It came as no surprise that in the hours after Nebraska's 17-12
victory over Colorado last Friday, the Cornhuskers took time to
count their blessings. Friday was, after all, the day after
Thanksgiving, and after feasting on the Buffaloes during a
driving sleet storm in Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, many of the
Huskers were headed home to eat the bird, an event postponed by
coach Tom Osborne's orders on account of the game. Thanks to the
win over Colorado--and Ohio's State's loss to Michigan six days
earlier--Nebraska was a big step closer to fulfilling its once
improbable hopes of winning an unprecedented third consecutive
During postgame interviews with reporters, many of the Huskers
offered thanks to Osborne and their Maker--often in that order.
No surprise there, but it was shocking to hear equal amounts of
gratitude directed toward the Devils. Those would be the Arizona
State Sun Devils, whose stunning 19-0 upset of Nebraska on Sept.
21 has defined the Cornhuskers' season. On this evening of
reflection, the Nebraska players spoke of how that defeat had
forged team unity and provided the backdrop for their victory
over Colorado. "After Arizona State we were on the outside
looking in," said senior safety Eric Stokes. "We had lost that
aura we built during our 26-game streak [which ended with the
defeat by Arizona State], and to some degree we had lost our
confidence. We needed to beat Colorado to prove some things to
ourselves, and to prove some things to the other teams out there."
By gutting out a win on Friday, in their most important game
since the loss to the Sun Devils, the Cornhuskers proved they
are back. But this Nebraska team should not be confused with the
Big Red Machine that lorded over college football in '94 and
'95. These Huskers are more vulnerable, particularly offensively.
"To some degree Arizona State provided a blueprint on how to
stop Nebraska," said Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel on the Monday
before the game, and the Buffaloes' fast and nasty defense
followed the plan well. After halftime Colorado moved its
cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage to take away the
Huskers' option running game, and the move so flummoxed Nebraska
that its offense nearly ground to a halt. Throw out the
first-quarter touchdown that the Cornhuskers' defense scored on
an interception, and Nebraska put just 10 points on the board,
none in the second half.
December 9, 1996
To be sure, the weather was a factor. "A miserable, miserable
day to play offensive football," said Osborne after the game.
But that's an excuse, not an explanation. The Huskers had five
fumbles (to the Buffaloes' zero) and were flagged for 11
penalties, seven of them committed by their offense.
The offensive struggles reflected poor execution and a decline
in the quality of Nebraska's personnel. This year's Huskers
offensive line is not made up of the earthmoving run-blockers of
recent vintage. And the backfield, while talented, has been
beset by injuries. Sophomore I-back Ahman Green, a Heisman
candidate coming into the season, has been slowed since the
fourth game by a turf toe on his left foot and had only three
carries on Friday before retiring to the bench. Green's backup,
senior Damon Benning, left the game after his second carry, with
a sprained ankle. Freshman DeAngelo Evans came on to rush for
123 yards on 25 carries and the decisive touchdown.
Nebraska's signal-caller is junior Scott Frost, the former
Stanford safety and backup quarterback who has gotten steadily
better at running the Cornhuskers' offense. Colorado, however,
exposed him as no team had since Arizona State. Frost has a
funky throwing motion, and the Buffaloes' heavy rush--along with
the wind and rain--wreaked havoc on his passes. He completed
only six of 14 for 56 yards, most times either wafting
Frisbee-like floaters or firing ankle-scarring one-hoppers. "We
want to put the doubt back in his mind," Colorado senior
linebacker Matt Russell had said four days before the game,
citing the Buffaloes' primary defensive goal. "We want to
rekindle all those bad memories of Arizona State." Against the
Sun Devils, Frost completed only six of 20 passes and had a hand
in three safeties. Still splayed in the end zone after the last
of them, he chucked the ball against the goalpost in
frustration, prompting one Nebraska newspaperman to later call
it Frost's best throw of the evening.
Frost kept his composure against the Buffaloes and did just
enough things right to squeeze out a victory. His poise was
evident on the second-quarter drive that put the Huskers ahead
17-6. On an option sweep he was nearly decleated by Colorado's
Ryan Black, but he hugged the ball until the last possible
instant before pitching it to Evans, thus springing him loose
for a 40-yard rumble. Two plays later Frost audibled at the
line, and Evans breezed in for a seven-yard TD.
Frost also performed superbly on Nebraska's final possession,
during which he carried the ball four times to help run down the
last two minutes and 53 seconds on the clock. "It was ugly out
there at times," he said afterward. "But in a ball game like
this, all that matters is making a few crucial plays when you
need them, and it was satisfying to have done that."
The Cornhuskers can afford a little drop-off on offense from
years past, because their defense has emerged as one of the
finest in the nation. It has even drawn comparisons with
Nebraska's formidable 1971 unit, which led the Huskers to
victory over Oklahoma in the Game of the Century and to a
national championship. Last Friday the defense pulled off one of
the game's most important plays midway through the first
quarter: Colorado had opened with a pair of field goals on its
first two drives and had just reclaimed possession following a
Cornhuskers punt. On first down Nebraska sophomore linebacker
Jay Foreman snatched a tipped pass out of the air and waltzed 21
yards untouched for the touchdown. The Buffaloes, despite having
dominated the quarter, trailed 7-6 when it was over, and they
never reclaimed the lead.
Nebraska's hallmark on defense is its jailbreak pass rush. With
Colorado unable to run between the tackles, the Huskers were
free to put Buffaloes quarterback Koy Detmer in their
crosshairs. They harassed him into a 12-for-38 day, intercepted
two of his passes and gave him such a pounding that by the end
of the game he was seeing more spots than Cruella De Vil. "They
never let up," Detmer said.
Nebraska's throttling of Colorado's high-octane offense was all
the more impressive because the Huskers were playing without
All-America linebacker Terrell Farley, who was booted off the
team again in the wake of his second drunken driving arrest this
year. His replacement, senior Mike Minter, a 190-pound safety,
made a smooth transition to linebacker, coming up with four
tackles and providing a suffocating presence when the Buffaloes
tried to throw underneath to negate the rush. "Nebraska is
Nebraska," says Neuheisel. "The numbers change, but the bodies
stay the same."
Actually, Nebraska isn't quite Nebraska, and that's what's
interesting about this team. The Cornhuskers were so
overpowering for the last two years that their success was
almost anticlimactic. There has been something rather
pleasurable about watching them sweat it out this season.
"Since Arizona State, we don't take anything for granted,"
senior defensive end Jared Tomich said last Friday evening.
"That game was a wake-up call about just what it takes to be a
championship team. Losing that game hurt all of us, but really I
think it's turned out to be some kind of blessing."