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Prime Cuts By chewing up defenses, Nebraska's offensive linemen have taken on a glamour all their own

Jan. 17, 1995
Jan. 17, 1995

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Jan. 17, 1995

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Prime Cuts By chewing up defenses, Nebraska's offensive linemen have taken on a glamour all their own

They roll through the doors like two trucks rearing on their hind
wheels, side by side, cinder block heads swiveling, eyes blank.
People make room. Who is bigger than Zach Wiegert and Rob Zatechka,
anywhere? Not many men consume so much space: 6 ft. 5 ft. ft. and at
least 300 pounds apiece, giants in this land of cartoon characters,
gliding easily into a Disney World hotel in Orlando. Mouths drop. Mom
and Pop and Junior and Sis, even jaded by a day's worth of Mickey
Mouse and Epcot, stop and whisper ''Oh, my'' as the men move into
view.
No one here 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 two big guys? No one asks for autographs. ''We're
Nebraska,'' Wiegert says with a smirk. ''We're supposed to be
losers.''

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 1995 issue

This was three weeks before the Orange Bowl, where the No.
1-ranked Cornhuskers would take on No. 3 Miami, and this was a fact:
Nebraska stood on the verge of a national title, and offensive
tackles Wiegert and Zatechka constituted a very big reason why. In a
season of bizarre injury and national scorn for the Huskers, the
offensive line -- Outland Trophy winner Wiegert, the brainy Zatechka,
center Aaron Graham, All-America guard Brenden Stai and former
walk-on guard Joel Wilks -- had carried them to a 12-0 record in the
regular season and the inside track to a championship Nebraska last
won in 1971.
So back in Lincoln, anyway, these guys were celebrities. More than
any other line in memory, this one has been the object of fans'
affection. All season Memorial Stadium was 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.
Not in Lincoln; not this year. ''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.
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 it was 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.''

''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'd 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 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 high grades to the fact that he found a field he
liked. Just for the heck of it, he studied endocrinology this
semester. This fall Zatechka withdrew his much-publicized application
for a Rhodes scholarship.
''You would've gotten it,'' Wiegert says. ''Four-point-oh and
playing football?''
''Hell, yeah, I'm so damn smart,'' says Zatechka, except no amount
of false cockiness can hide the fact that it's true. He decided
against applying for a 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 a year or two. And Zatechka is more immediately
intrigued by the next level of brawn rather 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
of the season, against Oklahoma, and the left side of the line gave
up two sacks (the entire line surrendered just six sacks all season).
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 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.''

In past seasons Nebraska has had great individual blockers in
center Dave Rimington (a first-round NFL draft pick in '83) and guard
Dean Steinkuhler ('84), but Tom Osborne and line coach Milt Tenopir
agree that this is the most balanced line they've ever coached. And
they've needed it: After replacing Tommie Frazier, Berringer suffered
a partially collapsed lung in his first start; the lung sagged again
the following week, against Oklahoma State, leaving the Cornhuskers
with walk-on Matt Turman and an unlikely collection of potential
backups. At halftime of the Cowboy game, Osborne gathered the
linemen, 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
recalls. ''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 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'' says
fullback Schlesinger, ''is standing behind them in the huddle,
thinking, These guys are in front of me.''

Osborne didn't want this Orange Bowl game. His teams had been to
the Orange Bowl four times since his 1983 team lost to the Hurricanes
31-30, and each bowl day had left him a whipping boy; Miami romped
twice, in '89 and '92, then Florida State beat the Cornhuskers the
past two years, including an 18-16 squeaker to win its first national
championship last January. Osborne had a point when he said Miami
and Florida State have a home field advantage in the Orange Bowl. But
his complaining made it seem as if Nebraska could be intimidated --
seven straight bowl losses in all didn't help -- and his comment on
Dec. 12 about being ''scared'' of possibly unruly Hurricane fans only
strengthened that perception. But luckily for Osborne, his players
didn't want to hear it. They knew there was no better way to end 11
years of frustration than by beating the most tormenting opponent of
all.
''We were all rooting for Miami ((to get to the Orange Bowl)),''
Wiegert said a few weeks before the showdown. ''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 been
together and had a goal of winning a national championship since
we've been here ((Weigart played as a freshman on the '91 Nebraska
team that was beaten in the Orange Bowl 22-0 by the Hurricanes)), 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.''