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End of the Slide?
S.L. Price
December 26, 1994
The offensive line carries the latest national-title hopes of perennial bowl loser Nebraska
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December 26, 1994

End Of The Slide?

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

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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.

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."

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