LINCOLN — “I want to see the poster.”
Thirty years ago, they ruled the earth. Earth, Wind and Fryar. Barry Switzer called them the “Triplets” out of respect and with some envy.
Thirty years ago, they played offense like no college football team before had ever played offense. They averaged 52 points a game. They amassed 6,560 yards in 11 games (546.7). They averaged 7.3 yards on first down.
They were a machine, relentless in flat-out kicking your butt.
They scored 44 on the defending national champs in the opener, in the shadow of New York City, and that was with nine fumbles (one lost). They put up 56 on Wyoming, 63 on Syracuse, 42 on UCLA and 84 on Minnesota, which insisted on blitzing the entire game.
They had the Lombardi and Outland winner blocking for the Heisman Trophy winner and were led by the quarterback who was considered the program's top field general at the time. They had another All-American at receiver and two more offensive linemen who would become All-Americans the next year.
They rolled to 12 straight victories, all as the No. 1 team, and were labeled by a Sports Illustrated writer as the greatest team of all time. That offense, the one called the “Scoring Explosion,” was the reason for the high praise.
The offense was so good it earned unprecedented hype. Thirty years ago this month, the University of Nebraska athletic department released a poster, in the preseason, featuring quarterback Turner Gill, I-back Mike Rozier and wingback Irving Fryar exploding out of the Memorial Stadium scoreboard. It was unheard of for NU to publicize individual players like that on a poster. But then, what they were about to do was unheard of, too.
Go around the basements and garages in Nebraska, and you'll probably still find hundreds of those posters.
You know how their story ends. They fell one play short of the national title on a fateful night in Miami. But even in defeat, the legend of that team grew.
Thirty years later, that legend lives. So does the poster. It's hanging in the hallway of the sixth-floor press box.
Jamal Turner had to see it. Turner, a junior wide receiver for the Huskers, was born in 1993. He's only heard of the 1983 legend. He hasn't seen any tapes. Doesn't know much about the exploits.
In a bit of delicious timing, the 2013 Nebraska offense is being heralded as a second-generation legacy to the “Scoring Explosion.” A group that could do those things, push those limits of the imagination each Saturday.
So they've been hearing a lot about the 1983 team. I asked Turner if he'd seen the poster. He said no. I told him it was just down the hallway. He said, “Let's go.”
“Everybody's been talking about it,” he said. “I need to look at this.”
It's still a striking poster. For Turner, it must have looked like a history book, Husker History 101, with the 1983 schedule on the side. I filled in the blanks for him where my memory could.
“Eighty-four points?” Turner said. “Wow.”
The junior from Arlington, Texas, marveled at the photo of Fryar. The Huskers had just met the former NFL All-Pro on Thursday (more terrific timing, on the eve of the season). Fryar gave the team a talk about responsibility, playing for each other, doing the right things on and off the field. He talked about that season, too.
Turner exchanged phone numbers with Fryar. He wants to keep in touch. He took out his phone and snapped a photo of the 1983 poster. He said he was going to send it to Fryar.
“I heard they averaged 50 points a game. I think we can do that, too,” Turner said. “We want to go down as one of the best offenses that Nebraska's ever had. We want to be that, what they were.”
That is, someone you still hear about.
“I've heard about them,” senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “The fact that we're even mentioned with them is pretty cool. If we can live up to that, I'd be pretty stoked.”
Said senior guard Spencer Long: “If we do that (average 52 points), we would not lose a game.”
“It's an honor to be compared to that,” I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “But we have to make our own way.”
Exactly. There's only one Turner Gill. Only one Mike Rozier. Only one Irving Fryar, one Dean Steinkuhler. To try to put Taylor Martinez, Abdullah, Turner or Kenny Bell in that category is unfair to both parties.
And yet they have that potential to write a new legacy. Martinez holds school records for total offense and passing. Bell's 50 catches last season were four more than Fryar's output in 1983. Abdullah rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore. The offensive line, with an All-America and Outland candidate in Long, should be NU's best in years.
They're led by a man who wants to chase the past, push the envelope, put up big numbers and embrace the moment.
“Last week I put out a tweet that said, 'It's been 30 years and we're getting the band back together: Earth, Wind and Fire,' ” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I was just kidding around, but to honor those guys would be great.”
Beck has done some homework on 1983. He remembers watching the Orange Bowl. He marvels at the symmetry of the 30-year anniversary, down to the schedules. NU played Penn State that year, and also had Wyoming and UCLA at home, while going to Minnesota. Same as 2013.
“There were a lot of similarities,” Beck said. “They had a lot of turnovers. They fumbled the ball 44 times that year, which I thought was interesting.”
Of course, they lost only 15 of those 44 fumbles.
“They were good enough to overcome it,” Beck said. “We haven't been.”
The offenses are different. Tom Osborne's work of art rushed for 4,820 yards, with Rozier going for 2,148. Beck's offense will put the ball on Martinez's arm, this year more than ever, throwing to an elite group of receivers who can catch and run and take it to the house pronto.
But, like 1983, the 2013 offense is expected to carry the defense. There are seniors. There's great anticipation. It was pinball back then, Xbox now. But fun is still fun. If they can get out of their own way. The calling card of 1983 was relentless execution.
“We've got to quit turning the ball over,” Beck said. “The last three years, we're 29-12. We're 18-1 when we're plus turnovers, 11-11 when it's even or minus. Eliminating stupid plays, the bad pass into double coverage, the missed handoff, the missed quarterback-center exchange.”
Fryar talked about that Thursday. He talked about how the players on that 1983 offense held themselves to a higher standard. As Sirles said, “That's what made them great, what made them feel like they could do that to any of their opponents. And I feel like there's a lot of that going on with this team this summer.”
That 1983 offense oozed charisma. Swagger. When players stepped on the field, you felt like something memorable was about to happen, whether it be 84 points or Rozier running sideline to sideline against UCLA. They would blow your mind. Then they would blow you out.
That's what this Husker offense wants, what they think they must have.
“They were so explosive,” Beck said. “Irving was the wind, the guy who could run and make plays. Earth is the running back, fire is the quarterback, the flame, the heartbeat of the team. They knew the game, they executed. They were fast. Man, they were fast.
“They were what you called head-turners. When that team walked on the field, the other team turned their head and said, 'There they are.' ”
Here they are, 30 years later. The Descendants. Looking for their own poster, their own nickname, their own championship. In any order.
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