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The first half of Nebraska's game with Washington last Saturday evening was history, and it had been all Cornhuskers. The Huskers led 14-6, but few among the faithful at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln took comfort in that narrow lead. "This one is far from over," said one weatherbeaten, redblazered Nebraska booster to another.
"We'll get the wind in the fourth quarter," replied his friend hopefully.
"Don't matter. Wind dies down after sunset."
"Well, win or lose," said the less pessimistic of the pair, "at least we won't be embarrassed."
Regardless of whether that fan later retracted his remark—Washington dominated the second half and won 36-21—he had put a gnarled finger on what has become the Cornhuskers' most urgent quest: saving face. Once-mighty Nebraska can't seem to beat anyone its own size. Coach Tom Osborne's teams are now winless in their last six meetings with ranked opponents and 0-4 in their last four bowls. The Huskers went into last Saturday's game starved for respect.
However, Washington, which arrived in Lincoln ranked fourth, was not about to look past ninth-ranked Nebraska. Lack of respect for an opponent was the Huskies' undoing last fall, when they missed out on the national championship by one game—an inexplicable 25-22 loss to UCLA. Said Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman, "The title was within our grasp, but we didn't give the Bruins the respect they deserved. We've vowed that won't happen again."
In the first half on Saturday, the Huskies were plagued not by complacency but by bonehead mistakes, including three holding penalties, each of which nullified a first down. On its first possession after intermission, Washington made the score 14-9 on Travis Hanson's 43-yard field goal, but it fell further behind midway through the third quarter after Beno Bryant dropped a punt that the Huskers recovered on the Huskies' two-yard line. One play later Nebraska led 21-9. That, however, would be the last time the Huskers threatened.
Immediately following Bryant's blunder, Washington quarterback Billy Joe Hobert took the struggling offense by the scruff of its neck and led it 76 yards to a touchdown. The drive showcased Hobert's arm as well as his resilience. When his apparent 33-yard scoring pass to flanker Orlando McKay was nullified by yet another holding penalty, he shook off the setback and, facing fourth-and-eight, threw a 15-yard strike to McKay. On the next snap Bryant, the Huskies' tailback, found the end zone, and a measure of redemption, on a 15-yard draw.
Hobert, a sophomore, had expected to spend this season holding a clipboard. But last April, on the 10th day of Washington's spring practice, first-string quarterback Mark Brunei! went down with a severe injury to his right knee. The prognosis: out for the season. (Though Brunell practiced with the Huskies last week for the first time since the injury, he is not expected to play anytime soon.) "It was like a funeral," says Washington coach Don James. "I could have cried."
Instead, James gathered his players and told them they could win just as many games behind Hobert. Thirteen months ago Hobert, a gregarious fellow, married Heather Lewis, his high school sweetheart from Puyallup, Wash. "I'm a family guy," he says, "and I was never much good at chasing women."