LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara shook his head upon hearing the question. "I'm trying not to remember that," he said. Safety Anthony West, after explaining how it hurts more to have been a Big 12 champion for a minute only to have it ripped away, stared straight ahead.
"That second," West said. "One second."
Since the Cornhuskers returned home in January from their Holiday Bowl thumping of Arizona, they've seen the number 0:01 everywhere. In their locker room. In their weight room. On rubber wristbands made and passed out by walk-on defensive back Wil Richards. Turn over the wristband to find the lesson coach Bo Pelini hopes his players take from their last-second loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game at Cowboys Stadium.
What bothers Pelini about the way the Texas game ended is the fact that he and his staff have preached the F-word since their arrival in Lincoln in 2008. "That's probably what hurt most," Pelini said. "That's something we've been emphasizing since we came together. Everything we do is about finishing, be it on the field, off the field, whatever. We didn't finish that game. We had our opportunities."
Pelini doesn't want his players to dwell on what might have been, but he doesn't want them to forget, either. Every time they felt they couldn't possibly push the bench press bar skyward one more time, every time they felt tempted to dog it on the final rep of a drill, Pelini wanted the Cornhuskers to remember how they felt when Texas players victoriously swarmed the field only moments after Nebraska players had swarmed the field for a premature celebration.
"Hopefully, it does make us hungry," Pelini said. "But being hungry, being upset about what happened, that doesn't do you any good. You have to put it to use. You have to learn from what's happened to you. You have to let it make you better. You've got to put it to work every day."
They have. Defensive tackle Jared Crick, who will inherit many of the leadership responsibilities left behind by graduated quarterback-crusher Ndamukong Suh, believes the memory of the second has forced the Cornhuskers to work themselves harder this offseason. "If we would have played harder for one second, we could have had it," Crick said. "That really drives a lot of guys, especially myself. If we would have had that final push at the end, we would have won that game."
Crick can't forget the joy of celebrating the title on the field -- or the pain of watching it evaporate. "You could taste it," Crick said. "That second that all our guys were running on the field, you were at an all-time high.
"You go from extreme happiness down to about as low as you can get."
Nebraska players know that if they take care of their business this season, they'll get another crack at the Big 12 title. Thanks to a ferocious defense, Pelini has quickly yanked the program out of the muck that was the Bill Callahan era and set it on an upward trajectory. Now, when they talk about national championships over grilled wings at The Watering Hole, they aren't necessarily talking about Tom Osborne teams of the past. Thanks to the massive Crick, muscular, physical corner Amukamara, Swiss Army knife safety DeJon Gomes and the rest of a deep defense, Nebraska is the prohibitive favorite in the Big 12 North. If the offense -- which will be led by I-back Roy Helu, receiver Niles Paul and a starting quarterback Pelini hasn't named -- can be more consistent, Nebraska will have what it needs to cap its time in the Big 12 with a title.
So while most look to the Oct. 16 meeting with Texas in Lincoln as the ultimate revenge game, the Cornhuskers realize the Texas game is simply another step on the path to the conference title they held for mere moments before Longhorns kicker Hunter Lawrence's 46-yard field goal took it away. "It's a rollercoaster of emotions," said West, who moved from cornerback to safety this offseason. "For that minute, we're Big 12 champs. Then the refs gather up, and it comes back, and we're not. ... It's devastating. I know a lot of guys were affected by it."
But leave it to Crick, who grew up in Cozad, Neb., to inject a little Heartland pragmatism into the situation. As much as it hurt to lose that way, it meant the Cornhuskers could go toe-to-toe with a team bound for the national title game. It meant that with a little more work, all their dreams would be within reach. "I'd rather be closer to winning it than further away from winning it," Crick said. "It sucked, but definitely I liked how we competed against the No. 3 team in the nation and how close we really came to winning that thing."
How close? That's easy. Nebraska players can just look around their locker room or down at their wrists and see the number 0:01. And even the ones who want to forget will remember. Next time, they have to finish.