The Colorado student body, somehow riotous even in that gray, soul-deadening weather only the Midwestern plains can produce, delivered its unkindest slur in the waning seconds of Colorado's 27-12 victory over Nebraska last Saturday. The mocking chant floated down on the Cornhuskers like the freezing rain: "We don't live in Lincoln, we don't live in Lincoln...."
It's not such a bad town, really, except for the wind that can blow a hole through the middle of you. Lincoln has its own charm if you know where to look for it, old-fashioned five-and-dime streets where the Back to the Bible radio station is neighbor to a cocktail lounge. Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph, a junior from New Orleans with a whiplash body, a lively personality and an accent entirely out of place in Lincoln, explained his unlikely presence, running the Cornhuskers' offense, like this: "You come to Nebraska, you feel that if something goes bad in the morning, it might just pick up in the afternoon."
The Buffaloes must have felt that too, as they trailed 12-0 through three quarters of play—fumbling six times and losing three, shanking punts and being generally "our own biggest enemy," according to coach Bill McCartney—only to slap Nebraska facedown in the rain puddles of its own Memorial Stadium in the final quarter.
Things picked up at last for Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy, who finally held on to the football after three mortifying, costly fumbles to score four touchdowns, all in the fourth period. "I tried everything," Bieniemy said of his attempts to keep a grip on the ball. "I tried gloves, I tried spit." Things also picked up for Buffalo receiver Mike Pritchard, who dropped two passes in the first half but returned to make three catches for 90 yards and set up a pair of Bieniemy's touchdowns. Most significantly, things picked up for Colorado's defense, which held Nebraska to minus-4 yards and not a single first down in that final quarter.
The Cornhuskers, ranked No. 3 in the country before the game, straggled away from those last dreadful 15 minutes aghast and exposed. Let's put it this way: They had a one-game schedule, and they're 0-1. After predictably hammering a pushover list of early-season opponents, and after No. 1 Virginia's 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech last Saturday, Nebraska had a chance to be one of the few undefeated teams of consequence in the country. The Cornhuskers needed only to hang on to their painstakingly built lead over ninth-ranked Colorado to virtually assure themselves a Big Eight title and a place in the Orange Bowl. Instead, that place will almost certainly go to the Buffaloes, now 9-1-1, and 5-0 in the Big Eight.
"It means we can get out of this cold," Pritchard said, "and maybe into a national championship game."
There was a sullen cast to the contest that didn't just come from the chill weather, so impenetrably dreary that the stadium lights had to be turned on in midafternoon. It also derived from growing tensions between a perennial, if stale, favorite and a menacing usurper. The Buffaloes, by winning in Lincoln for the first time since 1967, had incontrovertibly arrived. They held the Cornhuskers to season lows in first downs (nine), rushing yards (163) and total offense (232).
This state of affairs moved normally immovable Nebraska coach Tom Osborne to attempt a nonsensical fake punt at his own 28 with about 6:45 to go and the Cornhuskers trailing only 13-12. The play's failure cost Nebraska any hope of winning. "They started to overwhelm us," Nebraska defensive tackle Kenny Walker said.
There were signs of residual ugliness from last year's contest, a 27-21 victory for the Buffaloes in Boulder as they rode a swell of emotion following the death from cancer of quarterback Sal Aunese. At the time, the Buffaloes had been enraged at remarks by Cornhusker linebacker Jeff Mills, who implied that Colorado was using the tragedy to its advantage. This year, motorists from Colorado were treated to this tasteless piece of graffiti painted across two lanes of Interstate 80 just beyond the state line: SAL IS DEAD. GO BIG RED.
If last year's team was touched with eeriness, there is nothing supernatural about this Colorado team. The Buffaloes have ably negotiated a demanding schedule marred only by a 31-31 tie with Tennessee and a 23-22 loss to Illinois. Even if you chose to debate their notorious fifth-down, 33-31 victory over Missouri on Oct. 6, there's no arguing with their defeats of Texas, Washington and Oklahoma. The Buffaloes' fourth-quarter surge against Nebraska was the work of a pressure-toughened team: Colorado has trailed in nine of its 10 games.
"We're used to this," Colorado corner-back Deon Figures said.
In the days leading up to the game, Nebraska viewed it as if from a great, supremely confident height. The Cornhuskers refused to admit that their schedule, which included almost insultingly easy victories over such teams as Northern Illinois (60-14), Kansas State (45-8) and Iowa State (45-13), was suspect. "I tell the ones who say that to come here on Saturday, put my pads on, and then you tell me our schedule is weak," Joseph said.
The Cornhuskers also seemed loath to admit that a conference and geographical rivalry is burgeoning between the two schools. "What's all this about a rivalry?" Osborne said. "I don't understand it. We approach it like we do any other game. It's not something we worry about the whole year."
The Cornhuskers had better start worrying. Nebraska has been encroached on as both a national and a conference power. It has not beaten a ranked team for two years, since its 7-3 victory over Oklahoma in 1988, and has not won a bowl game since it defeated Louisiana State in the 1986 Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, Colorado is 19-2-1 for the last two seasons, with convincing, consecutive victories over both Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Perhaps as telling as the Cornhuskers' schedule was their plain, familiar offense. "They're predictable," Figures said. Colorado linebacker Alfred Williams said, vaguely, "I don't really know anybody at Nebraska." Even Joseph acknowledged, "No names. No big names."
Iowa State coach Jim Walden summed up the difference between the two teams when he speculated earlier in the week that the Cornhuskers were in for a severe shock. "Nebraska hasn't been hit yet," he said. "Colorado is full-growed."
Six of the Buffaloes' previous victories had come down to the final four minutes, so when they trailed Nebraska for all of three quarters, it seemed merely tiresome rather than a cause for panic. "You know, you think, Why can't we do this on every drive, instead of in the last couple of minutes?" Bieniemy said prophetically early in the week.
In this case, it was largely because of Bieniemy himself. The leading rusher in the nation, Bieniemy had not been particularly prone to losing the football, with six fumbles for the season before the Nebraska game. But he simply could not hang on to the ball for the first three quarters on Saturday and fumbled five time's, losing three of the five and negating the hard work he was doing. Overall, he carried 38 times for 134 yards. His most egregious fumble came as Colorado threatened to score on its first possession of the game. On third-and-goal at the Nebraska two-yard line, he lost the ball in a heap, and cornerback Tahaun Lewis recovered it for the Cornhuskers.
The problem, Bieniemy said, was switching the ball from one hand to the other. In the cold and wet it kept slipping off his forearms. With each fumble teammates would go over to him on the sideline and murmur words of encouragement. "They told me, 'Eric, we'll get the holes for you, just hold on to the football,' " he said. Quarterback Darian Hagan wandered by for a chat. "We just talked trash to him," Hagan said. "He's the kind of guy who doesn't want to be consoled."
Bieniemy's last fumble came with 5:07 remaining in the third quarter and ruined yet another potential scoring drive. On first-and-10 at the Nebraska 21, he went over right guard for a gain of two but lost the ball to linebacker Mike Croel in a pile. As the distraught Bieniemy stood at the back of the Colorado bench, fullback George Hemingway and McCartney wandered over for a conference. McCartney was only partly consoling, telling Bieniemy in no uncertain terms to cover up the football.
"I just tried to pick up the parts," Bieniemy said later. "Sometimes you take little things for granted, and when you play in this weather you have to take care of little things. No excuse. Fortunately, I could come back and do something great."
Meanwhile, Nebraska was doing little except cautiously guarding the ball in the 20-mph winds and scratching out points on Gregg Barrios's field goals of 26 and 44 yards in the second quarter. When the Cornhuskers finally did break a big play, they were deprived of a touchdown by the width of a cleat mark. With 13:45 to go in the third period and a first-and-10 at the Colorado 45, Joseph cut upheld on a keeper and streaked along the Buffalo sideline and into the end zone. But it was ruled he had stepped out of bounds at the nine-yard line. If so, it was not by much. Four plays later, Barrios missed a 20-yard field goal attempt that went wide to the right. Had he gotten the touchdown, Osborne said, "We wouldn't have done some of the things we did at the end."
Nebraska finally got its touchdown two series later on Joseph's 46-yard pass to tight end Johnny Mitchell with 2:38 left in the third quarter. A pass for a two-point conversion failed. But the Cornhuskers' only touchdown of the game was also their last score; they then began a frustrating offensive litany. "Too many threes and out," Joseph said morosely.
Colorado promptly responded to the 12-0 deficit by driving 71 yards in 10 plays for its first points. Pritchard kept the drive going with a twisting 19-yard reception from Hagan on third-and-seven at the 20. Bieniemy burst over for the one-yard touchdown.
"Then everything went our way," McCartney said. "Everything went against Nebraska from that point forward."
A 34-yard completion from Hagan to Pritchard at the Nebraska 11 helped set up Bieniemy's second touchdown. It came on fourth-and-one at the two. Hagan tried to draw the Cornhuskers offside, failed, and called timeout. On the next play Bieniemy leapt two yards into the end zone. "The offensive line created a new line of scrimmage out there," McCartney said. Hagan's two-point conversion pass was incomplete, but the Buffaloes had their first lead, 13-12.
Osborne attributed his next decision to a growing sense of urgency. With the Cornhuskers stopped again at fourth-and-three on their own 28, he called for the fake punt. Fullback Tim Johnk took a short snap and labored over left guard for two yards, where he was met by linebacker Rob Hutchins, short of the first down.
"I began to see that we weren't stopping them very well, and I thought maybe it was the last chance we had, to run a fake on them and get down the field and score." Osborne said. "Of course, we came up a yard short and that was the game. I'll probably catch heck for it, since it didn't work."
The Buffaloes responded with a five-play, 30-yard drive accomplished solely by Bieniemy, whose three-yard scoring burst assured the game's outcome. His last touchdown was a luxurious five-yarder with 1:31 to go. He high-stepped through a Nebraska defense once ranked No. 2 but by then totally disheartened.
"A real team comes in here and plays them, they have problems," Figures said. "They just rolled over."