Nebraska Linebacker Trev Alberts and his roommate, kicker Byron Bennett, live with this pet boa constrictor named Sam. A fat, ugly, red-tailed creature, Sam lies in the middle of their trailer home and sleeps, except when it's feeding time. Then, slowly and unpleasantly, he devours everything that's put before him. "He doesn't really have a purpose," says Alberts, "except to eat every couple of days."
The 1993 Cornhuskers are kind of like that. There they sit, square in the middle of the national championship picture, swallowing everything that's smaller than they are. It may take a forklift to remove Nebraska from title contention, considering its 300-pound offensive tackles and a heavy-hitting defense led by Alberts, a senior whose career-sack yardage nearly equals the length of two football fields.
Last Saturday at Colorado the Huskers simply choked the life out of the Buffaloes. It was an ugly performance, but as Alberts says, "We like it that way." The 21-17 win made Nebraska, at 8-0, the only team in the Big Eight with an unblemished record and one of six unbeaten and untied teams left in Division I-A, with only Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma remaining on its schedule.
Not that the Huskers' record has earned them much respect. After all, how many teams win a game 49-7 and drop in the polls? That's what happened two weeks ago, when Nebraska fell from fifth to sixth in the Associated Press rankings after crushing Missouri. That poll plainly dissed the Huskers, who are used to being overlooked but not insulted.
The pollsters have had reason to be skeptical. For all the Huskers' regular-season success—they have won at least nine games a season for 24 straight years—they have beaten only one Top 10 team (Colorado 52-7 in 1992) in the last five seasons and haven't won a bowl game in six years. In fact, in their last five postseason appearances, the Huskers were thrashed, twice by Florida State, twice by Miami and once by Georgia Tech.
Nebraska's reply to the slight in the AP poll was to win again. Alberts exemplified the team's determination, leading a defense that squeezed Colorado mercilessly in the second half. After intermission the Huskers denied the Buffaloes a first down until less than eight minutes remained in the game; they intercepted quarterback Kordell Stewart twice; and they sacked Stewart once, for a 10-yard loss. "It was just a matter of respect," Alberts said.
Alberts is a 6'4", 240-pound projected first-round draft pick. He also is a typical Husker, an obedient square with a close-cropped haircut in the shape of a veal chop. His father got him the trailer home back in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where his family farms 300 acres of corn and soybeans.
Bennett, a talkative little guy from Dallas who has scored more points than any other kicker in Nebraska history, likes to tease Alberts about his toughness. "I take credit for Trev," says Bennett. "I get him ready for games. I beat him around the trailer, let him watch some TV and then put him to bed at 11 with a Happy Meal."
Alberts has a soft spot for Bennett, which is the reason he tolerates Sam, who belongs to the kicker. In truth, Alberts is a little afraid of Sam. Recently the snake busted out of his 15-gallon tank, and Alberts had to hunt the thing down by himself. "He about had a heart attack," says Bennett.
Bennett occasionally lets Sam roam in his closet, wriggling through his laundry. "He lets him crawl around in his clothes" says Alberts, horrified.
Alberts has no fear of buffaloes, though, and last Saturday he set the tone for the bruising second half when he stood up to Ralphie, Colorado's 1,300-pound mascot. The Buffaloes trailed 21-10 at intermission, and shortly after the players had returned from the locker rooms, Ralphie was making one of her usual circuits of the field with her cheerleading attendants, who were trying to rouse the crowd of 52,277. When Ralphie reached the Nebraska sideline, she charged toward Alberts, who was warming up for the third quarter. Alberts stared down the beast, refusing to move from her path. Ralphie and her keepers veered away.
That told the story. The Cornhuskers met every Colorado charge. They also overcame the losses of quarterback Tommie Frazier (strained ligament in his right shoulder) and I-back Calvin Jones (cramping right calf), both of whom sat out much of the second half. Frazier and Jones had accounted for all the Huskers' scoring, all of which came in the first quarter. Jones had touchdown runs of four and 10 yards, and Frazier completed a 60-yard bomb to Corey Dixon in the end zone, giving Nebraska a 21-3 lead.
While Frazier and Jones limped in and out of the game in the second half, vainly trying to make something happen, Bennett missed field goals of 52 and 26 yards. Frazier also threw an interception in the Colorado end zone. "I'd just like to put my hand out to our defense," said the relieved quarterback.
Ordinarily, Colorado has one of the most polished attacks in the Big Eight. Stewart, however, had a wretched afternoon, completing only eight of 28 passes for 115 yards and throwing three interceptions. In the second half the Buffaloes put together only one solid drive, which was capped by tailback Rashaan Salaam's one-yard scoring vault with 2:54 to go. Down by four points, the Buffaloes had a last chance after holding Nebraska without a first down and getting the ball back on their own 47-yard line. With less than 1:30 remaining, Stewart stood at the Nebraska 40. He promptly delivered the ball to Husker cornerback John Reece.
Stewart wasn't solely to blame. He was chased relentlessly by Alberts, who has 28 career sacks for 195 yards in losses, including 14 sacks this fall for 77 yards. "Pressure will cause you to do all kinds of things," said Stewart morosely.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the victory to the Cornhuskers. They needed a strong performance over Colorado to protect their position in the polls. And it has annoyed Nebraskans no end that Buffalo coach Bill McCartney declared Nebraska to be Colorado's archrival 10 years ago. Coach Tom Osborne and the Huskers, for decades challenged only by Oklahoma for Big Eight supremacy, still refuse to take the Buffaloes as serious rivals, though over the previous seven years their series was even at 3-3-1. Last week Nebraska officials were so uptight about the nonrivalry that they monitored their players' face-to-face interviews with the press and did not allow them to speak to reporters on the phone.
Rival or not, Colorado is no slouch, despite its 4-3-1 record. The Buffaloes blew a 10-point lead in the last four minutes of a 41-37 loss to Stanford, took Miami to the wall before falling 35-29 and were tied 16-16 by Kansas State, which at 6-1-1 is the Big Eight's big surprise. Indeed, the Buffaloes may turn out to have been Nebraska's most formidable league opponent. After Saturday's game, Orange Bowl representative Ed Williamson was lounging by the door of the Husker locker room. As Osborne passed him, Williamson placed an Orange Bowl lapel pin in Osborne's hand. "You've got to sleep with that for four more weeks," said Williamson. If the Cornhuskers remain unbeaten, they will probably meet the winner of next week's Florida State-Notre Dame game in a title matchup in Miami.
The Huskers have been undefeated this late in the season before and gone bust. Last year they beat Colorado only to lose to Iowa State. But as this season progresses, they are showing themselves to be more and more worthy of Top 5 consideration. Some of their seemingly weak victims, like UCLA and Kansas State, have grown in stature, and the Huskers have surmounted difficulties that might have caused a lesser team to fold. Jones, their leading rusher with four 100-plus-yard performances, and Frazier, a sophomore who has thrown for eight touchdowns, have struggled with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. And two offensive linemen were lost to broken legs.
The Huskers survived four turnovers to edge UCLA 14-13. And they gave up 489 passing yards against Kansas State but prevailed 45-28. "This is going to help us in the long run," said Alberts. "When we get in a national championship game and it's close, we'll pull it out." But given their recent bowl performances, could they stay close in such a game?
In the locker room following Saturday's victory, Frazier cradled his arm. Jones limped slightly. Alberts stemmed the flow of blood from a gash in his elbow. After surveying the room, Osborne announced an opinion. Normally, he won't hazard even a facial expression on any subject. So when he accorded his team the respect others have denied it, he spoke volumes. "I think we've got some players who'll find a way to get it done," he said. "They're not pretty. But they'll be difficult to beat."