He had focused, he had executed. He had spent an invigorating
evening mauling Tennessee. Finally, late in Nebraska's 31-21 win
over the Vols in last January's Fiesta Bowl, Russ Hochstein let
his mind wander. "While we were driving for our last touchdown,"
says Hochstein, the Cornhuskers' right guard, "I couldn't help
thinking that if we'd taken care of business earlier in the
season, if we'd done just a few more things right, we could have
been playing for the championship. That's what gets me excited
about this season. This season we're going to do those things
As he speaks, the 290-pound Hochstein wipes perspiration from his
forehead. On this warm July morning he has just finished lifting.
Four mornings a week, all summer long, at 7:30 sharp, the
offensive line met in the school's weight room to pump iron and
do some bonding. Gosh, says a visitor, doesn't that cut into your
barroom time? Hochstein laughs. "To each his own," he says. "We'd
rather sacrifice our time somewhere else--go to bed early, get up
early--so we can be in the weight room. We have a great
opportunity this season."
Such is the sense of mission emanating from Lincoln. The
Cornhuskers believe that if they take care of business, they will
improve on last season's 12-1 record. They will eliminate the
mistakes that resulted in a midseason 24-20 loss to Texas. An
offense that evolved into a juggernaut last season--the
Cornhuskers' final two touchdown drives against Tennessee went
for 96 and 99 yards--will see the return of dynamic quarterback
Eric Crouch and nine other starters. A defense that earned the
reputation as the sternest in school history retains seven
starters. This is not what you'd call a rebuilding year.
Third-year head coach Frank Solich allows that "the biggest key
is having the right people line up for you. And we've been able
to get the kind of players that we look for." In the guarded
argot of the Cornhuskers, that translates to "Watch out! We are
Certainly the offense constitutes an embarrassment of riches. The
only player on the roster capable of matching quarterback Crouch
for excitement is Bobby Newcombe, the guy whose job Crouch took.
He replaced Newcombe in the third game of the '99 season.
Newcombe returned to wingback, the position he had played in '97,
and made big plays all year.
Crouch will also look for junior tight end Tracey Wistrom (little
brother of former Huskers All-America and current St. Louis Rams
defensive end Grant) whose 26.8 yards per catch last fall set a
school record. A seasoned line will clear holes for Dan
Alexander, Correll Buckhalter and Dahrran Diedrick--three of the
seven I-backs the Cornhuskers have on scholarship.
Seven would seem like overkill at most schools. At Nebraska,
future I-backs must be carefully chosen and meticulously groomed.
One of the few preseason questions in Lincoln is whether juco
transfer Thunder Collins will get to make some noise. But at
I-back, the Huskers' trademark position, allowances are made for
injuries. At Nebraska, seven is just enough. At Nebraska, little
is left to chance.
That's why Solich is concerned about the defense. "We have a lot
of holes," he says. "We'll fill 'em with talent. But that talent
will be inexperienced."
The holes are deepest at both outside linebacker positions, at
which last year's first- and second-stringers are gone. It is
curious--or telling--that the guy who will be forced to babysit the
new starters is the guy who is least concerned. "These young guys
were flying around in spring ball," says middle linebacker Carlos
Polk. "Believe me, they are ready to play."
1999 record: 12-1 (7-1, T1 in Big 12 North)
Final ranking: No. 3 AP, No. 2 coaches' poll
Fumbles lost last fall by Nebraska, most in the nation. Team's
49 fumbles beat school-record 46 set in 1967.
5 Key Returnees
QB Eric Crouch Jr. Team-best 17 TDs (16 rush., 1 rec.)
WB Bobby Newcombe Sr. Ex-QB led team with 3 TD catches
LB Carlos Polk Sr. Had 61/2 sacks and 21 QB hurries
C Dominic Raiola Jr. All-Big 12 pick as a sophomore
G Russ Hochstein Sr. 15 pancakes in Big 12 title game
An opposing team's coach sizes up The Huskers
"I can't emphasize enough how unique their defense is. They're
dying for you to line up in the I and hand off to the tailback.
They roll Polk up almost as a lineman, the safeties are also
down low, and the corners play bump-and-run. You have to spread
out the defense. Line up with a tight end, two wideouts and two
backs and you're not going to get much done....The defensive
line is terrific. Kyle Vanden Bosch is a big, rough guy who'll
bull-rush you if you're soft, and he's extremely fast up the
field. The nosetackle, Jason Lohr, is another one of those
cock-strong guys who just knocks you backward....I like
[cornerback] Keyuo Craver, whose cover ability is tremendous. He
can change direction and has great make-up speed. The cornerback
you have to go after is the other guy, Erwin Swinney....Their
biggest liability is outside linebacker. They lost four good
ones. The best matchups against them will be in the controlled
passing game. Throw crossing routes underneath and isolate the
linebackers in coverage.... Crouch is as tough a quarterback as
I've seen. He's got all the qualities of Tommie Frazier, but
he's stronger than Frazier."
Strength: 52nd of 115
Sept. 2 SAN JOSE STATE
9 at Notre Dame
Oct. 7 at Iowa State
14 at Texas Tech
28 at Oklahoma
Nov. 4 KANSAS
11 at Kansas State
"TELLING NUMBER" COMPILED BY DAVID SABINO