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Looking back: Iowa’s 10-7 victory vs. Nebraska in 1981

[ 2 ] November 20, 2011 |

Editor’s note: Iowa and Nebraska will renew their football rivalry on Friday in Lincoln, Neb. The Hawkeyes notched a memorable victory on Sept. 12, 1981 in Iowa City, beating No. 7 Nebraska 10-7.  The following is the game story from the Sept. 13, 1981 Des Moines Sunday Register.



  • Stiff defense helps avenge 1980 rout
  • Phillips, Olejniczak score winning points

By Ron Maly

Sunday Register Staff Writer

IOWA CITY, IA – Don’t let anyone tell you differently – the 10-7 stunner Iowa’s football team slapped on seventh-ranked Nebraska Saturday ranks right up there with the biggest upsets of all time in the record books of a university that began playing this sports on an intercollegiate level in 1889.

As shadows began falling over Kinnick Stadium following a game that was played in hot, muggy weather, only one goalpoast was standing and the place was still echoing with the roars of a record throng of 60,160.

And, oh, was the roar sweet.

The key to it all was defense. Iowa limited the Cornhuskers to a mere 150 yards on the ground. Sure, Nebraska did end up outgaining Iowa in total offense, 231-202,but the Hawks made the big plays on defense when they had to.

No doubt about it, this colossal victory over a team that walloped Iowa, 57-0, last season, came in as a 16-point favorite this time and is a regular inhabitant of the Top 10 rankings is one that Hawkeye patriots won’t soon forget.

It will be glittering in their minds right along with the 7-6 shocker Nile Kinnick and the rest of the 1939 Iron Men hit Notre Dame with; the 8-0 victory a ragtag 1952 Hawkeye team scored over Ohio State; the 6-0 thriller over Ohio State that sent the ’56 team to the Rose Bowl; and the 7-6 white-knuckler the ’76 group went home with from Penn State.

Indeed, this sparkling success in the opening game of the season was one that rocked the collegiate football world and perhaps announced to everyone that Iowa is back.

Yes, sir, the school that hasn’t had a winning season since 1961, maybe came forward on the 12th day of September, 1981, with the word that there is a new day ahead for Iowa football.

Well, the fans have certainly waited long enough – and they let out all their frustrations while counting down the final seconds.

Fifteen…14…13…12…all the way down to the end, and then – whooah! – the masses hit the new $600,000 artificial turf. Fans poured out of the north end zone and left the goal post a mass of twisted steel. Then they raced for the players. They grabbed them, they hugged them.

They danced, they laughed, they celebrated in the late afternoon. Many were sunburned because they wore no shirts on this day when the temperature was in the mid-80s. Sweat rolled off their bodies as they experienced something Hawkeye followers have been able to experience far too infrequently in the past 20 years.

Somehow, the goal post at the south end of the field survived the charge of the crowd.

But the echoes and the memories remained.

Points Come Early

A two-yard touchdown run by Eddie Phillips in the first quarter and a 35-field goal by Lon Olejniczak on the opening play of the second period gave Iowa all the points it needed to whip a team that is supposed to finish second in the Big Eight Conference, win its usual eight, nine or 10 games and play in another bowl game.

But there was far more to this unbelievable victory than a run and kick. Coach Hayden Fry had a defense made up of guys like tackle Jim Pekar (eight solo tackles), tackle Mark Bortz and secondary people Jim Frazier and Lou King (five each) that brought Nebraska’s feared offense to a virtual standstill.

Fry also had an offensive line that performed admirably after being rebuilt from last year and some gimmicks, such as an unbalanced line and a quick huddle, that appeared to catch Nebraska off guard.

Can you imagine the disbelief in the stadiums across America when it was announced that Iowa was actually leading Nebraska at halftime, 10-0? Can you imagine what it was like when the public address announcer in all those stadiums disclosed that same 10-0 score after three quarters?

Not This Time

Things like that just aren’t supposed to happen to Nebraska, a football factory that produces tremendous teams year after year. The last time a Husker team had been held without a point for three periods was in the 1974 Sugar Bowl, but even then the team had enough character to come back with a 13-point final quarter that defeated Florida, 13-10.

Nebraska tried hard to do the same thing Saturday. The Huskers took advantage of Phillips’ fumble on the Iowa 33 with 52 seconds left in the third quarter and marched in for a touchdown with 11:42 to go in the game.

It was scored by Roger Craig, the hard-driving Nebraska I-back from Davenport, on a one-yard smash. And the extra point by Kevin Seibel brought Nebraska up to a 10-7 deficit with plenty of time left.

But Iowa withstood every Nebraska threat thereafter. Seibels 37-yard field goal try was wide to the right with 6½ minutes to go, then Iowa’s defenders were all over the Huskers as they moved in for the kill.

The Hawks turned Nebraska into a fumbling, error-prone giant in the final minutes, and most of the fans loved it. The only ones who didn’t were the red-clad Nebraska rooters at the south end of the field. Who must have been wondering how their team could look like the Oakland Raiders against Iowa one year, then like Cupcake University the next.

Afterward, Fry apologized for being tardy in making it to his press conference.

“But,” he pointed out, “we’ve had a slight celebration.”

Fry was testy at times in his comments. Someone asked why he wore a black jacket that muse have left him wringing-wet throughout the game, and he said, “I’m superstitious.”

Then someone asked about his mustache, which is new this year, and Fry said, “Let’s not talk about the mustache. We’ve just whipped somebody’s ass. We’ve worked our talls off and whipped a heck of a team.

“I couldn’t be prouder of my squad or my coaches. The game ball goes to Bill Brashier (the defensive coordinator) and the other defensive coaches.”

Fry said he and his players had been “waiting since last year” to pull off something like this, and added that, “Some of you doubters know I was telling the truth last year…there have been some cheap shots take at our program – not may, but few.”

That evidently was a shot at a few members of the media who might not have been writing and saying the things Fry preferred.

Films Again

The “film flap” subject of last year was bound to come up, and Fry denied he’d ever said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne was guilty of anything unethical before the 1980 game.

“I was just disappointed the North Texas State (where he coached before coming here) wanted Nebraska to beat us,” Fry said. “Osborne and I had no problem.”

Obviously, it was a day on which Fry felt he wanted to get some things straight.

“Was it,” a man wondered, “the greatest victory of your life?”

“I’m getting old,” Fry answered. “We beat a lot of top-ranked teams when I was at Southern Methodist and North Texas.

“At Iowa, this is far and away the best thing that’s happened to me. Today, this is the greatest victory of my life.”

In the dramatic fourth quarter, people were wondering if the same bad things would happen to Iowa that befell Fry’s ’79 team. There was the 26-3 lead the Hawks erected in the opener against Indiana, then the disappointment of a 30-26 loss. There was the hard-fought game at Oklahoma, which finally went to the Sooners, 21-6. There was the 24-21 loss to Nebraska after Iowa had led 21-7, heading into the final 17 minutes.

Learned to Win

“Games like that drove home the fact that we needed to learn to win around here,” Fry commented. “And, when we fumbled in the second half, I was thing, ‘Here we go again.’”

No so. This time it was Iowa that had enough character to hold on, enough defense to stop a team with the reputation for late-game tricks that turn seeming disaster into sudden victory.

As the reality of the upset go closer and closer, these were the things that happened.

After Craig had burst loose for a 13-yard gain, quarterback Mark Mauer fumbled on first down at the Iowa 34, and Bortz recovered for the Hawks.

However, Phil Blatcher fumbled three plays later at the Iowa 38, and Allen Lyday fell on the ball.

The Husker’s final gasp came inside the last minute. Reggie Roby, who broke his own Iowa record by averaging 55.8 yards on five punts, booted one 53 yards to the Husker 22.

No. 2 quarterback Nate Mason thrown for a nine-yard loss by Bortz on first down, then his pass intended for Scott Woodard was intercepted by Lou King at the 28.

That was it. All that was left was the countdown and the celebrating.

Hard Loss

“This is one of the hardest losses since I’ve been at Nebrasak,” said Osborne, who had lost just once in 11 previous games with Big Ten teams. “Iowa played well and deserved to win.

“They outplayed us and outcoached us. Anytime we lose a game it’s my fault. If our players aren’t good enough, I should have done a better job recruiting.

“If our players don’t perform well, then we should have done a better job of preparing them.

“I think we have better players overall than Iowa does…I think.”

“Our offensive line blew Nebraska out,” said Phillips, the sophomore who was named the No. 1 tailback early last week after it was evident J.C. Love-Jordan wouldn’t be able to play because of an ankle injury.

“Our defense was ready for this game all week, all fall, all last spring.”

44-Yard March

Iowa played like a team possessed in the early minutes. With Pete Gales – designated as the No. 1 quarterback two days before the game – at the controls, the Hawks marched 44 yards in seven plays for their touchdown.

Phillips, who was the leading rusher for both team with 94 yards in 19 carries, burst for runs of nine, three, 13 and seven yards on successive tries, and finally went across from the two with 9:16 left in the opening period. Olejniczak kicked the point.

Iowa got another chance after Borz recovered Craig’s fumble following a pass catch at the Husker 24. However, five plays later, Roby failed on a 42-yard field goal try.

And it was on that series that Steve McWhirter, the Nebraska linebacker from Fairfield, suffered a hyperextension of a knee and was helped off the field.

Brad Webb’s pass interception at the Nebraska 43 set up Iowa’s field goal. The 36-yarder by Olejniczak on the first play of the second quarter sent the fans into ecstacy.

Halfway through Fry’s comments to the press, he was interrupted.

Someone said ABC-TV wanted to visit with him about the victory.

When the network calls, the coach leaves.

After returning, he said next Saturday’s game against Iowa State “scares the hell out of me…we won’t be able to sneak up on ‘em no.”

Fry was happy to report there were no new injuries. But he added that four or five players suffered cramps because of the heat.

Indeed, Phillips blamed “cramps in my hand” for his fumble that led to the Nebraska touchdown.

“Get it Going”

Asked why this year’s Nebraska game was so much different than the 1980 debacle, Bortz said, “Because we know we’re coming on. The coaches have it going and the defense has it going.

“Everyone felt more relaxed out there today. When we needed a turnover, we got it. Two years ago, it seemed we had Nebraska, but let the game get away. It would have killed us to have that happen again.”

Roby said he was “lined up wrong” on the two field goals he missed.

One of the happiest Hawks was No. 2 offensive guard Dave Mayhan, who is from Bellevue, Neb.

“Football is a state of mind,” he commented. “If you have a victory in your head, you’ll make it happen.”

Craig, who finished with 74 yards in 19 carries for Nebraska, said, “Iowa was ready for us…they stopped our running game. This game really hurts, but we’ll bounce back.”


Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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