The Colorado student body, somehow riotous even in that gray, soul-deadening weather only the Midwestern plains can produce, delivered its unkindest slur in the waning seconds of Colorado's 27-12 victory over Nebraska last Saturday. The mocking chant floated down on the Cornhuskers like the freezing rain: "We don't live in Lincoln, we don't live in Lincoln...."
It's not such a bad town, really, except for the wind that can blow a hole through the middle of you. Lincoln has its own charm if you know where to look for it, old-fashioned five-and-dime streets where the Back to the Bible radio station is neighbor to a cocktail lounge. Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph, a junior from New Orleans with a whiplash body, a lively personality and an accent entirely out of place in Lincoln, explained his unlikely presence, running the Cornhuskers' offense, like this: "You come to Nebraska, you feel that if something goes bad in the morning, it might just pick up in the afternoon."
The Buffaloes must have felt that too, as they trailed 12-0 through three quarters of play—fumbling six times and losing three, shanking punts and being generally "our own biggest enemy," according to coach Bill McCartney—only to slap Nebraska facedown in the rain puddles of its own Memorial Stadium in the final quarter.
Things picked up at last for Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy, who finally held on to the football after three mortifying, costly fumbles to score four touchdowns, all in the fourth period. "I tried everything," Bieniemy said of his attempts to keep a grip on the ball. "I tried gloves, I tried spit." Things also picked up for Buffalo receiver Mike Pritchard, who dropped two passes in the first half but returned to make three catches for 90 yards and set up a pair of Bieniemy's touchdowns. Most significantly, things picked up for Colorado's defense, which held Nebraska to minus-4 yards and not a single first down in that final quarter.
The Cornhuskers, ranked No. 3 in the country before the game, straggled away from those last dreadful 15 minutes aghast and exposed. Let's put it this way: They had a one-game schedule, and they're 0-1. After predictably hammering a pushover list of early-season opponents, and after No. 1 Virginia's 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech last Saturday, Nebraska had a chance to be one of the few undefeated teams of consequence in the country. The Cornhuskers needed only to hang on to their painstakingly built lead over ninth-ranked Colorado to virtually assure themselves a Big Eight title and a place in the Orange Bowl. Instead, that place will almost certainly go to the Buffaloes, now 9-1-1, and 5-0 in the Big Eight.
"It means we can get out of this cold," Pritchard said, "and maybe into a national championship game."
There was a sullen cast to the contest that didn't just come from the chill weather, so impenetrably dreary that the stadium lights had to be turned on in midafternoon. It also derived from growing tensions between a perennial, if stale, favorite and a menacing usurper. The Buffaloes, by winning in Lincoln for the first time since 1967, had incontrovertibly arrived. They held the Cornhuskers to season lows in first downs (nine), rushing yards (163) and total offense (232).
This state of affairs moved normally immovable Nebraska coach Tom Osborne to attempt a nonsensical fake punt at his own 28 with about 6:45 to go and the Cornhuskers trailing only 13-12. The play's failure cost Nebraska any hope of winning. "They started to overwhelm us," Nebraska defensive tackle Kenny Walker said.
There were signs of residual ugliness from last year's contest, a 27-21 victory for the Buffaloes in Boulder as they rode a swell of emotion following the death from cancer of quarterback Sal Aunese. At the time, the Buffaloes had been enraged at remarks by Cornhusker linebacker Jeff Mills, who implied that Colorado was using the tragedy to its advantage. This year, motorists from Colorado were treated to this tasteless piece of graffiti painted across two lanes of Interstate 80 just beyond the state line: SAL IS DEAD. GO BIG RED.
If last year's team was touched with eeriness, there is nothing supernatural about this Colorado team. The Buffaloes have ably negotiated a demanding schedule marred only by a 31-31 tie with Tennessee and a 23-22 loss to Illinois. Even if you chose to debate their notorious fifth-down, 33-31 victory over Missouri on Oct. 6, there's no arguing with their defeats of Texas, Washington and Oklahoma. The Buffaloes' fourth-quarter surge against Nebraska was the work of a pressure-toughened team: Colorado has trailed in nine of its 10 games.