Wisconsin had not even appeared in the AP poll since mid way through the 1963 season. The early ‘70s were not halcyon days in Madison. Under the tutelage of John Jardine, a former Purdue offensive lineman who never held another head coaching job, Wisconsin continued a woeful run of form. From 1964 through 1973 under three different coaches the Badgers had posted a woeful 34-74-5 record, including two winless seasons in 1967 and ’68. In eight seasons from 1970 to 1977 Jardine went 37-47-3. The Badgers' eventual 7-4 record in 1974 would be his only winning year. Wisconsin did not make a habit of beating anyone in those days, least of all visitors ranked fourth by the AP.
Osborne’s approach in Lincoln was essentially one of continuity—sustaining what Devaney had established. The tradition of Nebraska’s “black shirt” defenses began in 1964 when Devaney first moved to two-platoon football and simply needed to differentiate the defensive and offensive squads. The system quickly evolved into black and grey shirts for the defense, black shirts being awarded on a daily basis to players who had earned them in the previous day’s session. The myth of the “black shirts” only grew under Osborne, who appointed the young Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. All-American defensive end John Dutton led Kiffin’s first unit, and while the 1974 black shirts lacked a clear standout they would only give up more than fifteen points on three occasions. On offense Nebraska ran a prototypical power-I, producing multiple 500-yard backs every year. Jeff Kinney ran for 1037 yards in 1971. Tony Davis posted 1008 two years later. With opposing defenses lined up to stop the run, and assisted by talented receivers such as Johnny Rogers, the great ‘Husker teams of the early ‘70s also gained yards through the air. Jerry Tagge exceeded 1300 yards passing each of his three seasons from 1969-71. Dave Humm exceeded 1500 yards every year from 1972-74. Simply put, Nebraska outmatched Wisconsin both sides of the ball.
Certainly Nebraska’s sixty-point explosion the previous week gave cause for concern. After the teams exchanged punts early on, Big Red seized the initiative with 6:00 to play in the first quarter. Nebraska took a 7-0 lead on a 22-yard breakaway dash from wingback Don Westbrook. A national television audience watching on ABC likely sensed another runaway victory, but on Nebraska’s next possession David Humm went down with a hip pointer and left the game. That Humm missed the following two Nebraska games but still finished the 1974 season with 1435 yards and12 TDs is sufficient indication of his talent. In his place, career backup Earl Everett went just 3-of-7 with an interception. Everett and Humm’s combined five completions were good for a paltry forty-seven team passing yards. But so long as the untested understudy had only to hand the ball off, Nebraska continued to look marginally the better team. With 6:14 in the second quarter to play Wisconsin drove half the length of the field before levelling on a nine-yard pass from Bohlig to backup wideout Ron Egloff. After another exchange of punts Nebraska answered with a drive of their own, capped by a six-yard scoring dash from tailback John O’Leary seconds before time expired. As a sophomore the previous year O’Leary had gained 326 yards on 73 carries. Classmate Tony Davis had topped a thousand. Davis and O’Leary would combine for 1025 yards in 1974, before totaling 1118 yards as seniors in 1975. One of the greatest runningback tandems in Nebraska history made a combined 162 yards against Wisconsin, but after O’Leary suffered a concussion early in the second half just four yards shy of a century Davis had to carry the load alone. Missing a thousand-yard passer and a 500-yard back the ‘Husker offense sputtered.
Nebraska extended its slender lead to 17-10 five minutes into the second half on a thirty-yard Mike Coyle field goal. The black shirts gave up yardage that threatened the ‘Husker lead only begrudgingly and in tiny increments. Wisconsin rushed for a team total of just 77-yards on a massive forty-four attempts. The 1974 Badgers were far from second-rate on the ground. Marek would finish the year with 1207 yards on 241 carries, including thirty-points and 304-yards against Minnesota that remain first and second on their respective lists of single-game school records. Alongside him Ken Starch added 637 yards on 110 carries while Mike Morgan gained 461 on 85. Against Monte Kiffin’s immovable defensive front, however, the Badgers managed virtually nothing.
Jardine had little option but to shift to the passing game. Bohlig, a talent at least equal to his now-departed opposite number David Humm, answered the call with a 242-yard performance on 14-of-21 passes. He began to find holes in front of the Nebraska secondary, allowing his receivers to maneuver Wisconsin inside the ten-yard line shortly before the third quarter expired. With 14:16 to play in the game the Badger’s struggling ground attack gained a one-yard score through Bill Marek, reducing the deficit to just 17-14.
The teams then exchanged punts for the fifth time before Tony Davis, who finished with seventy-six yards, shouldered most of the load in a drive that carried Big Red inside the Badger ten with barely five minutes remaining. A touchdown would have decided the game, but without two of its leaders the ‘Husker offense reached only the two-yard line in three attempts. Osborne faced a difficult decision. Nebraska gained 258 rushing yards on the day in sixty-two attempts. The odds favored a touchdown on fourth-and two, and with the black shirts still holding Wisconsin’s ground game in check the danger in falling short seemed relatively limited. But Osborn elected to kick, extending the ‘Husker lead to just 20-14.
Wisconsin had less than four minutes remaining to go seventy-one yards after running the ensuing kick back to its own 29-yard line. On first-and-ten the Nebraska defensive front blew past some shoddy blocking and gang tackled the helpless Bohlig for a six-yard loss. Osborne’s gambit seemed momentarily judicious. A 73,000 home crowd, which had been electrified by their team’s goal-line stand, began to sense an anticlimax. Then, on second-and-sixteen, Bohlig again dropped back. His protection held long enough for him to find receiver Jeff Mack on a seam route at the Wisconsin thirty-five. Bohlig hit Mack in a crowd of ‘Husker defenders perfectly in stride, allowing the flanker to break free and sprint the length of the field. The 77-yard touchdown set up a game-winning PAT attempt, which Vince Lamia duly converted to the delight of an already jubilant crowd.
Needing a field length drive with barely three minutes remaining Osborne called a typical off-tackle running play on first down. A resurgent Wisconsin defense swarmed to the ball, forcing Osborne to call a pass play on second down. Nebraska quarterbacks have never been known for making quick yards through the air under any circumstances. Required to do so for an unlikely late comeback Everett threw an interception. A handful of ultra conservative running plays later the clock expired as glory-starved Wisconsin fans stormed the field.
The day was an aberration. Big Red finished the 1974 season 9-3 with a win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. While the Badgers limped to 7-4 they would not post another winning season until 1981. That one-point win over a depleted Nebraska team easily constituted the greatest win of John Jardine’s disappointing eight-year tenure, and possibly of two barren decades for Wisconsin football. For Big Red, a streak of annual bowl appearances that began in 1969 would stretch to 2004. ‘Husker fans soon forgot their fourth-quarter loss in Madison.
Big Red has not returned to Madison since that day, or played Wisconsin in any other location. On 1 October 2011 Nebraska will play its first Big Ten game at Camp Randall stadium. Over the last decade it has been the Badgers that have enjoyed the high watermark of school history, while Nebraska has languished—relative, of course, to admittedly lofty expectations. Husker fans will hope for a win, however narrow, that might prove not an aberration but the spark for a renewed dynasty.
Whatever happens, Wisconsin will not be held to seventy-seven yards on the ground.
[Sources: USA CFB encyclopedia; ESPN Big Ten encyclopedia; New York Times; Huksers.com,History of the blackshirts; cfbdatawarehouse.com; huskersmax.com; photos, Madison.com]