Trying to win its first national championship ever, Nebraska sent an early message in 1970 with a tie at USC.
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On this day: Huskers send an early message in 1970 with a 21-21 tie at USC

Every championship team has a turning point in their season. For Bob Devaney and his 1970 Nebraska Cornhusker squad, it happened on Sept. 19 in the Los Angeles Coliseum against No. 3 ranked USC.

The year before, the Trojans stomped the Huskers 31-21 in Lincoln, en route to a 10-0-1 season capped off with a 10-3 Rose Bowl victory over No. 7 Michigan.

The week before NU played at USC, the Trojans handled Bear Bryant and No. 16 ranked Alabama by a score of 42-21 at Legion Field in Birmingham.

USC featured a black starting quarterback, fullback and tailback along with a host of other African-American players, and would be the first fully integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. The following year in 1971 NU would beat that same Alabama team with an integrated roster to win their second national championship under Devaney at the Orange Bowl.

In some ways, the 1970 and 1971 USC/Nebraska teams changed the face of college football, as they were some of the first integrated teams to play against Alabama and convince Bryant and the SEC Conference to start recruiting African-American players.

The Nebraska vs. USC game though in 1970 was special because it put the Huskers on the map. They came off an impressive 1969 season where they went 9-2 losing only to the Trojans and Big Eight champion Missouri.

No. 9 ranked Nebraska went out and tied the third-ranked Trojans 21-21, and it showed everyone the Huskers were going to be a player on the national stage in college football. Here's more from this memorable day in Los Angeles.

In 1969 Nebraska knew they could play with anybody

When the 1969 season came to a close, Nebraska stomped Oklahoma 44-14 and then took down Georgia 45-6 in the Sun Bowl.

That set the stage for 1970 when Devaney's team thought they could make a run at a championship.

"What I thought after the '69 season, at the end of the season, I told some reporters, 'Nobody could've beat us at the end of the season,'" All-American NU linebacker Jerry Murtaugh said. "They got hold of us the first couple of games. We had sophomores starting at defensive end, we had two sophomore defensive backs, and I'm looking and going, 'Holy crap, what do we got?' We just had so many young guys coming back and I'm going, 'We are going to be good' But the '69 team turned it around."

Legendary Husker strength coach Boyd Epley also remembers that 1969 season well. It was the first season NU lifted weights and had a full strength and conditioning program.

“In 1968 Nebraska lost their final game of the season 47-0 to Oklahoma on national television at Oklahoma,” Epley said. “They realized they needed to do something and that’s when Tom (Osborne) gave me a call and that’s why Coach Devaney was receptive to his suggestion. If they would’ve won that game they might not have felt the need to make a change.

"One year later in Norman, Oklahoma after lifting weights Nebraska beat Oklahoma 44-14. It was on their field and it was the worst loss they had had in history up to that point. That’s when everybody started to notice something was going on at Nebraska.

"I started getting calls from Universities that wanted to come in and study what we were doing so they could do something similar. Back then Woody Hayes, Barry Switzer, Jackie Sherrill and guys like that were calling me and hiring away guys from me that weren’t even being paid yet."

Running back Joe Orduna led Nebraska with 135 yards rushing on 18 carries vs. USC.
Running back Joe Orduna led Nebraska with 135 yards rushing on 18 carries vs. USC. (Lincoln Journal Star)

Sloppy game on both sides

No one will tell you the 1970 Nebraska vs. USC match-up was a clean game.

In fact, both teams had five turnovers, including two interceptions from Husker quarterback Jerry Tagge and three lost fumbles.

This was a big mountain for Nebraska to overcome, as they were 14 point underdogs to the Trojans.

"They came here in 1969 and that was huge, and they beat us by 10," Murtaugh said. "We'd go out to Southern Cal, our guys weren't leery. We were a 14 point underdog, we're rated ninth in the country, they're rated third.

"Our guys on defense, we weren't scared. They were so excited to get in there and play Southern Cal. Rated third in the country, we should have beat them. We had them beat, but I will blame the offense as I always do. They had three fumbles and two interceptions."

Nebraska and USC would not meet again until the 2006 season, after their two-game series in 1969-70.
Nebraska and USC would not meet again until the 2006 season, after their two-game series in 1969-70. (Getty Images)

Orduna run turns the game; Huskers walk away with heads held high

The USC vs. Nebraska game was a defensive struggle. Neither team had 400 yards of offense, both defenses had their way for much of the night.

However, a 67-yard touchdown run by running back Joe Orduna in the third quarter turned the football game.

It put the Huskers up 21-14 and probably should've been enough for NU to pull off the upset victory.

The Trojans were able to put a fourth-quarter touchdown drive together with about 7 minutes remaining, but their head coach John McKay opted to kick the extra point instead of going for two.

He later said if there were less than 2 minutes remaining, they probably would've gone for the win vs. the tie.

Nebraska got one last possession to try to win the game and threw an interception. It gave USC a late Hail Mary chance that came up short.

After the game, it was clear the Huskers gained the respect of the powerhouse Trojans.

"Now at the end of the game, one of the trainers comes up there and said, 'There's two guys from Southern Cal outside want to talk to you.' I'm thinking, 'Oh shit, I got to go out and fight,'" Murtaugh joked. "I got ready and I went out and there's their two captains, Greg Slough and Clarence Davis. Slough was a great linebacker All-American, Clarence Davis was the running back, also an All-American. They said 'We wanted to shake your hand. We had no right being in that game with you guys.'"

From that day on, Nebraska knew they had the makings of a championship team.