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End of the Slide?

Dec. 26, 1994
Dec. 26, 1994

Table of Contents
Dec. 26, 1994

Focus
Billiards
Diving
Bobsled
Baseball
Patriots-Bills
Pro Football
College Basketball
Pro Basketball
Bowl Preview
High School Ref
Environment
Design
Point After

End of the Slide?

The offensive line carries the latest national-title hopes of perennial bowl loser Nebraska

They roll through the doors like two trucks rearing on their hind wheels, side by side, huge heads swiveling, eyes blank. People make room. Who is bigger than Zach Wiegert or Rob Zatechka, anywhere? Not many men consume so much space: 6'5" and at least 300 pounds apiece, giants in this land of cartoon characters, gliding easily into a Disney World hotel. Mouths drop. Mom and Pop and Junior and Sis, jaded by a day's worth of Mickey Mouse and Epcot, whisper "Oh, my" as they move into view.

This is an article from the Dec. 26, 1994 issue Original Layout

No one can quite place them, nor is there reason that anyone should. It's the night of the big-college football awards show: Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter is in the lobby, Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam just blew through, the ESPN boys lurk—famous faces colliding. The big guys? No one asks for autographs. "We're Nebraska," Wiegert says with a smirk. "We're supposed to be losers."

Yet this is fact: On New Year's night No. 1 Nebraska, with Wiegert and Zatechka at offensive tackle, will be playing third-ranked Miami in hopes of securing the national title, and they are part of the biggest reason why. It has been a season of bizarre injuries and national scorn for the Cornhuskers, but the offensive line—Outland Trophy winner Wiegert, the brainy Zatechka, center Aaron Graham, All-America guard Brenden Stai and former walk-on Joel Wilks—has carried them to a 12-0 record and the inside track to a championship Nebraska last won in 1971.

So back in Lincoln, anyway, these guys are celebrities. More than any other line in memory, this one has been the object of the fans' affection; witness the volume of interview requests and invitations to speak. This season Memorial Stadium has been a place where—even as running back Lawrence Phillips rushed for 1,722 yards and backup quarterback Brook Berringer piloted the offense supremely—you heard fans saying, "Now watch how Zach pulls on this play." Linemen? Usually they're lucky if the quarterback buys them steaks or mentions his "great protection" to the press. "I don't think people give Brook, Lawrence and [fullback] Cory Schlesinger and our wide receivers the credit they deserve," Zatechka says straight-faced, prompting Wiegert to nearly spit up his sandwich.

"That's a first, isn't it?" Wiegert says laughing.

It is. No other offensive line in college football history has so overshadowed—figuratively, anyway—such a successful backfield, and rightfully so. The Cornhuskers started three different quarterbacks this season, and it never mattered which one was taking the snaps. The team still led the nation in rushing, with 340 yards per game, still blew open holes when everyone knew it had no choice but to run. "If it's fourth-and-91, we'll go for it," Graham muttered in the huddle during the 17-6 win over then No. 16 Kansas State on Oct. 15. "Big deal. We'll get it."

And every week, they got it. On Oct. 29 Nebraska mowed through No. 2 Colorado like wheat waiting to be cut. "They found a way to make us look like idiots," said Colorado defensive tackle Darius Holland after Nebraska's 24-7 win in Lincoln. "They are a great offensive line. They came off the ball, and they didn't position-block us—they blew us off the ball. They did at will whatever they wanted to."

Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne didn't want this game. His teams have gone to the Orange Bowl four times since his 1983 team lost to the Hurricanes 31-30, and each bowl day has left him a whipping boy; Miami romped twice, in '89 and '92, then Florida State beat the Cornhuskers back-to-back the past two years, including an 18-16 squeaker to win its first national championship last January. Osborne has a point, of course, when he says Miami and Florida State have a home field advantage in the Orange Bowl. But his open complaining has made it seem as if Nebraska can be intimidated—seven straight bowl losses in all don't help—and his comment on Dec. 12 about being "scared" of possibly unruly Hurricane fans only strengthens that perception. But luckily for Osborne, his players don't want to hear it. If they are to win a national title, what better way than to end 11 years of frustration against the most tormenting opponent of all?

"We were all rooting for Miami [to get to the Orange Bowl]," says Wiegert, who as a freshman played on the Nebraska team that was beaten there by Miami 22-0 in '92. "They say, 'You can't beat Miami in Miami, you can't beat any Florida team playing in the Orange Bowl, you can't win a bowl game, period.' This team has had a goal of winning a national championship since we've been here, and every year we've gotten closer and closer. The only way for us to be national champs and deserve it is to beat Miami in Miami. I wouldn't have it any other way."

But it isn't just noises from the past that make this the season's best bowl matchup. It isn't just the huge—and still echoing—holler that went up in Miami after Hurricane Ken Calhoun batted away Turner Gill's two-point conversion pass to clinch Miami's win in '84, or after Miami shut out the Huskers in '92 (the first time they had been blanked in 221 games), or after Byron Bennett's field goal sailed wide with one second left last season. It's a voice from the here and now, too, the one that begins in Warren Sapp's head whenever he faces a challenge. Miami's 6'3", 284-pound junior defensive tackle is the Lombardi Trophy winner and a probable top-five NFL pick should he decide to go pro; Sapp is so good, says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, he "ought to be illegal."

All season—just as Nebraska leaned on its offensive line—the Hurricanes have been saved by their superb defense, the heart of which is Sapp, who loves nothing more than blasting through great linemen and stopping a drive cold, who wants to face an offense that believes it can't be stopped, who lives now for New Year's night, when the nation's No. 1 line and No. 1 defense will battle for everything.

Come get some...the voice in his head says, but now Sapp is saying it out loud. He is crooking his index fingers, beckoning. He grins. "Come get some. Come get some. Come get some," he says.

"Look at you," Wiegert says. "You've got some big arms."

"I do have some arms, don't I?" Zatechka says.

This is how their conversations go, typical undergrad blabber—until you realize it is more self-mockery than anything else and that the blatantly insincere compliments usually flow one way. This is because Wiegert, a sure first-round pick in the NFL draft, a 300-pound man who can dunk a basketball with two hands or drain three-pointers if you would like, can do with ease what no amount of lifting or running or watching film can ever teach Zatechka. Wiegert is a natural.

Zatechka is a natural too, but of a different kind: He graduated last May with a 4.0 grade point average in biological sciences and is applying to medical school. He rarely studied outside class; he attributes his grades to the fact that he found a field he liked. Just for the heck of it, he studied endocrinology this semester. Last month Zatechka withdrew his much-publicized application for a Rhodes scholarship.

"You would've gotten it," Wiegert says. "Four-point-0 and playing football?"

"Hell, yeah, I'm so damn smart," Zatechka says, except no amount of false cockiness can hide the fact that it's true. He decided against applying for the Rhodes not only because he wants to marry his girlfriend, Jennifer Putensen, and the Rhodes doesn't accept married candidates, but also mostly because the Rhodes won't let anyone defer the scholarship for a year or two. And Zatechka is more immediately intrigued by the next level of brawn than brains.

"I'm not some stellar candidate for pro football..." Zatechka says.

"You're there," Wiegert says, thumbing through a menu. "You're in the zone, baby."

"...but I've got some chance for someone to pick me, maybe a late-rounder, maybe a free agent, something like that."

Give Zatechka the choice between acing a test and laying out a perfect block, and it is no contest. "Football," he says, "because for me that's come harder. If I put the same amount of effort [into football] that I put into school, I'd be riding the bench right now. I put a ton of effort into football. I'm a good player, but I'm not a great football player. I'm going to blow smoke up Zach's butt: Zach's a great player. Brenden Stai's a great player. I'm not on their level. My feet aren't that quick. I don't have the instinct to run downfield and, boom, turn and whack some guy when I should."

Wiegert knows when to whack. Zatechka struggled in the final game, against Oklahoma, and the left side of the line gave up two sacks (all season the entire line surrendered just six sacks and was called for only four holding penalties). Ask Wiegert how many sacks he has given up in four years and he laughs. "I haven't given up a sack—ever," he says. "Well, there was one last year, but the quarterback just ran into my guy...."

"I have no lateral movement," Zatechka says.

"I run as fast sideways and backwards as I can forward," Wiegert says. "I don't lose a step with pads on, either."

Wiegert says he has never been more focused on football than this season. He started the year in his best shape, and "I don't do stupid things anymore like I used to." The dumbest of those came in 1992, when Wiegert got into a brawl. "I beat up the Nebraska baseball team," he says. "Me and two other guys."

Wiegert had been home with friends, watching a video of wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, when a few of his teammates showed up torn and bruised. "The [baseball players] beat up some football players at a party," Wiegert says. "So we kind of went over to their house and showed them what was up. It wasn't a very smart thing to do. I wouldn't do it again."

Nebraska has had great individual blockers in center Dave Rimington (a first-round NFL draft pick in '83) and guard Dean Steinkuhler ('84), but Osborne and line coach Milt Tenopir agree that this is the most balanced line they've ever coached. And they've needed it: Junior quarterback Tommie Frazier left the team early in the fourth game because of a blood clot in his right leg, then Berringer suffered a partially collapsed lung in his first start. Berringer came back the next week against Oklahoma State, but X-rays taken at halftime showed his lung had sagged again. That left Nebraska with sophomore walk-on Matt Turman and backups consisting of a freshman with torn ligaments in his hand, a wingback, a split end and a former student manager. Osborne gathered the linemen together, told them there would be little passing, just running plays up the middle again and again and again. "Everybody on the line just looked at one another and said, 'It's on you,' " Zatechka says. "There was an understanding that the offense lived and died with what we did."

"What else could you want?" Wiegert says. "That's like a dream for a lineman."

Nebraska scored 23 points in the second half and won the game 32-3. The next week, against Kansas State, Turman started and a still-ailing Berringer finished. The offense was monochromatic—the classic three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack that Osborne has so often been criticized for running—but it worked. "The best thing is just standing behind them in the huddle, thinking, These guys are in front of me," says Schlesinger.

To a man, the Huskers believe they outplayed Florida State in the national title game last January. They claim their days of being spooked by the Orange Bowl and the Hurricanes are over. Sapp will be the responsibility mainly of Wilks and Zatechka, but there could come a series, a play, an instant when Sapp lines up opposite Wiegert—Lombardi winner versus Outland winner, a dream matchup within a dream matchup. "I'd love it," Wiegert says. As for the crowd and history and the Hurricanes' in-your-face ways, he laughs.

"If they want to do it, let 'em," he says. "They talk trash, I'll talk it right back. I ain't scared. They always think, The white boys come down from Nebraska, we're going to intimidate 'em, talk smack. I guarantee we won't be intimidated by that. They can do their thing, we'll do ours—and we'll see who wins."

Leaving the Fiesta Bowl last Jan. 1, humiliated after Miami's 29-0 lashing by Arizona, Sapp decided this: "I'd never feel that way again. If you didn't feel bad walking off the field with 72,000 watching you just get kicked.... Well, I just promised myself that I'd never feel that way again."

He hasn't. And if '94 wasn't the dominant season Miami always strives for—the 10-1 Hurricanes lost to Washington at home, struggled with lowly Pitt at home and didn't crack the Top 10 in any major offensive category—that isn't Sapp's problem. He led the team with 10.5 sacks and was fourth in tackles despite nearly constant double-teaming. Only Rutgers made noise about trying to handle him one-on-one (or so it was reported to Sapp before the game), and when Sapp heard that, he blurted, "Are you kidding me?" His teammates rode him about what the Rutgers guard would do to him, and Sapp stewed. "Oh, man," he says. "He issued a challenge to me. I had to accept." His performance netted him Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors. Eight weeks later, after the Miami offense turned the ball over against Boston College, Sapp yapped on the sidelines, "Don't worry. We'll get it back for you"—and no one doubted him.

Just ask him about Nebraska's potent offensive line, and Sapp snaps, "What are we? Puppies?"

Hardly. Keyed by safety C.J. Richardson, linebacker Ray Lewis and the rest of the front line, Miami has limited opponents to 10.8 points per game—a number that shrank steadily toward the end of the season. Since Oct. 8, when Sapp led the 34-20 dismantling of Florida State with seven tackles, two sacks and two passes batted away, the Miami defense has been virtually impenetrable, allowing an average of eight points and limiting opponents to just 14 third-down conversions in 77 tries. While the Miami offense muddled through inconsistently, the defense proved it was made of the same stuff that built the Hurricane dynasty. On one side of the ball, Sapp is proud to say, nothing has changed. "It doesn't matter who we're playing," he says, "we're going to come out and play defense. That's just it. They can come out five-wide, whatever they want to do. Just bring it on."

Abruptly he asks, "How would you attack our defense?"—knowing there is no good answer. Miami's starters on defense average 4.64 in the 40-yard dash and specialize in running down anyone who gets past Sapp & Co. up front. The best response to Sapp: If Nebraska can somehow forget where it's playing, blow Miami off the line and control the clock with the run, the national title heads west. Sapp's grin goes wider; he loves the idea. It makes Nebraska's offensive line pivotal. It puts everything on him.

"If ifs and buts were candy and nuts," he says, "every day would be Christmas, wouldn't it?"

PHOTOBILL FRAKESBlockers (clockwise from top left) Graham, Stai, Zatechka, Wiegert and Wilks are the main reason the Huskers went 12-0.PHOTOBILL FRAKESStai (bench-pressing) and his mates lifted Nebraska when injuries hit the quarterbacks.PHOTOBILL FRAKESA steady diet of Husker running plays was too much for Colorado to swallow in an October rout.PHOTOPHIL HUBERTo get to Phillips (1), the Sooners first had to get past Zatechka.PHOTOBILL FRAKESZatechka (with Putensen) has a goal that's crystal clear.PHOTOPHIL HUBERAfter suffering a collapsed lung, Berringer needed all the protection he could get.PHOTOBILL FRAKESLombardi winner Sapp leads a Miami defense that's prepared to butt heads with the Husker line.