Big Eight fans who believed that the game as played in the Western Athletic Conference was touch football are looking for a new faith these days. By upsetting Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl Arizona State proved it belongs up there among the best college teams in the nation—yes, with Ohio State, Oklahoma or anybody else you want to name.
The Fiesta was a genuine thriller, and although the outcome shocked some people—about a million Nebraskans, for sure—the way ASU pulled it off should have come as no surprise. Coach Frank Kush publicly announced the battle plan three days before the game, and the Sun Devils did exactly what he promised they would, which was blitz and stunt and razz and dazz and swing for the fence and run at those Nebraska giants every way but straight. They distracted the Huskers and confused them and did not hold still long enough for Nebraska to sit on them, which the Big Red has been known to do to its opponents—10 times this season, in fact. In short, they were as unpredictable and uncooperative as they could be, Devils that they are.
It was enough to make the Cornhuskers sorry they had changed their minds about going to Tempe. Nebraska had said thanks-but-no-thanks to the first Fiesta invitation, but reconsidered after losing to Oklahoma and discovering it was either go to Tempe or spend Christmas in Lincoln. The visitors came to town humble and said things like, "Gee, Fiesta Bowl, it wasn't anything personal, no lack of respect intended, we really think State has a real fine football team and will be a worthy opponent, it's just that you caught us in a bad mood, right before the Oklahoma game and all." The Fiesta folks graciously forgave the Huskers and rolled out the red carpet—Nebraska red, of course. Nebraska, shooting for an NCAA record of seven straight bowl victories, said it had never been treated with such consideration. The Fiesta committee was bent on proving that Tempe is as pleasant at Christmastime as Pasadena or Miami or New Orleans or Dallas, and, at roughly 65� during the week, it convinced a lot of people.
This was Arizona State's fourth trip to the Fiesta Bowl in five years, if you can call playing in your own stadium a trip. But 4 for 5 is fair enough, since the bowl was invented in 1971 to accommodate Arizona State anyhow. Technically it was created for the WAC champion to be host, but Arizona State is regularly the winner of that league.
This year's game meant something special to both the team and the conference. ASU had completed an undefeated regular season but still had to listen to snickers about its soft schedule, and the WAC wanted to prove its teams were not all pushovers. If Nebraska had murdered State, as many thought it would, the WAC would have had to hide among the cacti for another 10 years or so. Now it can rightfully say, "We told you so." Or something more thorny.
The game was one of those David and Goliath numbers. Nebraska dwarfed ASU not only in reputation but physically as well. "Even their coaches are big," said the 5'9" Kush, who looks up pretty far when he talks to 6'3" Tom Osborne of Nebraska. But Kush's record in 18 seasons at ASU is anything but diminutive; his winning percentage—.795—is second only to Joe Paterno's at Penn State. Like Paterno, Kush has turned down fine offers to coach pro teams.
Two plays after State kicked off, ASU Linebacker Larry Gordon came out of the air with a poorly aimed Nebraska pass, and three minutes later Dan Kush, the coach's son, kicked a 27-yard field goal.
With the score 3-0, Nebraska Quarterback Vince Ferragamo was, surprisingly, banished to the bench like a sour singer in an amateur show, and replaced by Terry Luck. "Vince is a fine quarterback," said Osborne later, "but Luck is more experienced at calling audibles." The way Arizona State was blitzing there was going to be a lot of signal-switching.
The change seemed to work. Early in the second quarter Monte Anthony, a sophomore I-back, rambled for 34 yards to the State seven. He scored on a fourth-down dive and the Cornhuskers were ahead 7-3. But one exchange of downs later Nebraska lost the ball on a fumble by Fullback Tony Davis, who set an all-time school rushing record of 2,445 yards during the game. After another exchange Arizona State gained possession at mid-field with 1:27 remaining in the half. Kush instructed his quarterback, Dennis Sproul, to pull out all the stops. Sproul had lost confidence early in the season, largely because of home-crowd boos, but this time there were only cheers among the 51,396 spectators—a stadium record—and Sproul was ready. He fired nine consecutive passes, four of them complete, and with only one second left young Kush converted a 33-yard field goal to make the score 7-6.
Nebraska resurrected its grind-it-out game in the third quarter, and Anthony scored again on a four-yard burst, capping a drive of 91 yards. But Sproul came back, mixing his calls and his passes beautifully, despite two frustrating illegal procedure penalties—the price ASU paid for its attempts to keep Nebraska's crack defense off balance.