53rd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1987
#6 Nebraska 30 (Final: 10-2-0, #5)
#5 LSU 15 (Final: 9-3-0, #10)
How Nebraska and LSU Met in the 1987 Sugar Bowl
After the game, Tom Osborne glanced at the Superdome scoreboard and put his team’s effort in perspective: “We weren’t playing for the national championship, the Big Eight championship was out the window. The only thing we had left was the Sugar Bowl.”
The sixth-ranked Cornhuskers made the most of their season finale, running roughshod over the fifth-ranked Tigers, 30-15. If the Tigers ever had a real chance at victory, it dissipated with one late and lost opportunity, coupled with an amazing 100 yards of first-half penalties and Nebraska’s brutal dominance of both lines.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Wendell Davis, in full stride, caught a pass from Tommy Hodson for a 43-yard Tiger gain to the Nebraska 23. Six plays later, Harvey Williams scored from the 1 to give LSU a 7-0 lead.
That – with 2:54 gone in the first quarter – was the LSU high point. Despite limiting Nebraska to 36 first period yards, the Tigers self-destructed in attempting to build on the lead.
One possession after the opening touchdown, LSU advanced into Cornhusker territory. Then the Tigers were beset with penalties. A personal foul and a holding call made it first-and-35, and punter Matt DeFrank eventually had to kick away.
The next time around, a sack of Hodson and an illegal receiver-downfield penalty killed another drive.
“We had the ball inside their 30 twice and didn’t score,” linebacker Ron Sancho said.
“It’s hard for the defense to go out there and keep stopping them.”
Tiger offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher assessed, “If we stayed in a normal situation on first and second downs, we had a chance to do the things we wanted to do. Obviously, it’s very hard to overcome the things that happened out there today.”
From the second quarter, when Nebraska began to take control, until the final three-and-a-half minutes of the game, LSU made only two first downs and 32 plays that produced a total of 38 yards.
The mistakes frustrated the Tigers but didn’t make a dent on the scoreboard until early in the second period. In punt formation, DeFrank, under a heavy rush from linebacker Dante Wiley, fumbled at the LSU 25. Nebraska got its first point minutes later on a 42-yard field goal.
LSU may have glimpsed at its fate on the next ‘Husker series. Steve Taylor, who sat out the previous offensive possession, quarterbacked Nebraska 78 yards in nine plays. Taylor’s score from the 1 gave the Cornhuskers a 10-7 halftime margin.
Nebraska began pulling away with a third-quarter touchdown, but one dramatic play made Tiger pulses race. Facing fourth-and-15 at the LSU 35, with a 10-point lead and a minute to go in the period, Osborne decided to go for a 52-yard field goal.
Noseguard Henry Thomas roared in, blocked the kick and put LSU in business at the Nebraska 17.
But Hodson was sacked twice for losses of 15 and nine yards. For the third time, the Bengals had penetrated the Huskers’ 30 and were turned away pointless.
The Sugar Bowl essentially ended there.
“It’s just like I said,” Nebraska offensive tackle Tom Welter said, “We were going to pound ‘em, and they were going to crack.”
The defeat stung the Tigers because LSU was clearly an improved team and Nebraska not quite as good as it was two years before when the squads played, a more competitive game in the Superdome.
“The thing I’ll always wonder,” Tiger center Nacho Albergamo reflected, “is that you don’t know if they were really that good or if the penalties made us that bad.”
On the following day, in the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State recorded the lowest offensive output (162 yards) and the highest defensive yield (445 yards) of any of the 10 teams that played on New Year’s Day or Jan. 2.
To put it in perspective, LSU had 191 total yards and Nebraska had 352 total yards. But the little output Penn State generated against Miami was enough to win the national championship, 14-10.
In New Orleans, though, the day belonged to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Defensive end Broderick Thomas of the Cornhuskers broke into a wide grin when asked if the impressive Sugar Bowl showing was a stepping stone to a possible national championship in 1987.
“Tell the world,” Thomas declared, “that Nebraska’s 1987 hell-raising tour has begun.”
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.