Big Red Alert
Iowa State's dismantling of Nebraska exposed the precipitous decline in the Cornhuskers' level of talent
Even as Iowa State's players and coaches celebrated their 36-14 rout of visiting Nebraska last Saturday, they expressed bewilderment at the one-sidedness of the game. "That was really weird," Cyclones running backs coach Tony Alford said after the game. "Going in, we didn't think we could run for 192 yards against that team." Iowa State senior quarterback Seneca Wallace, who needed little of his trademark flash to take advantage of the Cornhuskers' shoddy defense for 270 total yards and three touchdowns, said, "For us to come in here and beat them and dominate in all areas, it's still surprising."
Surprising doesn't begin to describe the shift in power that has taken place in the Big 12 North. Think of a guard dog suddenly being attacked by its chew toy. After beating a team that had crushed them the last seven seasons by an average score of 55-15, the Cyclones (5-1, 2-0 in the Big 12 North) rose from No. 19 to 15 in the AP poll. Nebraska fell to 3-2, 0-1 in the conference and dropped out of the poll for the first time since Oct. 4, 1981 (a span of 348 consecutive rankings).
The Cornhuskers, who'd had two weeks to fix the problems exposed on both sides of the ball in their 40-7 loss at Penn State, committed five turnovers and 10 penalties. Their renowned ground game picked up 81 yards in a performance that coach Frank Solich called inept. "We did not play well," said Solich, his face drawn tighter than a size-16 collar on a 17 neck. "Well either splinter apart or we'll come together. There's no middle ground."
After producing four All-Americas in the defensive front seven from 1993 through '97, Nebraska didn't have one in the past four seasons. In fact the vaunted Blackshirts defense hasn't been as fearsome since longtime defensive coordinator Charlie McBride retired after the 1999 season. The drop-off in talent has been equally dramatic on offense. Freshman tackle Richie Incognito is considered one of the two best blockers in a program with a tradition that no offensive lineman is good enough to play until his third season.
Nebraska's most glaring problem may be at quarterback, where junior Jammal Lord has struggled to replace Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch. Lord is the Huskers' leading rusher, but defenses don't respect his arm; Lord has completed only 48.5% of his passes and thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (four). "At times Jammal can take his ability and make something work," Solich said. "When you play a good football team, he has got to be more than that." In other words, Lord isn't skilled enough to freelance.
For the past three decades Nebraska has dominated with a formula that combined speed from the Sunbelt with local-grown talent. It's too early to predict whether Solich will make staff changes after the season to get the defense and recruiting back on track. But judging from the Huskers' last two games, he may have to do something.
Is N.C. State for Real?
Unbeaten, But Untested
North Carolina State may be the only 6-0 team in the nation, but if its No. 16 ranking is any indication, few people outside the Atlantic Coast Conference, or even outside Raleigh, think the Wolfpack is as good as its record. "We're still trying to erase the doubts of people who consider us a shaky team," senior safety Terrence Holt says. "We know it would be tough to play for the national championship if we lost a game. We haven't earned that respect yet."
N.C. State won't elevate its stature by beating up on Division I-AA teams, as it did in a 34-0 rout of East Tennessee State on Aug. 31 and a 56-24 drubbing of Massachusetts last Saturday. Of the Wolfpack's four I-A opponents to date, only Texas Tech (3-2) has a winning record, and N.C. State needed overtime to win at Lubbock 51-48 on Sept. 21.