It seemed like a foolish game at best to many observers. But there it was. September 29, 1962 the Nebraska Cornhuskers would travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan to face off with Big 10 power Michigan.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers had just emerged from one of their darkest periods. Under coach Bill Jennings the team had lost 34 of 50 games over the previous five years and recorded just three wins in 1961. The Nebraska faithful and administration demanded some changes and got it when they hired plain-talking coach Bob Devaney away from Wyoming. But was the team ready for a game like this?
Devaney was working with a team that, truthfully, had been recruited by his predecessor. Still Devaney held nothing back and pointed to that game as a "must-win" for the team. He knew that it would take a win against a team as prestigious as Michigan to begin to convince the fans, as well as the players, that Nebraska would be a team to be reckoned with. He carried a bravado when he spoke with the media about the matchup. "There won't be any game we don't think we have a chance to win." Devaney declared.
Nebraska had opened the season and Devaney's tenure at Nebraska a week earlier with a 53-0 win over an out-manned South Dakota team. Nebraska did just about everything right that week but many were questioning if an opponent such as South Dakota would be enough to prepare them for the Wolverines. Michigan, however, had been untested on the year with Nebraska kicking off their 1962 campaign. The Wolverines were coming off a 6-3 record but had lost a number of players from the previous squad to graduation.
Devaney wasn't taking any chances. He scheduled a rare scrimmage on the Monday before the game to make some last minute adjustments. His team was relatively healthy with the exception of powerful fullback Bill "Thunder"Thornton. Thornton was recovering from a dislocated shoulder he suffered before the season began and his playing status against Michigan was in doubt. The college football gurus gave Nebraska little chance of upsetting Michigan.
70,287 fans filed into Michigan Stadium for the opener. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and it was Band Day with kids from 181 musical units on hand as well. Despite the ideal conditions many Michigan fans thought little of the contest. An expression that showed itself in the form of 30,000 empty seats.
Michigan coach Bump Elliott did not share the low-key attitude of the fans. "It looks like today's game with Nebraska will be a very difficult game for us." Elliott said. "Nebraska rates as high as any team that probably we'll play on our schedule and certainly after their game a week ago against South Dakota it's an indication of the great strength they have both on offense and defense. We certainly are going to have our hands full and then some."
The game started off as an even battle. Neither team was able to score in the first period. Nebraska, using their power-based "T" formation hoped to wear down the inexperienced Michigan defensive line. On the other side of the game Nebraska's defense hoped to key in on Michigan's superb senior halfback Dave Raimey.
After failing to get a first down in the entire opening quarter Nebraska's plan finally started to take shape on the first play of the second period. With the Huskers facing a second down and nine with the ball at their own 24 yard line, quarterback Dennis Claridge pitched out to halfback Dennis Stuewe who rambled around the left side and then downfield, eluding tacklers until forced out of bounds at the Michigan 25 yard line. Later in the drive Nebraska drew first blood when Stuewe struck again with an 11 yard run. With 12:40 left in the first half Nebraska had taken a surprising 7-0 lead.
Michigan awoke to the challenge. The Wolverine's took the ensuing kickoff and assembled a 62 yard, nine play drive in response. Raimey provided 28 of those yards with his rushes. Quarterback Dave Glinka, one of four signal callers coach Elliott used on the day, created the score with his own skills. Facing a fourth down at the Nebraska eight yard line, Glinka appeared to be trapped by the Husker defense, but the speedy Glinka found an opening on the right side and sprinted through for the score. Michigan tried to regain the momentum with a two point conversion attempt but the pass attempt slipped through the hands of receiver Harvey Chapman leaving Nebraska with a slim 7-6 lead.
The teams went to the locker rooms at halftime with no further scoring. Nebraska had played well, but they still needed more to keep things in their hands. Their plan was to turn to "Thunder" Thornton. Used sparing as a blocker in the first half the 212 pound Thornton was ready to show his All-American caliber skills in the second half. His shoulder injury kept an air of mystery around him in the weeks leading up to the Michigan game. No one outside of the Husker staff knew if Thornton would even play in the game.
Nebraska broke things open in the third period. Husker end Jim Huge out jumped three Michigan defenders to haul in a Claridge pass at the Wolverine 15 yard line to set up the Big Red's next score. Six plays later and with less than a minute left in the period Thornton took a hand off at the one yard line and leaped high over the eight-man Michigan line for a touchdown. The point-after kick was no good and Nebraska was holding on to a 13-6 lead. Nebraska was not done scoring in the third period. Husker Doug Tucker recovered a Raimey fumble giving Nebraska another shot. Claridge did the honors this time with a six yard run. The conversion attempt failed but the teams entered the final period with Nebraska holding a stunning 19-6 lead.
Michigan kept pounding away in the final 15 minutes hoping to regain control. The Wolverines notched their second score of the afternoon when halfback Dick Ridfuss crashed in from four yards out for a touchdown. With the extra point Michigan found new life as they pulled within six points. But once again it was Thornton who crushed the Michigan defense as well as their hopes.
Quarterback Claridge guided the Huskers down the field with three key passes to move to the UM 16 yard line. With 7:45 Thornton took a toss from Claridge, broke through the line and dashed into the end zone. With that run the outcome of the game became apparent and Nebraska held on for the 25-13 win.
Devaney's plan had worked. What seemed like a hopeless mismatch turned into one of the Cornhuskers biggest conquests yet.
The victory marked Nebraska's first over Michigan in four tries and was particularly sweet for Devaney. He was born in Saginaw, Michigan, attended Alma College in Michigan, and spent time as a coach with Michigan State University.
The score sheet confirmed what the final score did. Nebraska had dominated the mighty Wolverines. Nebraska out rushed Michigan (222 yards to 170), out passed them (119 yards to 83), limited Michigan's Raimey to 59 yards rushing, frustrated the Wolverine passing attack by allowing just 8 completions in 21 attempts, and forced three Michigan fumbles.
For the first time since 1952 the Huskers saw their season start off with a 2-0 record, and upon their arrival back to the Lincoln airport they saw something else they weren't used to. Twenty-five hundred fans were on hand at Lincoln Municipal Airport to welcome back their victors. The win was also enough to convince some voters in the United Press International college football poll. The Huskers were rewarded with a #16 ranking for their efforts.