Each week, The Daily Nebraskan will look to fill the void of no football season by examining a previous season in program history, looking at key moments, players or storylines. Last week, the stroll down memory lane revisited the inaugural 1890 season. On the docket this week is the 1940 edition of NU football.
Nebraska football experienced some success during its history before the 1940 season. From 1911-1915, the Huskers went 35-2-3 under head coach Jumbo Stiehm.
In the 1920s, NU handed Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen” and legendary coach Knute Rockne their only two losses during a 27-2-1 stretch from 1922-1924. Ed Weir, a tackle on the team during this time, would later become the first Husker enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
During an eight-year stretch from 1929-1936, the Huskers won 50 games under head coach Dana Bible.
Yet even with all the successes, Nebraska had never appeared in a bowl game. Much of that was due to limited opportunity: the first bowl game wasn’t played until the Rose Bowl began in 1902. The Rose Bowl remained the only bowl game until 1921, when two short-lived bowl games, the Fort Worth Classic and the San Diego East-West Christmas Classic, began. It wasn’t until 1935, when the Sugar and Orange Bowls were played for the first time, that more than two bowl games occurred in a given season. The Sun Bowl played its first game the following year, and the Cotton Bowl began in 1937.
Therefore, despite early successes, Nebraska had never reached a bowl game. That changed with the 1940 team, which rebounded from a 13-7 loss to Minnesota in the season opener to reach the first bowl game in program history — a Rose Bowl appearance against No. 2 Stanford.
After the season-opening loss, the Huskers took a 13-0 lead into halftime against Indiana the following week and held on 13-7 for their first win of the season. End Ray Prochaska and running back Allen Zikmund provided the lone NU touchdowns.
The following week, NU won again, this time in a 53-2 romp at Kansas. This kicked off an eight-game win streak. Sophomore running back Wayne Blue scored three of the Huskers’ eight touchdowns on the day in what was then the largest margin of victory in the series. That mark has since been surpassed multiple times, with the current largest margin of victory coming during a 70-0 shellacking in 1985.
The Omaha World-Herald’s account of the 51-point drubbing against the Jayhawks summed it up best: “Sometimes by ganging up with each other and with lineman who had not been knocked ground-level, they managed to pull the devastating Huskers down, but this success was pitifully infrequent.”
One week later, the Huskers notched a third consecutive win, this time 20-7 against Missouri. Though the final margin of victory was a modest 13 points, the game was not as close as the score suggested, as the Tiger defense forced just two Husker punts all game.
Now ranked No. 12, the Huskers rolled into Norman on Nov. 2 for a showdown with Oklahoma. Zikmund broke a scoreless tie with a touchdown just before halftime and fullback Vike Francis added another score in the fourth quarter. That was enough offense, as the NU defense pitched a shutout in a 13-0 win.
The Huskers won their next three games as well — 14-6 against Iowa, 9-7 at Pittsburgh and 21-12 against Iowa State. The following week against Kansas State, NU clinched the Big Six title in a 20-0 shutout.
Over the course of NU’s eight-game winning streak to close the season, the Huskers outscored their opponents 163-41.
The successful regular season earned No. 7 NU its first-ever bowl berth, against No. 2 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Touchdowns from Francis and Zikmund powered the Huskers to a 13-7 lead in the first half, but it wasn’t enough, as Stanford snapped Nebraska’s win streak with a 21-13 win.
The Huskers may not have won their first bowl game, but the team still holds an important place in program history. Lawrence McCeney "Biff" Jones, the 1940 Huskers’ head coach, was already enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame when he became a member of the inaugural Nebraska Football Hall of Fame class in 1971. Warren Alfson, a guard on that year’s team, followed in 1975.
Zikmund, a three-time letterman at Nebraska, was the Chicago Bears’ 12th-round selection in the 1943 NFL Draft. After his NFL career, he went into coaching, compiling a 121–31–3 record from 1955-1971 as the head coach for Kearney State, now the University of Nebraska-Kearney. In 1977, he too found a spot in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Forrest Behm starred at tackle for the 1940 Huskers, earning first-team All-American honors that season despite having just one year of high school football experience before arriving at Nebraska. However, Behm’s Husker career almost never happened. When he was five years old, doctors suggested his leg would need to be amputated following a severe burn. Behm’s father disagreed and helped him rehabilitate his leg, and he eventually regained full mobility before his senior year of high school.
Behm’s stellar collegiate career earned him a spot in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1980 and a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame eight years later.
Other members of the 1940 Huskers enshrined in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame are guard Ed Schwartzkopf (1981), quarterback Roy "Cowboy" Petsch (1982), running back Herman Rohrig (1983), guard George Abel (1984), fullback Harry Hopp (1985), running back Walter “Butch” Luther, Francis and Prochaska (1986), tackle Victor Schleich (1988), end Fred Preston (1992) and running back Dale Bradley (1998).
In total, 14 players and the head coach from the 1940 Huskers are enshrined in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame. The team might not have won the Rose Bowl, but it holds a spot in Husker history for being the first to appear in a bowl and for the mark many of these players left on the program.
Unfortunately, the success of the 1940 season did not last, as the Huskers finished with a winning record just three times between 1941 and 1961. In 1962, however, a new head coach would stroll into Lincoln fresh off a successful five-year stint at Wyoming and change the course of Husker football forever.