Birth of a Rivalry – Part III

This is Part III of the series examining the birth of Nebraska’s rivalry with Colorado. Today we will be jumping back ahead to the 1989 season. Nebraska had finished the 1988 season with an 11-2 record and a 23-3 loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska’s other blemish was a 41-28 loss to #5 UCLA in Pasadena. The post-bowl rankings placed the Huskers #10 nationally. Nebraska began the 1989 season needing to replace Steve Taylor, a three-year starter at quarterback, as well as several other members of its highly regarded 1985 recruiting class. The Huskers kicked off the season with ranked #4 nationally and were led by captains Doug Glaser, Gerry Gdowski, Randall Jobman and Jeff Mills.

Colorado was coming off an 8-4 record in 1988, with three conference losses to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The Buffs also lost 20-17 to unranked BYU in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim to finish the season ranked #14 nationally. Leading the team to its 8-4 mark was junior quarterback Sal Aunese, a Samoan, who had been recruited by Bill McCartney in 1986. Aunese soon became a slick option quarterback for the Buffs, as well as the team’s emotional leader. In March of 1989, Sal Aunese received word that he had inoperable cancer that had spread from his stomach to his lungs. Devastated by the news, many of his teammates cut short their spring-break vacations to join him back in Boulder where he would begin chemotherapy.

Back in Lincoln, Nebraska began the 1989 season with four lopsided wins over non-conference foes, Northern Illinois, Utah, Minnesota, and Oregon State. The Huskers then kicked off their Big 8 slate with blowout wins over unranked conference foes Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. This put Nebraska at 8-0 on the year and ranked #3 nationally as they entered a November 4th showdown with Colorado in Boulder.

Colorado decided early in the 1989 season to dedicate this campaign to their ailing quarterback. Emboldened by this emotion, Colorado started the year with three straight home blowouts over unranked opponents, Texas, Colorado State and Illinois. One of the key players in CU’s quick start was the man who had replaced Aunese, sophomore QB Darian Hagan. Despite his inexperience, Hagan quickly showed deftness at the option that few had ever seen before. The early wins had allowed the Buffs to rise to #5 in the rankings as they readied to travel to Seattle to face #21 ranked Washington in two weeks. Exactly one week prior to this match up with the Huskies, during CU’s off-week Sal Aunese died at the age of 21 on September 23, 1989. A week later the still-mourning Buffalos dismantled Washington 45-28 in one of the toughest venues to play in all of college football.

Following the big road win, Colorado reeled off four more victories over Big 12 opponents Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas, and on the road at Oklahoma. This led to the November 4th battle between #2 Colorado and #3 Nebraska in Boulder. Where the 1986 game put CU on the map, the ramifications of the 1989 game were much larger as both teams had national title aspirations.

I don’t remember much about the game itself, but I will never forget one particular play. With one perfectly timed, but extremely late pitch Darian Hagan redefined the option, crushed the will of the Huskers, and escalated the NU-CU rivalry. Thanks to YouTube, the play lives on in infamy.

Colorado would go onto win the game 27-21. After the game Coach McCartney said:

“When we beat Nebraska in 1986 we said that was as sweet as it gets. What we meant was that it was as sweet as it got in ’86. This was sweeter and I couldn’t have been prouder for our guys.”

Colorado finished the regular season 11-0 and ranked #1. They eventually met #4 ranked Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for a shot at the national title. Although the Irish defeated the Buffs 21-6, it was clear that Colorado had arrived as a national power, just seven years after going 1-10. For his efforts, Bill McCartney was named National Coach of the Year.

Following the CU game Nebraska bounced back to defeat both Kansas and Oklahoma at home. The Huskers finished the regular season ranked #6 and would meet #5 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. In that game Peter Tom Willis torched the Blackshirts for 422 yards passing and 5 TDs in a 41-17 FSU win.

Random Notes

• In 1989, Darian Hagan became just the sixth player in NCAA history at the time to run and pass for over 1,000 yards in the same season. He also finished fifth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.

• Nebraska quarterback Gerry Gdowski led the Big 8 in passing efficiency in 1989, while also rushing for 925 yards and throwing for 1269. He did not finish in the Top 10 of the Heisman balloting.

1989 Final Heisman Balloting

1. Andre Ware Houston Jr. QB
2. Anthony Thompson Indiana Sr. RB
3. Major Harris West Virginia Sr. QB
4. Tony Rice Notre Dame Sr. QB
5. Darian Hagan Colorado So. QB
6. Dee Dowis Air Force Sr. QB
7. Emmitt Smith Florida Jr. RB
8. Percy Snow Michigan State Sr. WR
9. Ty Detmer Brigham Young So. QB
10. Raghib Ismail Notre Dame So. WR
Blair Thomas Penn State Sr. RB

Final 1989 AP Rankings

1. Miami, FL
2. Notre Dame
3. Florida State
4. Colorado (Big Eight Champion)
5. Tennessee (SEC Co-Champion)
6. Auburn (SEC Co-Champion)
7. Michigan (Big 10 Champion)
8. Southern Cal (Pac 10 Champion)
9. Alabama (SEC Co-Champion)
10. Illinois
11. Nebraska
12. Clemson
13. Arkansas (SWC Champion)
14. Houston
15. Penn State
16. Michigan State
17. Pittsburgh
18. Virginia (ACC Champion)
19. Texas Tech
20. Texas A&M
21. West Virginia
22. BYU (WAC Champion)
23. Washington
24. Ohio State
25. Arizona

Other Major Awards

Maxwell (Player): Anthony Thompson, Indiana
Camp (Back): Andre Ware, Houston
O’Brein Award (QB): Andre Ware, Houston
Rockne (Lineman): Chris Zorich, Notre Dame, NT
Lombardi (Linebacker): Percy Snow, Michigan St.
Outland (Interior): Mohammed Elewonibi, BYU

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