EVERY OPTION OFFENSE HAS ONE: an unsung yet inspirational fullback who plows holes for the better-publicized runners, scrambles his brains in the process and gets to carry the ball every fourth series or so just to prove he isn't a guard. For Nebraska that player is 6'1", 225-pound senior Micah Heibel. He rushed only three times for five yards in Nebraska's 42-33 win over UCLA at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday, but he blocked hard and then, two hours after the final gun sounded, appeared at Chesterfield's on 13th Street, singing with his band, Brain Hammer.
The group, which patterns itself after the parodistic heavy-metal rockers Spinal Tap ("We don't do Sex Farm, but we do Hell Hole" Heibel says), should play for UCLA every time it challenges the Big Eight. Nebraska beat the Bruins 40-13 in 1973, 42-10 in '83 and 42-3 in '84. If you throw in Oklahoma's 38-3 win over UCLA last year and Saturday's loss to the Huskers, over the last 15 years the Bruins have been brain-hammered 204-62 by the corn-fed conference.
Several theories have been advanced to explain this phenomenon: 1) the Big Eight features the option offense, an attack unfamiliar to UCLA, which plays in a passing conference; 2) the Big Eight, and particularly Nebraska, has stronger, beefier players than those gentle souls raised near the beaches of Los Angeles; 3) the games have been played in September, before UCLA has finished tanning itself and has gotten serious; 4) for the past five years the Bruins have started each season with a new quarterback. In each case he hasn't gotten his act together until nearly bowl time.
"Yeah, we have a problem," said UCLA coach Terry Donahue earlier in the week. "It might be like the Big Ten playing the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl. But our scores against the Big Eight are even worse than the Big Ten's in the Rose Bowl. The last few games haven't been football games, they've been slaughters."
September 20, 1987
Do we sense a man crying out for the revisionist schedule? "Very candidly, yes. I would rather have Cupcake U than Nebraska every time," said Donahue. "Absolutely. Is that plain enough?"
Pretty plain. Still, the Bruins didn't show up in Lincoln wearing ear-of-corn costumes with HUSK ME signs around their necks. UCLA boasted tailback Gaston Green, who had eight 100-yard games in 1986 and 135 yards in the '87 opening win over San Diego State; a speedy defense led by linebacker Ken Norton Jr., whose dad once broke Muhammad Ali's jaw; the usual pair of sure-handed, gaily named wideouts, Flipper Anderson and Paco Craig; a strong-armed quarterback named Troy Aikman, who transferred from the University of Oklahoma; and a 6'5", 313-pound offensive tackle, David Richards, who lumbered in last spring from SMU's shuttered stable.
"This year I think we can compete with Nebraska," said Green, a model of optimism. "Our team is a little better than it's been. Why? Because we believe it's better."
That sort of tautological brainwork will only take you so far. "I'll show up," said Donahue, making a less-than-confidence-inspiring promise. "They'll drag me in screaming, but I'll show up."
Before showing up, the Bruins had steeled themselves to stop the Cornhuskers' vaunted I-formation attack, which had cranked out 515 rushing yards the week before in a 56-12 rout of Utah State. "We expect them to run it down our throats," Norton said before the game, "to see how tough UCLA is."
At the start Nebraska did just that, and UCLA stopped the Huskers cold. With Norton and fellow linebacker Carnell (the Human Blur) Lake—perhaps the only Division I-A linebacker who returns kicks—sprinting to the outside and noseguard Terry Tumey slipping past the Nebraska center time and again, the Huskers' option offense was strung out on the green carpet like a broken necklace. At the end of the first quarter UCLA led 7-0 after a 4-yard Green TD run. Nebraska had gained just 30 yards on the ground, had committed three fumbles and had permitted an 11-yard sack of junior quarterback Steve Taylor.
More important, Taylor, who had rushed for 157 yards on a mere nine carries against Utah State—a Nebraska rushing record for a quarterback—was hurt. He bruised his left shoulder after an option pitch near the end of the quarter, and coach Tom Osborne was ready to yank him. "I just didn't want to beat him up," said Osborne.
But Taylor persuaded Osborne to let him stay in as long as he didn't run too many options. And then something strange happened. Nebraska began to pass. It didn't just pass, it completed passes. Taylor hit tight end Tom Banderas for a 9-yard touchdown then connected with I-back Ken Clark for an 11-yard score, and the Huskers took a 14-10 lead into the half. Holy sides of beef! Two passing touchdowns after two quarters for a team that averages a touchdown pass about once every locust plague.
And UCLA had failed to get Green's Heisman campaign train rolling. "After that first hit [left cornerback] Lorenzo Hicks put on him, he was finished," said Husker right corner Charles Fryar following the game. "Usually Green runs high; after that he was running low."
If the reason for Green's ineffectiveness was no mystery to Fryar, the Bruins' sporadic—and fruitless—use of the option offense was. "I didn't understand that," he said. "If anybody knows how to defend against the option, it's us."
But does Nebraska really know the pass? Oh, yes. In the second half Taylor, who played high school ball in Southern California, threw three more touchdown passes and finished the day with 10 completions in 15 attempts for 217 yards. He had no interceptions. His five touchdown passes not only established a single-game record for a Nebraska quarterback, but it also put the rest of the country on notice that the Huskers can beat you by more ways than one.
"I always knew we could pass," said Taylor, his left shoulder wrapped in a brown bandage after the game. "I talked to [former Husker QB Turner] Gill when I was recruited here, and he said you can pass at Nebraska. The California schools always wanted me as a 'quarterback-athlete.' That means utilityman—flanker, wide receiver, defensive back. I couldn't do that. I don't have the mentality to play defense. Still, I guess this is a little shocking."
Yes, it is, considering that Taylor threw for only six touchdowns all last year. Moreover, he dissected a secondary that prides itself on shutting down big-time passing attacks. He hummed in a few bullets to tightly covered receivers and, in the third quarter, threw a gorgeous 48-yard TD strike over two defenders to flanker Rod Smith. That made the score 28-10. But often Taylor's receivers were so wide open that it seemed the 150th straight sellout crowd at Nebraska was witnessing the unveiling of nothing less than Air Osborne.
But there was nothing new here. "I was standing on the sidelines, saying, 'Hey, those were just our usual patterns,' " says Fryar, whose cousin Irving, the former Husker All-America, plays for the New England Patriots. "I kept saying, 'Where are those UCLA guys?' They come from a passing conference.... But then, this is the Big Eight."
Indeed it is, and that means there's some heavy meat up front. The Nebraska offensive line, which averages 268 pounds a man, couldn't blow open holes for the running game, but it gave Taylor good protection. And even though the Bruins' strength coach, John Arce, says that at UCLA "we have some great athletes with great strength," the Huskers defensive line (244 pounds per man) looked like a bunch of Gold's Gym muscle pumpers attacking a group of Venice Beach volley bailers. Nebraska sacked Aikman and his backup, Brendan McCracken, six times, blocked a punt and held the Bruins to 94 yards rushing.
The Cornhuskers, who pump their iron in a weight room so sacred that red velvet ropes separate visitors from such relics as THE ORIGINAL HUSKER DUMBBELLS and THE ORIGINAL HUSKER PREACHER CURL PLATFORM (both circa 1967), are the premier strength and bulk devotees in college sport. All sports teams at Nebraska, even the women's volleyball team, worship at the strength shrine; the volleyballers' latest poster shows them posed in the weight room under the fearsome headline: POUND FOR POUND.
Neil Smith, the 6'5", 260-pound defensive tackle who's the 1987 lifter of the year for the Huskers, says the defense had something to prove after reading that Richards claimed Nebraska's defensive line was slow. Said Smith, who runs a 4.63 40, "That got us going."
Richards himself is a load not often seen on a finesse team like UCLA's. On the first of Green's three touchdown runs, he pulled and flattened free safety Mark Blazek at the goal line. Fortunately for Nebraska, the Bruin runners generally were stopped before Richards could lumber upfield.
In the fourth quarter UCLA made a desperate comeback attempt, with Green scoring twice on short runs and adding two two-point conversions. It was too little, too late; and for Green, who gained only 46 yards on 19 carries while scoring 22 points, it was hard to tell if he's the stuff of which Heisman Trophy winners are made. "He's good," said Blazek, "but there are a lot of good backs out there."
Nebraska lost four fumbles and rushed for only 117 yards in 47 attempts, which made Osborne furious—in his quiet way. "That's abysmal, that's not even football," he said. "But I don't want to be a spoilsport." He should not be too upset, because his Huskers should now roll comfortably along until Nov. 21, the date of the annual range war against Oklahoma. "We don't like to look forward, but that might be it," says Fryar, speaking of the national championship.
UCLA's future is now one of development, as Aikman and Green try to get their acts together. The Bruins may have lost to Nebraska, but they did a lot better than in 1983, when they went on to win the Rose Bowl, and 1984, when they beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
For fullback Heibel, there was the rowdy dancing crowd at Chesterfield's to deal with on Saturday night. As he stood onstage, backed by a screaming fuzz guitar and ear-shattering drums, singing I'm Henry the VIII, I Am, Heibel looked like a man at peace with himself and the football world. "You ought to stick around after us and check out Charlie Burton and the Hiccups," he told a visitor. "They're great."
But Brain Hammer itself isn't so bad.
"Heibel does pretty good," said Dave Dill, a Nebraska alumnus who came in from Scottsbluff to see the game and party. "And who's going to tell him he isn't?"
The Sooners maybe?