The 1981 season for Iowa was magical.
The program had not had a winning season in 19 years and after finishing 4-7 in 1980, few people saw a trip to Pasadena in the cards for 1981.
Iowa opened the 1981 season at home against Nebraska, a program that had beaten the Hawkeyes 57-0 the previous year as well as a Husker program that was rolling under Tom Osborn. The 1981 Huskers were ranked #6 in the nation in the preseason polls as they made their way to Iowa City for what most expected to be another beatdown of the Hawkeyes.
Running back Eddie Phillips scored for Iowa in the first quarter and kicker Lon Olenjiczak added a second quarter field goal as Iowa took a 10-0 lead into the half.
The fact that Iowa held Nebraska scoreless in the first half was a bit of a moral victory, and the Huskers would not score until the 4th quarter when Roger Craig punched it in from one-yard out, but that was after Iowa had turned back Nebraska on three different occasions in Iowa territory; Nebraska missed a field goal, had a fumble and threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. It was the first time since 1973 that Nebraska had been held scoreless in its first three quarters of a game.
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That 1981 Hawkeye defense was elite…one of the best in school history and certainly one of the best against the run. Iowa didn’t exactly have a high-powered offense, so the defense led the way to Pasadena, and this game was the first step.
Iowa held Nebraska to what would be a season low of 234 yards of total offense on just 13 first downs. Iowa gained just 169 total yards on 11 first downs and lost three fumbles of its own, but the Huskers had two interceptions to zero for Iowa, as Hawkeye starting quarterback Pete Gales (not Gordy Bohannon, who would end the season under center as Gales battled injuries) attempted just 10 passes and did not throw an interception.
One of the biggest players in this game, and truly, Iowa’s entire season, was Thunderfoot; punter Reggie Roby. Simply put, Roby was one of the best punters in the history of the sport and still is to this day. Roby’s punts against the Huskers averaged over 50 yards and forced Nebraska into long fields all day long. His season average of 49.8 yards per punt in 1981 was an NCAA record and the offensively challenged Hawkeyes would likely have struggled to finish above .500 without Roby and his record-setting performance.
We’ll have more 1981 memories to recount over the next 18 weeks of this series, but the 10-7 win over Nebraska was one of the most significant in school history, as it gave fans hope for what might be ahead under the guidance of Hayden Fry.
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Fry came to Iowa trying to turn thing around, to change attitudes, to scrub away the losing mentality. The 10-7 win over #6 Nebraska was the first sign that he might just get things done as the Hawkeyes had not had a winning season since 1961.