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On this day: Turner Gill officially takes over as Huskers avoid 1-3 start

There's been a lot of talk about how difficult Nebraska's 2020 schedule is, but in the 1980s Tom Osborne's teams played some of the toughest non-conference slates in school history.

In 1981, NU was off to a 1-2 start after losses to both No. 3 Penn State and Iowa (1981 Big Ten champs), along with a win over No. 19 Florida State. It was the Huskers' worst start since 1960.

Next on the list was a physical Auburn team led by legendary head coach Pat Dye. This was Game 1 of a two-game series, and the first time the schools had met since Bob Devaney's 13-7 win over the Tigers in the 1963 Orange Bowl.

What's also interesting about this series with Auburn is it's the last home-and-home series Nebraska has played against a true member of the SEC Conference. They also played South Carolina in 1986 and 1987, but they were not a member of the SEC until 1991.

In this week's edition of "On this Day," we look back at Oct. 3, 1981, and delve more into the Auburn vs. Nebraska game.

Both teams wanted to run the ball and Nebraska won out 

It was clear both Auburn and Nebraska were dead set in establishing the line of scrimmage and winning upfront.

The Huskers ran the ball 64 times for 254 yards, while the Tigers had just 55 yards on 52 carries.

NU only won the game 17-3, but they dominated in nearly every phase.

The most eye-popping stat was Auburn had 10 fumbles, losing five of them. They also threw two interceptions for a total of seven turnovers.

NU wasn't much better though, as the Huskers threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles.

“Offensively we got manhandled,” said Auburn Coach Pat Dye said following his team's 17-3 loss.

Once Turner Gill entered the Auburn game, Nebraska's program turned a corner under Tom Osborne.
Once Turner Gill entered the Auburn game, Nebraska's program turned a corner under Tom Osborne. (Getty Images)

Turnovers were a problem in 1981 

A big part of NU's 2-2 start in 1981 had to do with turnovers.

The Huskers had 18 turnovers over their first four games, which proved to be very costly.

They were very fortunate Auburn had seven turnovers and failed to get their running game going.

“On offense we moved the ball, but our execution just wasn’t good,” said Osborne. ”We had some turnovers and fumbles that could have been blamed on hard hitting and the wet ball. We had some dropped passes that may have been from the same kind of thing.”

Turner Gill came in the Auburn game and took over after the Huskers trailed 3-0 at halftime.
Turner Gill came in the Auburn game and took over after the Huskers trailed 3-0 at halftime.

This was the start of the Turner Gill era 

Of all the significant things that came out of NU's 17-3 win over Auburn, the passing of the torch to quarterback Turner Gill may have been the biggest.

Heading into the season, Gill was No. 3 on the depth chart behind Mark Mauer and Nate Mason.

Trailing 3-0 at halftime, Osborne made the move to Gill and he became the Huskers starting quarterback the rest of the way.

The next week with Gill under center, Nebraska beat Colorado 59-0. NU would go on to win seven games in a row with Gill as their starter.

He suffered an injury though in their win over Iowa State and did not get to play against Oklahoma. NU still beat the Sooners 37-14 in Norman and won their first outright Big Eight title since 1971 with a perfect 7-0 record in league play.

They would go on to play No. 1 Clemson for a shot at a potential share of the national title in the Orange Bowl, but the No. 4 Huskers fell short 22-15 without GIll available.

This set the stage for both 1982 and 1983 where Nebraska was arguably the best team in college football at times during both seasons with Gill under center. Their only losses came at 1982 national champion Penn State in controversy and to 1983 national champion Miami in the Orange Bowl.