THE RED IS DEAD. That's what the sign said. That's what the word
was. You heard it in Boulder and around the Orange Bowl and in
Tallahassee; you heard it everywhere college football was king. But
you felt it too, in New York and Chicago and in all the impatient
places where people had had it with the lumbering stiffs of Lincoln,
those stolid farmboys who win, win, win except when it counts most.
THE RED IS DEAD. How could it have been otherwise? The Cornhuskers'
splendid quarterback was gone with a blood clot, his backup had felt
his lung collapse twice, and his backup -- a walk-on, for god's sake
-- had a deep bruise in his shoulder. Even the most merciful appeared
to have lost patience with the Huskers. ''It's like somebody did
something wrong around here,'' said linebacker Ed Stewart, ''and God
was paying us back.''
THE RED IS DEAD. That's what the sign stuck on the locker room
wall behind Rashaan Salaam's head said after the thousands of
scarlet-garbed fanatics had flowed like a red river onto the field.
Hours before, Salaam, Colorado's star running back, had first seen
those words, printed as a statement of fact. And who expected that
declaration to change? Who figured that Nebraska, albeit No. 3 in the
land, would so dominate, so emphatically humble college football's
second-ranked miracle boys from Boulder that this brash epitaph would
quickly evolve into a withering hope, then a mockery? Gone in the
24-7 drubbing was the Buffaloes' dramatic march through the season.
Gone were the Heisman Trophy hopes of Colorado quarterback Kordell
Stewart. ''Tell the guys from Nebraska to go get that national
championship,'' Salaam said, ''because they deserve it.''
That's right: Nebraska and national title in the same breath. In
this season without rhyme, in this system without reason, it seemed
just that the Huskers had set themselves up for another shot --
however painful -- at the big prize. For even as the game's grand
pooh-bahs have tried to dictate a format for an annual championship,
college football has remained as manageable as a wet bar of soap. The
day after the victory over Colorado, the AP poll named Nebraska its
No. 1 team, while the coaches' poll kept Penn State in the top spot.
The Nittany Lions were gearing up for a Rose Bowl showdown against
some second- rate opponent from the Pac-10. Undefeated and ineligible
Auburn still lurked, a possible shadow champion. Alabama was
unheralded but still unbeaten. A mess indeed.
But for sheer weirdness, nothing could surpass Nebraska. This was
the team that had gone to the Orange Bowl five times in the last 11
years -- and all five times lost to Florida State or Miami by a
combined score of 121-63. Until the victory over Colorado, the
Cornhuskers hadn't beaten a top-five opponent since 1987, following
the classic Husker formula for a season: nine wins, a Big Eight
title, disappointment on New Year's Day. In routing Colorado,
Nebraska nailed down the first of these ingredients for 1994, took
the driver's seat for the second and inspired fears of the third. One
Orange Bowl committee member estimated that, of the 200 members of
his group, only one, a Nebraska alumnus, would wish to see the
Cornhuskers in Miami again -- and Husker coach Tom Osborne didn't
exactly seem to relish the thought of a return appearance. Minutes
after the game ended, he began pressing committeemen for a
non-Florida opponent. It wasn't a sympathetic audience: These were
the same compassionate souls who had joked earlier about sending
Osborne an autographed picture of Miami coach Dennis Erickson.
Officially, of course, there was no such Husker bashing. ''We'd be
delighted to have such a highly ranked team,'' said Orange Bowl
president Ed Williamson. ''Since this is the final year of our tie-in
with the Big Eight, maybe it's appropriate. They've been there.''
This time, though, there was a feeling that things just might be
different, because this was a different type of Nebraska team.
First, the normally polite Huskers were clearly through apologizing
for their methodical, grain-thresher offense. ''Who are we going to
send down to Miami, a Colorado team whose butt we just kicked?'' said
Nebraska tackle Rob Zatechka. ''We're kind of like the Buffalo Bills:
We're back. Live with it.''
Nebraska has always produced a supremely competent collection of
athletes, cerebral teams marked by flawless technique and a startling
lack of emotion. Confronted with adversity only on Jan. 1, when they
suddenly face quicker and more fiery opponents, the Cornhuskers
always seemed to crumble -- until the '93 season came to an end. Then
Tommie Frazier led them into a national title game against Florida
State in the Orange Bowl and outplayed Heisman winner Charlie Ward;
only a field goal gone wide with one second left saved the
championship for the Seminoles.
This season Nebraska seemed to have all the elements to push over
the top, including Frazier, Lawrence Phillips and a superb offensive
line keyed by + Outland Trophy favorite Zach Wiegert. Then the
injuries began. Lest anyone forget the long and painful chronology,
we offer this brief review: In the second game the Huskers' best
defensive back, Mike Minter, tore a knee ligament -- out for the
year. On Sept. 25 Frazier went out. The next week Frazier's backup,
Brook Berringer, suffered the first partially collapsed lung; it was
reinflated but sagged again the following week. Berringer returned,
clad in a flak jacket, for parts of the following two games, but his
fragility forced Osborne to shave the offense down to one dimension:
Run between the tackles, forever. Then Berringer's backup, walk-on
Matt Turman, injured his shoulder mopping up against Missouri. Behind
Turman, the backups included a true freshman recovering from torn
ligaments in his throwing hand, a wingback who had never played
quarterback in college, a converted split end and a converted student
manager. ''Everybody had this feeling: What, are we cursed?'' said
Colorado rolled into the biggest game of 1994 with no such
worries. Aside from Salaam, whose punishing runs had powered him to
the top of a slippery Heisman heap and prompted him to consider
leaving school after the season for the NFL, Bill McCartney's
unbeaten Buffs were the picture of stability. Colorado had the
nation's second-rated offense, a knack for winning close games and an
offense far more potent than Nebraska's. Stewart, who had buckled
disastrously in the Buffaloes' 21-17 loss the previous year to the
Cornhuskers, had earned back his teammates' confidence with defining
wins at Michigan and Texas. He had thrown just three interceptions
all season. ''This year, when he's under the gun, he tries to take it
in stride,'' said Colorado wide receiver Michael Westbrook before the
game. ''He has changed a whole lot.''
Nebraska didn't buy it. Defensive coordinator Charlie McBride had
a plan: Pressure Stewart until he broke. The Nebraska defensive line
savaged Colorado, sacking Stewart three times. Salaam, the nation's
leading rusher, finished with 134 yards, but Stewart completed just
12 of 28 passes for 150 yards; worse, in 15 attempts on third or
fourth down, Colorado never converted. ''We'd see him getting scared
back there,'' said Husker defensive tackle Christian Peter, who with
Terry Connealy sealed Stewart's fate with back-to- back fourth-down
sacks in the third quarter. ''We had to get in his face be cause we
know if you shake Kordell up, he's going to choke.'' Berringer was
another story. Although Osborne wasn't sure how his quarterback would
react, he knew there was no beating the Buffs with the offense
Nebraska had run in previous weeks. ''I ran him whenever necessary
today -- and I felt uneasy doing that -- but we felt to win this game
we'd have to,'' Osborne said. He needn't have worried. Berringer
completed 12 of 17 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and one
interception, ran the option, perfectly flipped a shovel pass and, on
a keeper, even disposed of Colorado linebacker Ted Johnson with one
swipe of his arm. ''I've always felt that, if given the chance, I'd
prove what I can do,'' Berringer said after the game.
Zatechka merely let his T-shirt sum up his feelings and the theme
of this Nebraska team. unfinished business the shirt read. Fact is,
the Cornhuskers felt that they had beaten Florida State back in
January. ''It's like a being- on-a-mission thing,'' Zatechka said.
''It seems like we've always got the deck stacked against us:
Everybody says we're good but not good enough, that Colorado's going
to beat us, that there's no way we can get through the season
Long a bastion of bland, Nebraska had clearly gone about creating
a prickly attitude for itself. The Cornhuskers got angry at an
anonymous letter from Orlando that predicted Colorado would shut them
out, and then, with nothing but rumors to go on, they decided that
Stewart and Salaam had said that they were going to ''have fun'' with
the Husker defense.
''Where do these people get off?'' Wiegert said after the game.
''They haven't beat us in four years, and they're saying they're
going to play with us? Who are they kidding? And tell those guys from
Missouri and Kansas State: They get their butts kicked, they
shouldn't talk, either.''
The only Cornhusker who seemed like himself was Osborne, who gave
his usual vanilla answers in the postgame press conference and then
went on TV and drawled his usual Gary Cooper refusal to campaign for
poll votes. ''I'd rather let you guys decide that,'' he said. After
he walked off the set, though, Osborne happened by a television. His
eyes got wide. ''Is that Penn State 35- zip at the half?'' he said.
''That's tough. Now they'll probably vote them No. 1. Well, maybe the
coaches'll vote us high. . . .''
What do you know? The Red was very much alive. And kicking.
THE RED IS DEAD. That's what the sign said. That's what the word