51st Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1985
#5 Nebraska 28 (Final: 10-2-0, #4)
#11 LSU 10 (Final: 8-3-1, #15)
How Nebraska and LSU Met in the 1985 Sugar Bowl
When it finally reached game time, the 51st Sugar Bowl – a second guesser’s delight – boiled down to the superior Huskies asserting themselves late, and a turn in the fortunes of the opposing quarterbacks.
By halftime, the white-shirted Cornhuskers, favored by a touchdown, resembled a groggy giant trying to catch its breath, having been stung by a squadron of swarming bees.
After 30 minutes of play under the Superdome gondola, the Tigers had eaten up 291 yards against the No. 1 defense in the land. And the Cornhuskers had to scrounge for a modest 141 yards of their own, 31 coming on one play.
LSU’s problem was, at that point, it had only a three-point lead (10-7) that could have been 10 points or more.
The difference in the final outcome was Nebraska steaming for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. That, and a switch in the Husker defense limited the Bayou Bengals to 113 yards in the second half. “We felt lucky to be behind by only three at halftime,” said quarterback Craig Sundberg, the MVP after passing for 143 yards and three touchdowns despite being ill with the flu. His counterpart, Jeff Wickersham, threw for 212 yards (17-25-1) in the first half, but his second half totals were 3-of-12 for nine yards and three interceptions, stifling a charged up Tiger offense that had the vaunted Husker defense scratching its helmets for nearly three full quarters.
The real difference, though, was the inability of the Tigers to apply the vise once they had Nebraska in a headlock. Garry James caught a 26-yard touchdown that was nullified by a holding penalty. That series ended with field goal.
Still, when the Tigers went 73 yards on 10 plays, and scatback Dalton Hilliard went in from the two, it was 10-0 with 13:11 to go in the second quarter. LSU fans had to be wondering what had happened to the feared Nebraska offense.
They soon found out.
The ‘Huskers, methodically and quickly, went 70 yards on six plays, scoring when Sundberg hit tailback Doug Dubose with a 31-yard, against-the-grain screen pass. “Craig faked a pass to the left and I snuck out there alone,” Dubose said. “LSU’s defense pursues real well, and as soon as I cut back across the grain, I knew I was heading for the end zone.”
Just 2:40 after LSU took its surprising 10-0 lead, the score was cut to 10-7.
LSU pushed the lead to 13-7 on a field goal, but a roughing-the-kicker penalty gave the Tigers a first down at the Nebraska six-yard line. LSU pushed it to the one-yard line, but had to settle for another field-goal attempt – except this time, the 19-yard boot went wide-right.
It was an omen of things to come for LSU.
Nebraska’s Tom Osborne changed defenses from a four-man front to a three-man rush with eight back defenders. “We dropped (DB Chad Daffer) into the middle zone and that helped,” the coach explained.
Daffer picked off two Tiger passes on LSU’s first two second-half possessions, the first setting up a go-ahead TD run by Sundberg.
Osborne said, “LSU had a tendency to run short crosses and then a deep cross, 15 to 17 yards downfield. We picked it up (the defensive scheme) from the Miami Dolphins a few years ago, and I think Bill (Arnsparger, who was then the Dolphins defensive coordinator) is responsible for that.”
Momentum and fortune were shifting to Nebraska. And the Tigers were helpless to curtail the currents of the game.
DuBose, who gained 108 yards on 20 carries, accounted for 50 of the 80 total yards in the ‘Huskers’ clinching drive, which was sealed when Sundberg hit Todd Frain with a 24-yard touchdown pass with 10:54 left in the last quarter.
It was all Nebraska needed, though the ‘Huskers would add one more score for good measure.
There were those, however, who wanted it recorded that Nebraska was not beating the SEC’s best team.
An inscription on the Superdome scoreboard during the game read: “Congratulations Florida Gators, 1984 SEC champs.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.