Don and Beno remember '91 Nebraska

As they emerged from the locker room, it was the calm before the gridiron storm. Amid the relative quiet of pre-game warm-ups, the Huskies took to the field at Lincoln, Nebraska on September 21, 1991. There was a mixture of excited anticipation and introspection.

It was to be a prime time night game, on national TV. Looking around Memorial stadium, Don James knew to expect the obvious.

"I knew it was going to be red, and it was going to be full," the former Husky coach said with a chuckle, in a recent interview with

Beno Bryant was a bit more prescient from the players' point of view.

"We knew it was going to be amazing to beat them in Lincoln, the whole team felt that. Billy (Hobert) didn't like to lose, nobody on the team did."

The Huskies were ranked #4 in the nation, after thrashing Stanford 42-7 on the road in the opener. Nebraska entered the game with a #9 ranking and a 2-0 record.

Halfway through the third quarter the Huskies trailed 14-9, and Beno Bryant set up near the 10-yard line to return a punt. The pivotal point of the entire season was about to unfold in the approaching minutes.

"I got caught up in the moment," recalled Bryant. "I saw all the red (in the stands). Here I'm a little kid from South Central L.A., playing on national TV… My eyes were too big for my stomach," he stated with a laugh.

To the Huskies' horror, Bryant went against convention and attempted to field the punt from the two-yard line, whereupon he bobbled the ball and Nebraska recovered.

"We had a 10 yard line rule, unless it was kicked flat," stated James. "Beno actually thought he had recovered it, but apparently it was taken away at the bottom of the pile".

In due time, Bryant would have his redemption.

In the meantime, that didn't stop Nebraska's Derek Brown from plunging in from 2-yards out, giving the Cornhuskers a commanding 21-9 lead. The red-ensconced throng of 76,304 fans was raucously celebrating. The Huskies trudged back to the sideline. The clock showed 5:32 remaining in the third quarter. The sway of emotion was all Nebraska's.

Amid the noisy din, the Husky players' thoughts went back one year earlier to the bitter pain of the UCLA loss. They thought of the missed national championship. They thought of how they had subsequently devoted hours of practice and training throughout the following summer. They didn't want the regret of another lost opportunity to haunt them for years to come.

So trailing 21-9 on Nebraska's home field, extraordinary leadership emerged from the 1991 Washington Huskies. It was shown when a distraught Beno Bryant went to sit on the bench following his gaffe at the goal line.

Bryant remembers the emotion and how the Huskies handled the adversity. "On the TV they showed a picture on the sidelines. Everyone on the sideline kept coming up and shaking me, saying "C'mon… It'll be OK. It'll be OK". Not one person said anything negative. Everybody was encouraging me... Then suddenly Billy (Hobert) comes up and grabs my neck. He just looked at me and said matter-of-factly, "We're not gonna lose", and then just walked off… That changed everything for me."

On the ensuing drive, the Huskies faced 3rd down with a daunting 27 yards to go, from the Cornhusker 49. Hobert dropped back and felt tremendous outside pressure. Into the pocket he stepped, then scrambled straight ahead into the open and picked up 19 yards. Still, it left 4th -down with 8 yards to go.

Don James explained that normally for any given situation of down and distance, there would be three play options planned ahead of time. It would usually be up to the coordinator to select which would be called. This 4th down situation called for action from the special teams.

But Don James had the spontaneous urge to strike while the opportunity presented itself.

"I made one change (to the plan). "We had moved the ball a bit, and while talking into the headphones, I used that four-letter word and said let's go for it," James recalled with a chuckle. "Gilby had already gotten up to go to the bathroom or grab a Coke, and they had to call him back… I was just thinking, ‘How many more times are we going to get down there?'"

Beno Bryant looks back at that fourth down play with relish.

"He called a slot receiver, straight up field. Orlando McKay underneath, and Billy threw a bullet."

McKay hauled in the pass for a first down. Soon after that, Beno Brant broke free and scored on a 15-yard touchdown scamper. "It was a roll play", said Bryant. "I took a belly step to the right, and a little crack opened up…"

The deficit was trimmed to 21-16. The Husky defense stuffed Nebraska in three plays and forced a punt. Washington took over on its own 31-yard line with 13:39 left in the game. The Dawgs proceeded to march 69 yards in 6 plays. Hobert found Orlando McKay with an 8-yard strike. The startled Nebraska crowd suddenly saw the Huskies take a 22-21 lead.

The Cornhuskers started the next drive on their own 40-yard line. But on 2nd down, late Husky LB Jaime Fields leveled Nebraska QB Keith McCant, forcing a fumble and giving the Huskies the ball right back.

Washington marched unabated down the field. Six plays later, Hobert bulled over from the 3-yard line. Washington's lead extended now to 29-21. Nebraska was now fighting like Hell to stay above water.

An exuberant Washington team kicked off. Once again it was three downs and out for the Cornhuskers, as all attempts to move the ball against Steve Emtman and the swarming Husky defense proved futile. Nebraska punted, and Washington took over at its own 21-yard line. Nebraska was physically wearing down and time was running short. The Cornhuskers began pulling their linebackers up in an effort to stave off the UW rushing attack. On 3rd and 12, Husky tailback Jay Berry took a handoff and bounced it around right end. A Nebraska linebacker took a poor angle born of fatigue.

Barry bounced off the attempted tackle, and motored right on down the sideline, past his jubilant Husky teammates and through the drawn in Cornhusker secondary for a backbreaking 81-yard touchdown.

Said Bryant, "I started running down the sideline alongside Jay, shouting encouragement… I knew he was gone when he took the handoff."

As the Huskies celebrated in the end zone and on the sideline, ABC-TV's commentator Keith Jackson depicted the reality. "That was the sound of the door slamming shut."

Jay Barry's run and subsequent extra point by Travis Hanson gave the Huskies the final 36-21 margin.

I mentioned to Don James that a former player had joked with me good-naturedly that Jay Barry's run was the "slowest 81-yard touchdown run in college football history". James was quick to politely refute me on this. "Well, Jay wasn't slow", he said. "He had good speed."

In the final tally, Washington punked the mighty Cornhusker defense for 618 yards in front of the entire nation. Beno Bryant had 139 yards on 17 carries. Jay Berry had 110 yards on 11 carries. Sophomore Billy Joe Hobert, starting just his second collegiate game, completed 23 of 40 passes for 283 yards. Several thousand Nebraska fans had given Washington a standing ovation as they came off the field.

Don James calls this victory in Lincoln the biggest road win of his head-coaching career.

"Teams just don't go into Lincoln and win," he stated.

In the following weeks, several Husky players pointed to the impact that the wide-open offense was bringing to Washington. They were speaking in contrast to two years earlier, when Washington ran predominantly the I-formation. "I was so disillusioned by things I was ready to pack up and go home to Virginia," recalled center and captain Ed Cunningham. "It was at that time that Coach James really put his foot down and gave the program new leadership and direction."

Said star receiver Mario Bailey: "We just weren't going to make it with the old offense, no way… Once Coach Gilbertson got here, everything changed."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories