The Red is dead. That's what the sign said. That's what the word was. You heard it in Boulder and around the Orange Bowl and in Tallahassee; you heard it everywhere college football was king. But you felt it, too, in New York and Chicago and in all the impatient places where people had had it with the lumbering stiffs of Lincoln, with those stolid farmboys who win, win, win except when it counts most, THE RED is DEAD. How could it have been otherwise? The Cornhuskers' splendid quarterback was gone with a blood clot, his backup had felt his lung collapse twice, and his backup—a walk-on, for god's sake—had a deep bruise in his shoulder. Even the most merciful appeared to have lost all patience with the Huskers. "It's like somebody did something wrong around here," said linebacker Ed Stewart, "and God was paying us back."
The Red is dead. That's what the sign stuck on the locker room wall behind Rashaan Salaam's head said late Saturday afternoon after the thousands of scarlet-garbed loons had flowed like a red river onto the field. Hours before, Salaam, Colorado's star running back, had first seen those words, printed as a statement of fact. And who expected that declaration to change? Who figured that Nebraska, albeit No. 3 in the land, would so dominate, so emphatically humble college football's second-ranked miracle boys from Boulder that this brash epitaph would quickly evolve into a withering hope, then a mockery? Gone in last Saturday's 24-7 drubbing was the Buffaloes' dramatic march through the season. Gone were the Heisman Trophy hopes of Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart—and perhaps those of Salaam as well. "Tell the guys from Nebraska to go get that national championship," Salaam said, "because they deserve it."
That's right: Nebraska and national title in the same breath. In this season without rhyme, in this system without reason, it seems just that the Huskers have set themselves up for another shot—however painful—at the big prize. For even as the game's grand pooh-bahs try to dictate a format for an annual championship, college football remains as manageable as a wet bar of soap. On Sunday, the AP poll named Nebraska its No. 1 team, while the coaches' poll kept Penn State in the top spot. The Nittany Lions are gearing up for a Rose Bowl showdown against some second-rate opponent from the Pac-10. Undefeated and ineligible Auburn lurks, threatening with every win to become 1994's shadow champion. Alabama is unheralded but unbeaten, as is Utah, which can make its claim only in the quiet of San Diego's Holiday Bowl. A mess indeed.
But for sheer weirdness, nothing surpasses Nebraska. This is the team that has gone to the Orange Bowl five times in the last 11 years—and all five times lost to Florida State or Miami by a combined score of 121-63. Until last Saturday the Cornhuskers hadn't beaten a top-five opponent since 1987, crystallizing the classic Husker formula for a season: nine wins, a Big Eight title, embarrassment on New Year's Day. In routing Colorado, Nebraska nailed down the first of these ingredients for 1994, took the driver's seat for the second and inspired fears of the third. One Orange Bowl committee member estimated that, of the 200 members of his group, only one, a Nebraska alumnus, would wish to see the Cornhuskers in Miami again—and Husker coach Tom Osborne doesn't exactly relish the thought of a return appearance. Minutes after the game ended he began pressing committeemen for a non-Florida opponent. It wasn't a sympathetic audience: These were the same compassionate souls who had joked earlier about sending Osborne an autographed picture of Miami coach Dennis Erickson.
Officially, of course, there was no such Husker bashing. "We'd be delighted to have such a highly ranked team," said Orange Bowl president Ed Williamson. "Since this is the final year of our tie-in with the Big Eight, maybe it's appropriate. They've been there."
This time, though, there's a feeling that things just might be different, because this is a different team. First, the normally polite Huskers are through apologizing for their methodical, grain-thresher offense. "Who are we going to send down to Miami, a Colorado team whose butt we just kicked?" said Nebraska tackle Rob Zatechka. "We're kind of like the Buffalo Bills: We're back. Live with it."
Nebraska has always produced a supremely competent collection of athletes, cerebral teams marked by flawless technique and a startling lack of emotion. Confronted with adversity only on Jan. 1, when they suddenly face quicker and more fiery opponents, the Cornhuskers always seemed to crumble—until last year. Then quarterback Tommie Frazier (box) led them into a national title game against Florida State in the Orange Bowl and outplayed Heisman winner Charlie Ward; only a field goal gone wide with one second left saved the championship for the Seminoles.
This season Nebraska seemed to have all the elements to push over the top, including Frazier, sophomore I-back Lawrence Phillips and a superb offensive line keyed by Outland Trophy favorite Zach Wiegert. Then the injuries began.
In the second game the Huskers' best defensive back, Mike Minter, tore a knee ligament and was lost for the year. On Sept. 25 a blood clot was found behind Frazier's right knee, effectively ending his season. The next week, against Wyoming, Frazier's backup, junior Brook Berringer, suffered the first partially collapsed lung; it was reinflated in the hospital that day but sagged again the next week against Oklahoma State. Berringer returned, clad in a flak jacket, for parts of the following two games, but his fragility forced Osborne to shave the offense down to one dimension: Run between the tackles, forever. Berringer was ordered not to call any audibles against Kansas State on Oct. 15, and he ran the option once against Missouri on Oct. 22. Nebraska won those games, but then Berringer's backup, walk-on Matt Turman, injured his shoulder mopping up against the Tigers. Behind Turman (whose status is still day to day), the backups included a true freshman recovering from torn ligaments in his throwing hand, a wingback who has never played quarterback in college, a converted split end and a converted student manager. "Everybody had this feeling: What, are we cursed?" says Wiegert.
Colorado rolled into the biggest game of 1994 with no such worries. Aside from Salaam, whose punishing runs had powered him to the top of a slippery Heisman heap and prompted him to consider leaving school after this season for the NFL, Bill McCartney's unbeaten Buffs were the picture of stability. Colorado had the nation's second-rated offense, a knack for winning close games and an offense far more potent than Nebraska's. Stewart, who had buckled disastrously in the Buffaloes' 21-17 loss last year to the Cornhuskers, had earned back his teammates' confidence with defining wins at Michigan and Texas. He had thrown just three interceptions all season. "This year, when he's under the gun, he tries to take it in stride," said Colorado wide receiver Michael Westbrook before Saturday's game. "He has changed a whole lot."
Nebraska didn't buy it. Defensive coordinator Charlie McBride had a plan: Pressure Stewart until he broke. The Nebraska defensive line savaged Colorado, sacking Stewart three times. Salaam, the nation's leading rusher, finished with 134 yards, but Stewart completed just 12 of 28 passes for 150 yards; worse, in 15 attempts on third or fourth down, Colorado never converted. "We'd see him getting scared back there," said defensive tackle Christian Peter, who with Terry Connealy sealed Stewart's fate with back-to-back fourth-down sacks in the third quarter. "We had to get in his face because we know if you shake Kordell up, he's going to choke."
Berringer was another story. Although Osborne wasn't sure how his quarterback would react, he knew there was no beating the Buffs with the offense Nebraska had run in previous weeks. "I ran him whenever necessary today—and I felt uneasy doing that—but we felt to win this game we'd have to," Osborne said. He needn't have worried. The 6'4" Berringer completed 12 of 17 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and one interception, ran the option, perfectly flipped a shovel pass and, on a keeper, even disposed of Colorado linebacker Ted Johnson with one swipe of his arm. "I've always felt that, if given the chance, I'd prove what I can do," Berringer said after the game.
So complete was the win that Salaam instantly declared afterward that he would be returning for his senior season. "Unfinished business," he said.
Funny. Those are the same words Zatechka wore on his T-shirt after Saturday's game, the same words the Corn-huskers use to sum up this season. Fact is, Nebraska feels it beat Florida State last January. "It's like a being-on-a-mission thing," Zatechka said. "It seems like we've always got the deck stacked against us: Everybody says we're good but not good enough, that Colorado's going to beat us, that there's no way we can get through the season undefeated."
Long a bastion of bland, Nebraska clearly has gone about creating a prickly attitude for itself. The Cornhuskers got angry at an anonymous letter from Orlando that predicted Colorado would shut out Nebraska, and with nothing but rumors to go on, they decided that Stewart and Salaam had said that they were going to "have fun" with the Husker defense.
"Where do these people get off?" Wiegert said after the game. "They haven't beat us in four years, and they're saying they're going to play with us? Who are they kidding? And tell those guys from Missouri and Kansas State: They get their butts kicked, they shouldn't talk, either."
The only Cornhusker who seemed like himself last Saturday was Osborne, who gave his usual vanilla answers in the post-game press conference and then went on TV and drawled his usual Gary Cooper refusal to campaign for poll votes. "I'd rather let you guys decide that," he said. After he walked off the set, though, Osborne happened by a television. His eyes got wide. "Is that Penn State 35-zip at the half?" he said. "That's tough. Now they'll probably vote them No. 1. Well, maybe the coaches'll vote us high...."
What do you know? The Red is very much alive. And kicking.