The Nebraska machinery cranked along with a familiar hum last Saturday. Memorial Stadium was stuffed and swathed in red, the score was lopsided, and a vague discomfort hung in the late-summer heat, the residue of indiscretions past and present that continue to shadow the Cornhuskers' towering accomplishments. Think of it all as business as usual in the rarefied air that Nebraska breathes, where the Huskers fight their image and chase history all at once.
In the minutes before the kickoff of Nebraska's season-opening 55-14 starching of Michigan State, Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne urged his players to embrace a possibility—an unprecedented third consecutive national championship—that would customarily send a coach searching for new ways to say, "One game at a time." He stood among the Huskers in their locker room and said, "Not many teams have ever had the opportunity that you have this season. As soon as you forget about that opportunity, you slip back. So let's go get it."
Nebraska players are surrounded by reminders of their back-to-back titles (shirts, posters, stadium banners, bumper stickers), and highlights of their epic 62-24 thrashing of Florida in last January's Fiesta Bowl, which clinched national crown number two, ran incessantly on stadium scoreboards during timeouts in Saturday's game. It's difficult for the Huskers to ignore what's within their grasp. "It's all we talk about around here, and it's all we hear," senior strong safety Mike Minter said after the victory over the Spartans. "Just three-peat. We talk about it every day. Every day."
During the summer THREE-PEAT was even flashed on the stadium scoreboard during voluntary workouts. "We're looking at the season as a staircase," says junior defensive end Grant Wistrom, who intercepted a Michigan State pass and ran it back nine yards for a touchdown. "We keep winning, we keep moving up. At the top is the third national title."
There were many elements of last Saturday's win that showed that number three is certainly attainable. Nebraska's defense forced four turnovers, ran back two interceptions for touchdowns (Wistrom's plus Minter's, from 84 yards out), blocked a punt and limited Michigan State to 83 yards on 49 rushing attempts. "That defense is as good as any I've ever seen," said Spartans coach Nick Saban. Teams looking for hope against the Huskers can take solace in the fact that Michigan State's defense twice forced Nebraska to kick field goals after drives stalled inside the 20, that the Cornhuskers' cornerbacks occasionally seemed vulnerable, allowing sophomore Gus Ornstein to complete 11 of 18 passes for 133 yards, and that quarterback Tommie Frazier and running back Lawrence Phillips are gone.
Also, one disturbing element of last season has resurfaced: a Husker's appearance on a police blotter. At 1:18 a.m. on Aug. 30, senior Terrell Farley, one of the best outside linebackers in the country, was ticketed by Lincoln police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. The incident was doubly damaging because it revived the Cornhuskers-as-renegades issue that had largely been stilled by an arrest-free spring and summer, and it also sliced deeply into the team's unity that was established last September when the players vowed to abstain from drinking alcohol. They renewed that vow in summer camp. "He broke team rules," said senior I-back Damon Benning last week. "That was the most upsetting thing about it." Osborne said, "The deal with Farley was a real disappointment. A lot of time went into explaining how people had to behave this year. The players saw what last year's problems did to the team and to the individuals involved."
Farley was suspended indefinitely. Team rules call for a two-game suspension for drinking, but Osborne said last week that Farley's suspension could last the entire season. "I don't want to put him back on the field if he has a problem with alcohol, until he shows that he can control himself," Osborne said. What may make Osborne's critics skeptical is that Osborne said he would investigate Farley's situation to determine the appropriate length of suspension. Osborne took a similar approach last fall in dealing with Phillips, and that "investigation" continued to haunt him even last week.
On Aug. 16 Kate McEwen, the Nebraska student whom Phillips assaulted in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 1995, filed a civil suit against Phillips. That suit was unsealed on Sept. 3, the Tuesday before the game against Michigan State. In it McEwen asks unspecified damages from Phillips for a variety of charges, including sexual assault, battery, kidnapping and false imprisonment, in addition to the misdemeanor assault charge to which Phillips pleaded no contest. Even though Phillips, who had a year of eligibility remaining, has left Nebraska (he was the sixth player taken in April's NFL draft and signed a three-year, $5.6 million contract with the St. Louis Rams), the suit places Osborne back in the harsh light of public debate, where he spent much of last autumn. After the attack on McEwen, Osborne suspended Phillips for six games but then reinstated him for the final three regular-season games and the Fiesta Bowl, in which Phillips was sensational, rushing for 165 yards on 25 carries and scoring three touchdowns. If McEwen's new allegations are upheld in court, there will be little doubt that Osborne was too lenient with Phillips. And if Osborne didn't know about the additional incidents—he said last week that he had no knowledge of the sexual assault, and McEwen says in her suit that she did not tell Osborne about it—then, perforce, his self-investigation of the Phillips affair was incomplete.
For now, Farley's and Phillips's names will hang over a Nebraska team that had desperately hoped for a trouble-free autumn. "Last year we won a national championship, and it got overshadowed by everything else," says Huskers senior defensive end Jared Tomich. "We really wanted it to be different this time."
There is a tone of resignation in Wistrom's voice when he recites the tired we've-just-got-to-worry-about-our-games speech from a year ago and says of the Farley incident, "Face it, with 180 guys around, if this is the worst thing that happens this year, I'll be pretty happy."