It was like watching a splendid, sleek animal escape the jaws of a trap by gnawing off its own leg. Second-ranked Nebraska, with its starting quarterback lost for the season and neither of the two reserves capable of running the option attack, threw out the most-worn pages of its playbook against unbeaten Kansas State and went instead with the only strategy that might work: guileless runs behind a bruising, churning line that averages 295 pounds a man.
The result—a rainy, gloomy, penalty-filled 17-6 Cornhusker victory—left a damp crowd at K-State's Wagner Field wondering if it had witnessed greatness in the face of adversity or something less grand—luck, maybe. "They're beatable," Wildcat quarterback Chad May said of the Huskers after the game. "A great team doesn't make many mistakes, executes every play and is solid at every position. I don't think they're a great team."
Sour grapes aside, it was hard to argue with May's logic, and the pollsters agreed by dropping Nebraska to No. 3 on Sunday. With their star quarterback Tommie Frazier out for the season following surgery for blood clots in his right leg, the Cornhuskers scarcely resembled the behemoth that had averaged 44 points in their first six games. Last Saturday's starter, 165-pound sophomore Matt Turman, was pressed into service to buy time for Frazier's true backup, junior Brook Berringer, whose left lung partially collapsed in each of the previous two weeks, against Wyoming and Oklahoma State.
Turman's job, it quickly became apparent, was to take snaps and deliver the ball without delay to I-back Lawrence Phillips, the nation's third-leading rusher, who gained 117 yards in 31 carries. So foreseeable was each Phillips carry that it might have been announced with a fanfare of trumpets, but he gamely provided the Cornhuskers with a 7-0 first-quarter lead by carrying the ball on every play of a six-play, 28-yard drive. "Coach thought they might be susceptible to smash-mouth football." Turman said afterward.
Unable to present so much as a threat to pass, however, Nebraska sputtered on its next four possessions, and Berringer took over with the Huskers ahead 7-6 and time running out in the first half. Berringer's mandate, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne conceded later, was to look like he might run with the ball or pass it; his actual task was to move the offense without suffering a lung-deflating hit like those that had him in for X-rays as recently as last Friday morning. "They knew, when Turman was in there, we weren't going to throw much," said Osborne, "and when Berringer was in there, we weren't going to run the option much."
That left the success of the offense in the hands of the grunts. Combined, the two Cornhusker quarterbacks completed just 4 of 11 passes for 52 yards as K-State held the Nebraska offense to 262 yards, its lowest total of the season.
But it was K-State's May who was hanging his head at game's end. This Big Eight matchup was May's big chance to gain the attention he feels is his due for leading futility U—Kansas State went 1-31-1 from 1987 to '89—to football respectability. Last year, in Lincoln, he embarrassed the Cornhuskers with a conference-record 489 yards passing in a 45-28 Wildcat loss; entering last Saturday's game his team was ranked No. 16, and he was on the threshold of Heisman Trophy consideration, having thrown a Big Eight-record 188 consecutive passes without an interception and having led K-State to a 4-0 start.
May is a cocky leader, a renegade who dyed his hair garish colors when he played at Cal State-Fullerton before transferring to Kansas State in 1992. And with him at the helm, the Wildcats seemed to have their best chance of ending a humiliating 25-game losing streak to Nebraska, dating to '68, before May or any of his teammates were born. Instead the Cornhuskers sacked May six times and had him throwing to empty patches of wet turf as often as to open receivers. He threw a 29-yard touchdown strike to Mitch Running on the second play of the second quarter, rousing the home fans, but another first-half drive, along with May's no-interception streak, ended when Nebraska linebacker Troy Dumas picked off a pass over the middle and ran it back 54 yards.
"When the ball gets sloppy, heavy and lopsided," said Berringer, "it's kind of hard to throw." But May refused to plead weather as a factor in his 22-for-48, 249-yard performance. "I was not very good," he said. "Everybody was looking for me to come up with the big play, and I can't come up with them every time."
Cornhusker defensive coordinator Charlie McBride was more inclined to credit the Nebraska victory to the play of his secondary and linebackers, whom he described as "unfairly maligned" since last year's failure to shut down May in Lincoln. "We read in the papers where their players said they knew our seams and they'd pick us apart," said an amused McBride. "And yesterday I overhead stuff in the hotel—our own fans saying 'Our only problem is our secondary.' "
There was no such problem this time. May's inability to penetrate the end zone, coupled with K-State's impotent ground attack (minus seven yards, counting 53 yards lost on sacks), repeatedly gave the ball to the Nebraska offense and its tireless front line. Said 300-pound Nebraska tackle Zach Wiegert, "It seemed like the holes started getting bigger and bigger as the day wore on." Big enough, by the fourth quarter, for Phillips and junior fullback Jeff Makovicka to eat up yardage in bigger chunks. Makovicka scored on a 15-yard burst to put the Cornhuskers ahead 14-6 with 11:01 left, and Nebraska clinched the victory on a 24-yard Darin Erstad field goal at 1:32.
"You know what they're going to run," said K-State linebacker Percell Gaskins. "You just have to stop it, and today we couldn't."
Some Husker players could appreciate the Wildcats' frustration. "They were looking at this game as their road to the Orange Bowl," said Phillips. "They were undefeated, so they had as big a right as us to think about the Orange Bowl."
And now? "I guess not anymore," he said, smiling.
Unanswered was the larger question: Can 7-0 Nebraska, with five conference games remaining—including an Oct. 29 clash with second-ranked Colorado in Lincoln—limp to a national championship with quarterbacks who can't throw downfield, run the option or take hits without leaking air?
Don't say never. Wounded animals are the most dangerous.
With little offense of their own, the Huskers needed tough D to wrap up J.J. Smith and Co.
It was May Day for the Wildcat quarterback, who completed only 22 of 48.
Husker cornerbacks Barron Miles (left and above) and Tyrone Williams made it a down day for Wildcat wideout Kevin Lockett.
[See caption above.]