only game going on for anyone to watch last Saturday night in Miami was between Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover, to see which one of them could do the most to make it the worst thing that ever happened to Bear Bryant.
One has to look back and wonder what kind of odds a Nebraskan could have gotten from an Alabamian before the opening kickoff if the fellow had said he felt that his Cornhuskers would whip the Crimson Tide worse than Nebraska had whipped Oregon... Minnesota... Texas A&M... Oklahoma State... Colorado...and Kansas State? Or what if the Nebraskan had said what one of Bob Devaney's associates had whispered, with a sincere expression, that the score would be about 40-7, not knowing that the actual count of 38-6 would be enough to make it the worst loss of Bryant's Alabama career and equal to the worst of his entire life? A lot of people close to Devaney insinuated such madness, and Alabamians only thought them crazier than Miami Beach itself.
What makes this worth dwelling on is that Bear Bryant was in town as the coach with the reputation, the mystique, the image of the man who can, simply by being around, lend all the glamour and stature that any football situation or game ever needs. And Bob Devaney was there in his accustomed role of good old boy, a man who has never actually had it, despite his own brilliant coaching record.
Devaney has no real star quality, not outside of Nebraska, that is. At least not until right now, this very moment, which finds him and everybody from Nebraska giddy with the delights of a second straight national championship. Celestial fame has set in with the fact that when the Cornhuskers had to go up against all of that Alabama mystique, they calmly shrugged it aside and turned the whole affair into a joke by halftime.
It was 28-0 then. And Rich Glover had made himself as much a part of Alabama's backfield as, shall we say, Johnny Musso. And Johnny Rodgers had already made his usual punt return for a touchdown. And the Alabama Wishbone had been gnawed bare.
"As a matter of fact," said Rodgers later, "a few of us did talk a little bit at the half about the celebration party we were going to have back at the hotel."
While Nebraska got a couple of good breaks that demoralized Alabama early—a clear-cut interference call to set up the first touchdown and a head-ringing fumble to set up the third, both within the game's first 18 minutes—there was something else down there on the field that removed any doubt about the outcome. It was the fact that homebody Devaney had a far better game plan than Bryant—and far better athletes to run it.
The most impressive thing about Devaney's Nebraska teams is their discipline and balance. Normally, football teams that rely as much on the forward pass as the Cornhuskers do in their endless I slot and spread formations have a tendency to become eventually nothing more than passing teams, and that won't cut it. Nebraska never has slipped into this fault. It can always run, as indeed it ran on Alabama, with Jeff Kinney and Bill Olds bruising their way for some killing yardage out of what were designed to look like throwing formations, which is what the game plan was all about.
Meanwhile, Alabama's offense was a sad sight. All season long its Wishbone had never looked quite right, despite the victories the Tide kept rolling up. It lacked deception and outside speed, and Alabama Quarterback Terry Davis even confided to a friend before the Orange Bowl, "I've never had to throw when we were behind. I'm not that confident about my passing. I hope we don't get in that situation."
Alabama quickly did get in that situation, mainly because of the last play of the first quarter, when the incomparable Johnny Rodgers stabbed the Tide with a punt return just as he had mortally wounded Oklahoma with one. Once more, he made the biggest play in a big game.