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Special Look Back: Iowa vs. Nebraska, 1981, part two

[ 0 ] November 21, 2011 |

By Ken Fuson

Special to the Register

Editor’s note: As Iowa and Nebraska renew their rivalry this week, the 1981 season opener set the stage for Iowa’s modern-day tradition of success. This is the second and final installment in the story of that game.

Halftime

Kinnick Stadium

Iowa City

“Well, Evy, to say the least it’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows when this score of 10-0 is flashed across the nation here at halftime.”

— Jim Zabel to Forest Evashevski on WHO radio

They were afraid to believe it.

Unranked Iowa, a 16-point underdog, was shutting out No. 7 Nebraska in the 1981 season opener.

Iowa fans had seen this before.

In 1979, coach Hayden Fry’s first game at Iowa, the Hawkeyes led Indiana at the half 26-3, only to lose 30-26. The next week, they trailed No. 3 Oklahoma by a single point at the half, only to lose by 15. The week after that, they led No. 7 Nebraska 21-7 in the second half, only to lose, 24-21.

Interviewed at the half, Iowa Gov. Robert Ray expressed the anxiety felt by most Hawk fans.

“Today, we’re feeling so good,” he said, “but you know, I think all of us hate to talk about it, because we’re afraid of what might happen the second half.”

Iowa locker room

Senior Paul Postler, a starting offensive lineman, wasn’t thinking about the score. He wasn’t thinking about the possibility of a huge upset to begin the season. He wasn’t thinking if this would be the year Iowa finally ended 19 consecutive non-winning seasons.

That’s fan talk. He still had work to do.

“I was a very technical player,” he says. “I was more worried about making sure that I understood my assignments, and then you’re trying to figure out how they were going to adjust, and making sure that you’re not taking a down off.”

Postler had been recruited out of Madison, Wis., by former Iowa coach Bob Commings. He had played at Iowa three seasons. The team record during his time was 11-22.

The quality of Iowa’s offensive line was the team’s biggest question mark entering the 1981 season. Assistant coach Kirk Ferentz — only three years older than Postler — was hired to improve the line’s play.

Ron Hallstrom, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound mountain of a man, had been brought over from the defense to play offense. He was joined on the line by starters Postler, Bruce Kittle, Joe Levelis, Dave Oakes and tight end Mike Hufford.

The consensus was that if the line and the offense could hold its own, the Iowa defense could dominate.

So far, so good.

“We had a great scheme,” Postler says. “Ron Hallstrom is one helluva football player. He’s a great guy to have playing next you. Ron was blocking the big guys, and my assignment was Jimmy Williams.”

That would be defensive end Jimmy Williams, future All-American and 11-year NFL player — most notably with the Detroit Lions.

“I wasn’t as fast as he was, but I’m in the ballpark, so I was able to keep up with him,” Postler says. “We had a good plan to block what they were trying to do.

At halftime, the linemen huddled with Ferentz to discuss what Nebraska might attempt in the second half.

“We talked about making sure our effort level stayed real high,” Postler recalls. “If you focus on the significance of the game, you forget how to win it. You win the game by playing each down with maximum effort every time.”

Iowa’s defense, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to start hitting again.

Thirty years later, defensive coordinator Bill Brashier recalls the general halftime theme: “Something like, ‘Hey, we’ve got something good going, but you know Nebraska as well as I do. You cannot let up.’ ”

Coach Fry, meanwhile, remained all business.

“Hayden wasn’t a screamer or a yeller,” Hallstrom says. “He was a believer.”

Nebraska locker room

Frustration, but no panic. This obviously wasn’t going to be the 57-0 thrashing that Nebraska had laid on Iowa the year before, but the Cornhuskers were confident they could turn it around.

“We just weren’t in the groove,” says Dave Rimington, the Nebraska center and only two-time winner of the Outland Trophy, awarded to college football’s best interior lineman.

“It’s a real loud place to play, a difficult place to play. We were not just playing like we normally do. We never got any momentum. And every time we got something going, we fumbled the football.”

The second-half strategy was clear: Eliminate the mistakes. Play Nebraska football.

Second half

Iowa began the second half from its own 20.

Running back Eddie Phillips gained six yards over left tackle, and the Hawks were on the move. Postler and his fellow offensive linemen were pushing the Cornhuskers backward.

The 13-play drive finally stalled at the Nebraska 22. Iowa kicker Reggie Roby lined up for the field goal. He shared field goal duties with Lon Olejniczak.

No good, Roby’s second miss of the day.

On Nebraska’s first play, fullback Phil Bates was stopped by Iowa’s Jim Pekar after a gain of four yards.

Pekar, a senior defensive lineman, would finish the afternoon with eight solo tackles and two assists, the most on the Iowa defense.

“I think he had less talent than those other 10 starters on defense, but he was amazingly productive,” says Dan McCarney, then the Iowa defensive line coach. “He had a helluva senior year. He played his butt off.”

The defensive slugfest continued. Neither team could sustain a long drive.

Near the end of the third quarter, after a Phillips fumble gave Nebraska decent field position, Mike Rozier, the sophomore running back and future Heisman Trophy winner, sprinted around left end for a game of five yards.

Iowa’s bid for a shutout was in jeopardy.

Fourth quarter

As Iowa defensive back Bob Stoops remembers it, someone on the Nebraska offensive line — he thinks it was Rimington, the center — began trash-talking at some point in the second half. Andre Tippett, Iowa’s star defensive end, and a host of other Hawks, returned the verbal fire.

Rimington insists he was innocent — “I was always too tired to trash talk” — but Tippett says it’s possible something happened, because emotions were so high and the hitting so violent.

“I know I was pretty feisty, especially on the football field,” Tippett says. “If he did say something, I’m pretty sure I probably got in his face right away. They probably figured we beat them the last two years, this should be a cakewalk.

“But they fell into a hornet’s nest.”

Bryan Skradis, a reserve defensive end for Iowa who had grown up in the same neighborhood and played on the same Omaha high school team as Rimington, says Nebraska felt all the pressure.

“We weren’t going to back down to anybody,” he says. “We had nothing to lose. We were a bunch of losers anyway, right? Our mentality was, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose, let’s go kick their ass.’ ”

On offense, Postler detected an emotion he had not witnessed in the previous two years against Nebraska: frustration.

“They expected to beat us, by a lot,” he says. “They were the ones dealing with the emotions much more than we were. They were like, ‘Holy smokes, how is this happening to us?’ ”

But Phillips’ third-quarter fumble had given Nebraska the ball on the Iowa 33, and the Cornhuskers were too powerful offensively to be held back forever.

On the ninth play of the drive, Davenport native and Nebraska running back Roger Craig stormed over from the two-yard line to put the Cornhuskers on the scoreboard

Iowa 10, Nebraska 7, with 11 minutes, 42 seconds to play.

Too much time. Too much momentum on the Nebraska sideline.

The Iowa offense struggled to produce a first down. But the Hawkeyes had another weapon that season: punter Roby, the pride of Waterloo. He averaged better than 50 yards per punt in this game.

“Thank God for that thunderous leg,” Skradis says.

The Cornhuskers, though, smelled a rally, just like in 1979, and those massive offensive lineman assumed command.

Their next drive featured Bates blasting over the right guard for 22 yards, the longest running play that day for either team.

Three plays later, with 6:30 to play, Seibel attempted a 37-yard field goal.

Wide right. The Hawks still led by three.

Once again, the Iowa offense could not gain a first down. Roby’s punt sailed 62 yards.

Back came Nebraska. The Cornhuskers advanced to the Iowa 34 with 2:51 remaining in the game.

Here it comes, Iowa fans feared. The winning drive. Don’t the Hawks always lose?

But on the next play, Maurer fumbled Rimington’s snap and Mark Bortz recovered for the Iowa defense.

It still wasn’t over

Iowa hoped to run out the clock, but senior running back Phil Blatcher fumbled and Nebraska took over at the Iowa 41.

The game featured eight fumbles — five by Nebraska, three by Iowa.

“It was because of the hitting,” Postler says. “It was a very hard-fought and physical game.”

Iowa’s final turnover of the afternoon put Nebraska in position to steal the victory.

“We just weren’t going to let it happen,” Skradis says.

Two Maurer passes fell incomplete. On third down, Iowa’s Tracy Crocker stuffed Craig after a gain of two.

Fourth down, 1:25 to go.

Incomplete pass. The Hawkeyes held.

Amazingly, it still wasn’t over.

An Iowa penalty killed the clock, and Roby was forced to punt again. Fifty-three yards this time.

With 55 seconds left, Nebraska had a last-gasp chance. Reserve quarterback Nate Mason took over for Maurer.

Mark Bortz tackled Mason for a nine-yard loss. On the next play, Iowa’s Lou King intercepted Mason’s desperation pass.

Bob Paterson, now the postmaster in Guthrie Center, listened to most of the game in his vehicle while attending a slow-pitch softball tournament in Perry.

He bolted out of his truck.

“Final score!” he shouted to the crowd. “Iowa 10, Nebraska 7!”

Postgame

A newspaper photograph the next morning showed Hallstrom running off the field with Fry. He doesn’t remember the conversation’s specifics.

“I think we were speaking in tongues,” Hallstrom says.

Delirious Hawk fans poured out of the north end zone and claimed the goal post. Horns honked all night in Iowa City.

“That was one of the all-time great locker room celebrations I’ve ever been a part of,” McCarney says.

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne praised Iowa, but he also sounded as surprised as the Big Red fans.

“This is one of the hardest losses since I’ve been at Nebraska,” he said.

Too many mistakes, Rimington remembers.

“They played tough, inspired football,” he says. “The momentum went against us, and they played hard. They played real hard.”

Fry was beside himself: “Today, this is the greatest victory of my life.”

Memories fade after 30 years, but several Iowa players insist that the Nebraska victory marked the first time players performed the locker room hokey-pokey, which became an Iowa tradition after big wins.

As Paul Postler finally left the happy locker room, he was greeted by his parents and younger brother, Steve, who spoke for most Iowa fans.

“Holy hell, Paul,” Steve said. “I didn’t think you guys had a chance.”

Thirty years later

Nebraska would win the Big Eight Conference in 1981. The Huskers played Clemson in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, losing 22-15.

Iowa’s postgame celebration lasted too long. They were knocked off by Iowa State, but returned to Iowa City and stunned No. 6 UCLA 20-7.

“I’ve been part of a national championship,” McCarney says. “I’ve been to 20 bowl games, many BCS games and three Rose Bowls. That season, 1981, will always be one of my all-time favorite years.”

The Hawkeyes defeated Michigan 9-7 in Ann Arbor. They ended the streak of 19 non-winning seasons by beating Purdue. In the final week, Iowa destroyed Michigan State and Ohio State upset Michigan.

Iowa, whose players would have been thrilled with any bowl game when the season began, played in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten co-champions. They lost 28-0 to Washington.

Twenty-four seniors on the Iowa roster had finished their college careers with an 8-4 record. Tippett. Hallstrom. Pat Dean, Mel Cole.

Most of them remain close, and when they get together, it doesn’t take long for the Nebraska upset to be mentioned.

“It’s one of those games you don’t forget,” Tippett says. “All of a sudden — boom — it was the changing of the guard. Everything that Hayden said he wanted to see happen when he took the job happened.”

Fry would eventually lead Iowa to 14 bowl games. At least six assistant coaches and three players from the 1981 team would become college head coaches.

“That game and that season laid the foundation for a lot of success that Iowa’s enjoyed since then,” he says.

Postler, another of those seniors, lives in Iowa City and is director of technological services for Pearson, an educational company. He’ll be cheering for the Hawkeyes this Friday when Iowa and Nebraska take the field once again.

But he’ll also think back to that sultry September afternoon in 1981, when a group of determined young men and their coaches took the first step in making certain they could never be called losers again.

“That was the turning point for Hayden, and for Iowa,” he says. “That was absolutely the game that started it all.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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