It was like watching a splendid, sleek animal escape the jaws of a
trap by gnawing off its own leg. Second-ranked Nebraska, forced to
start a third- string quarterback who was not well-suited to running
the team's vaunted option attack, was facing a very good -- and
unbeaten -- Kansas State squad. So the Husker offense, doing what it
had to do to survive, threw out the most- worn pages of its playbook
and went instead with the only strategy that might work: guileless
runs behind the bruising, churning line that averaged 295 pounds a
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
day after the game the pollsters apparently agreed, dropping Nebraska
to No. 3, behind Penn State and Colorado. Indeed, the Cornhuskers
scarcely resembled the behemoth that had averaged 44 points in their
first six games. The starter at ^ quarterback for this game, the
diminutive Matt Turman, was pressed into service to buy time for
Brook Berringer, with the hopes that Berringer's lung would be given
adequate time to heal.
Turman's job, it quickly became clear, was to take snaps and
deliver the ball without delay to Lawrence Phillips, who cradled it
in his arms 31 times and ran with it for 117 yards. 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, Tom Osborne conceded later, was to make it look
as if 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 put him in for X-rays as recently as the previous 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 four 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
felt was his due for leading Futility U -- Kansas State had gone
1-31-1 from 1987 to '89 -- to football respectability. The previous
year, in Lincoln, he had embarrassed the Cornhuskers with a
conference-record 489 yards passing, albeit in a 45-28 Wildcat loss;
entering this 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, a cocky leader, had been a renegade who'd 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 that dated to '68, before May or
any of his teammates was 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 the
previous 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
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
''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: Could 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 couldn't throw downfield, run the option or
take hits without leaking air?
For all doubters it was wise to remember this: Wounded animals are
the most dangerous.