The first half of Nebraska's game with Washington last Saturday evening was history, and it had been all Cornhuskers. The Huskers led 14-6, but few among the faithful at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln took comfort in that narrow lead. "This one is far from over," said one weatherbeaten, redblazered Nebraska booster to another.
"We'll get the wind in the fourth quarter," replied his friend hopefully.
"Don't matter. Wind dies down after sunset."
"Well, win or lose," said the less pessimistic of the pair, "at least we won't be embarrassed."
September 29, 1991
Regardless of whether that fan later retracted his remark—Washington dominated the second half and won 36-21—he had put a gnarled finger on what has become the Cornhuskers' most urgent quest: saving face. Once-mighty Nebraska can't seem to beat anyone its own size. Coach Tom Osborne's teams are now winless in their last six meetings with ranked opponents and 0-4 in their last four bowls. The Huskers went into last Saturday's game starved for respect.
However, Washington, which arrived in Lincoln ranked fourth, was not about to look past ninth-ranked Nebraska. Lack of respect for an opponent was the Huskies' undoing last fall, when they missed out on the national championship by one game—an inexplicable 25-22 loss to UCLA. Said Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman, "The title was within our grasp, but we didn't give the Bruins the respect they deserved. We've vowed that won't happen again."
In the first half on Saturday, the Huskies were plagued not by complacency but by bonehead mistakes, including three holding penalties, each of which nullified a first down. On its first possession after intermission, Washington made the score 14-9 on Travis Hanson's 43-yard field goal, but it fell further behind midway through the third quarter after Beno Bryant dropped a punt that the Huskers recovered on the Huskies' two-yard line. One play later Nebraska led 21-9. That, however, would be the last time the Huskers threatened.
Immediately following Bryant's blunder, Washington quarterback Billy Joe Hobert took the struggling offense by the scruff of its neck and led it 76 yards to a touchdown. The drive showcased Hobert's arm as well as his resilience. When his apparent 33-yard scoring pass to flanker Orlando McKay was nullified by yet another holding penalty, he shook off the setback and, facing fourth-and-eight, threw a 15-yard strike to McKay. On the next snap Bryant, the Huskies' tailback, found the end zone, and a measure of redemption, on a 15-yard draw.
Hobert, a sophomore, had expected to spend this season holding a clipboard. But last April, on the 10th day of Washington's spring practice, first-string quarterback Mark Brunei! went down with a severe injury to his right knee. The prognosis: out for the season. (Though Brunell practiced with the Huskies last week for the first time since the injury, he is not expected to play anytime soon.) "It was like a funeral," says Washington coach Don James. "I could have cried."
Instead, James gathered his players and told them they could win just as many games behind Hobert. Thirteen months ago Hobert, a gregarious fellow, married Heather Lewis, his high school sweetheart from Puyallup, Wash. "I'm a family guy," he says, "and I was never much good at chasing women."
Indeed, Hobert lacks Brunell's 4.55 speed, but he has a stronger arm. In his first collegiate start, a 42-7 defeat of Stanford on Sept. 7, he completed 21 of 31 passes for 244 yards and threw only one interception—a gaffe for which center Ed Cunningham shouldered the responsibility. While on the bench before that possession, Cunningham had asked team managers to apply wet towels to his neck. The water ran down his back and saturated the seat of his pants. Back on the field, Hobert, his throwing hand suddenly moistened, threw a wounded-duck interception. Afterward he approached Cunningham on the sideline and said, "Ed, in the future, before you go out on the field would you please dry off your butt?"
By halftime of the game against Nebraska, Hobert had thrown two more interceptions. But he settled down and started taking what the Cornhuskers' two-deep zone was giving him—an inviting hole over the middle. To exploit this soft spot, in the second half the Huskies came out in a no-back set, leaving Nebraska linebackers in man-to-man coverage with speedy receivers like McKay and Mario Bailey. Said James of those mismatches, "We don't have any cornerbacks who can cover Mario."
When the Cornhuskers got overly pass-conscious, Washington suckered them time and again with draws. The Huskies went ahead 22-21 early in the fourth quarter with a six-play, 69-yard touchdown drive (their two-point conversion attempt failed). Hobert completed two long passes over the middle, followed by a 17-yard draw by Bryant; then Hobert went upstairs again to McKay for an eight-yard scoring pass. "Tonight was strange," said Washington offensive coordinator Keith Gilbert-son. "We used the pass to set up the run."
Osborne should have been taking notes. While professing to ignore critics who have been urging him to spice up his plodding, ground-based attack, Osborne has quietly nudged his offense into the latter half of the 20th century. Against Washington the Cornhuskers threw 29 passes—completing 12 for 173 yards—and appeared in what was, for them, a wild and crazy formation: an unbalanced double wing-back set. When Nebraska unveiled the formation in the first quarter, the Husky defense was so flummoxed that Husker I-back Derek Brown scored on an option pitch from 27 yards out.
After Brown's gallop and a 42-yard touchdown pass from Keithen McCant to Jon Bostick late in the second quarter, one could not help but wonder whether Washington's vaunted defense was seriously overrated. A cavalcade of second-half highlight-film plays laid all doubts to rest. On a crucial third-and-two early in the fourth quarter, inside linebacker Chi-co Fraley shed a block and stuffed Brown a yard short of a first down. On Nebraska's next possession, outside linebacker Jaime Fields knocked the ball from McCant's grip on a blitz, and strong safety Paxton Tailele recovered on the Cornhuskers' 33. That play set up the first of the Huskies' two insurance touchdowns and rendered mute 76,000 red-clad fans.
Fields, Fraley and Tailele are the core of a defense built on depth and speed. After Arizona State gained 493 yards against the Huskies in 1989, James and defensive coordinator Jim Lambright scrapped their old conservative scheme, loaded as much speed as they could into the defensive lineup and began blitzing madly. The result: Washington led the nation last season in rushing defense and was eighth in scoring defense.
What is truly refreshing about these Huskies is that they aren't into woofing and humiliating their opponents. They're too busy flying to the football and having fun. "There are only so many big plays per game," says linebacker Donald Jones. "I feel like, if I don't bring it every down, the other 10 guys are going to get them all."
Says defensive tackle Tyrone Rodgers, "When everything's clicking and we're dominating, it's like a party out there."
On Saturday, that was the only celebrating in Lincoln. The tailgaters were grim as Osborne searched for positives in the defeat. "We gave a pretty good effort," he said, "but we can play better—I hope. Or we're in for a long season."