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 national championship.
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.
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.