On the warm afternoon of Labor Day, five days before Nebraska would open its football season with a 55-14 pasting of Michigan State, Cornhuskers junior defensive end Grant Wistrom paused as he left the practice field in Lincoln and pondered the ribbon of greatness that stretched back over two years. His eyes grew wide with wonder. "I've never played in a loss," Wistrom said. "I've never been on the field when we lost a game." He let the thought die and slowly shook his head at the improbability of such a run. The Nebraska winning streak, which included back-to-back national titles, had reached 26 when the Huskers arrived in Tempe last Saturday for a game against Arizona State.
Like Mike Tyson in the ring, Michael Johnson in the 400 meters and NBC on Thursday night, Nebraska football was an unbeatable constant. Opposing coaches, struggling with scholarship limitations and galloping parity, regarded the Cornhuskers with awe. "As far as I can tell, everybody is in a big group trying to catch up to Nebraska," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said in mid-September.
Before last week's game, Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder recalled the Sun Devils' humiliating 77-28 defeat last year in Lincoln and said, "I could live with another loss to Nebraska. What I'm most concerned with is getting blown out again. It took us almost a month to get over that loss."
Big deal. It will probably take Snyder and the Sun Devils 10 years to recover from the events of last Saturday night, though they won't try too hard to erase the memory. Spurred on by the bitter memory of the 1995 loss, and inspired by the emotional halftime dedication of the Sun Devil Stadium field to former coach Frank Kush, Arizona State (3-0) not only beat the Huskers but also shut them out 19-0. Nebraska's shocking loss, consummated during the small hours of Sunday morning in much of the rest of the country and carried on TV by only a few cable systems, nonetheless rippled seismically across the landscape of college football.
The Cornhuskers squad that pounded Florida 62-24 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe was one of the best college football teams in history. With 14 starters back this season, including seven on the brilliant defense, Nebraska seemed poised to win an unprecedented third consecutive national championship. But last Saturday night the Huskers were outgained in total yards 401-226 and were nailed for three safeties. In retrospect perhaps the difficulties that Nebraska's secondary had with Michigan State on Sept. 7 should have been given greater attention. Last Saturday night, blown coverage by the Cornhuskers led to the game's only touchdown, a 25-yard pass from Sun Devils senior quarterback Jake Plummer to senior wideout Keith Poole. And it now seems naive to have assumed that the Huskers' offense wouldn't suffer after losing quarterback Tommie Frazier. His replacement, Stanford transfer and Nebraska native Scott Frost, had a dreadful night against the Sun Devils, with just six pass completions in 20 attempts and with a hand in all three safeties. "We knew a lot about their offense," Snyder said afterward. "The one thing we didn't know about was Scott Frost. Maybe he was the next Tommie Frazier. But we decided that we wanted to take away everybody else and see if Frost could beat us."
The beneficiaries of Nebraska's improbable loss stretch from Florida to California. "Unbelievable," junior All-Big Ten cornerback Shawn Springs of Ohio State aid on Sunday, a day after the Buckeyes ran their record to 2-0 by beating Pitt 72-0. "They lost. Now everything is up for grabs." It had been assumed that the road to the national title would end with the Cornhuskers playing some opponent in the Sugar Bowl. But with Nebraska (1-1) dislodged from the top spot in the rankings, the Rose Bowl, which matches the winners of the Big Ten and the Pac-10, is suddenly a possible site for a national-title game. (Would you believe Arizona State against Ohio State?) And various undefeated teams—No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Florida State, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 10 Miami and No. 18 Virginia Tech—find themselves fighting for two spots, not just one, in the Sugar Bowl, which will be the national-championship game if the Rose Bowl doesn't horn in on the action. Games such as this Saturday's between Notre Dame and Ohio State are suddenly more meaningful, and the air may yet thicken with controversy if the eventual Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl matchups preclude a true national-championship game.
The challengers for the title now must include Arizona State, which hasn't been to a bowl since the 1987 Freedom Bowl. It has 19 starters back from a team that went 6-5 a year ago, with three losses by a total of only eight points. There was much buzz about the Sun Devils in the preseason, yet few observers predicted that Arizona State's resurrection would begin with a win over Nebraska.
At the heart of the upset was Plummer. "I've got the best quarterback in the country," Snyder says of the four-year starter, who has toiled in the relative obscurity of the soft Pac-10. Plummer was sacked by Nebraska six times, but he completed 20 of 36 passes for 292 yards. He is not the only standout on the Sun Devils' roster. Poole and offensive left tackle Juan Roque were All-Pac-10 last season. Against Nebraska, defensive end Derrick Rodgers, a 24-year-old junior college transfer, had 10 tackles and a sack and dropped Frost for one of the safeties. Nebraska wasn't beaten by accident.
The postgame celebration in Sun Devil Stadium was loud and emotional. Arizona State fans flooded the field and pulled the goalposts to the turf. After this remarkable night they envision many more victories.
Snyder, unlike his fans, suddenly found reason to worry. "When confidence turns to arrogance, you lose that fear," he said after the game. "That's not good. I think a lot of guys on our team right now are saying, 'Damn, we're good.'