The Nebraska machinery cranked along with a familiar hum last
Saturday. Memorial Stadium was stuffed and swathed in red, the
score was lopsided, and a vague discomfort hung in the
late-summer heat, the residue of indiscretions past and present
that continue to shadow the Cornhuskers' towering
accomplishments. Think of it all as business as usual in the
rarefied air that Nebraska breathes, where the Huskers fight
their image and chase history all at once.
In the minutes before the kickoff of Nebraska's season- opening
55-14 starching of Michigan State, Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne
urged his players to embrace a possibility--an unprecedented
third consecutive national championship--that would customarily
send a coach searching for new ways to say, "One game at a
time." He stood among the Huskers in their locker room and said,
"Not many teams have ever had the opportunity that you have this
season. As soon as you forget about that opportunity, you slip
back. So let's go get it."
Nebraska players are surrounded by reminders of their
back-to-back titles (shirts, posters, stadium banners, bumper
stickers), and highlights of their epic 62-24 thrashing of
Florida in last January's Fiesta Bowl, which clinched national
crown number two, ran incessantly on stadium scoreboards during
timeouts in Saturday's game. It's difficult for the Huskers to
ignore what's within their grasp. "It's all we talk about around
here, and it's all we hear," senior strong safety Mike Minter
said after the victory over the Spartans. "Just three-peat. We
talk about it every day. Every day."
During the summer three-peat was even flashed on the stadium
scoreboard during voluntary workouts. "We're looking at the
season as a staircase," says junior defensive end Grant Wistrom,
who intercepted a Michigan State pass and ran it back nine yards
for a touchdown. "We keep winning, we keep moving up. At the top
is the third national title."
There were many elements of last Saturday's win that showed that
number three is certainly attainable. Nebraska's defense forced
four turnovers, ran back two interceptions for touchdowns
(Wistrom's plus Minter's, from 84 yards out), blocked a punt and
limited Michigan State to 83 yards on 49 rushing attempts. "That
defense is as good as any I've ever seen," said Spartans coach
Nick Saban. Teams looking for hope against the Huskers can take
solace in the fact that Michigan State's defense twice forced
Nebraska to kick field goals after drives stalled inside the 20,
that the Cornhuskers' cornerbacks occasionally seemed
vulnerable, allowing sophomore Gus Ornstein to complete 11 of 18
passes for 133 yards, and that quarterback Tommie Frazier and
running back Lawrence Phillips are gone.
Also, one disturbing element of last season has resurfaced: a
Husker's appearance on a police blotter. At 1:18 a.m. on Aug.
30, senior Terrell Farley, one of the best outside linebackers
in the country, was ticketed by Lincoln police on suspicion of
driving while intoxicated. The incident was doubly damaging
because it revived the Cornhuskers-as-renegades issue that had
largely been stilled by an arrest-free spring and summer, and it
also sliced deeply into the team's unity that was established
last September when the players vowed to abstain from drinking
alcohol. They renewed that vow in summer camp. "He broke team
rules," said senior I-back Damon Benning last week. "That was
the most upsetting thing about it." Osborne said, "The deal with
Farley was a real disappointment. A lot of time went into
explaining how people had to behave this year. The players saw
what last year's problems did to the team and to the individuals
Farley was suspended indefinitely. Team rules call for a
two-game suspension for drinking, but Osborne said last week
that Farley's suspension could last the entire season. "I don't
want to put him back on the field if he has a problem with
alcohol, until he shows that he can control himself," Osborne
said. What may make Osborne's critics skeptical is that Osborne
said he would investigate Farley's situation to determine the
appropriate length of suspension. Osborne took a similar
approach last fall in dealing with Phillips, and that
"investigation" continued to haunt him even last week.
On Aug. 16 Kate McEwen, the Nebraska student whom Phillips
assaulted in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 1995, filed a
civil suit against Phillips. That suit was unsealed on Sept. 3,
the Tuesday before the game against Michigan State. In it McEwen
asks unspecified damages from Phillips for a variety of charges,
including sexual assault, battery, kidnapping and false
imprisonment, in addition to the misdemeanor assault charge to
which Phillips pleaded no contest. Even though Phillips, who had
a year of eligibility remaining, has left Nebraska (he was the
sixth player taken in April's NFL draft and signed a three-year,
$5.6 million contract with the St. Louis Rams), the suit places
Osborne back in the harsh light of public debate, where he spent
much of last autumn. After the attack on McEwen, Osborne
suspended Phillips for six games but then reinstated him for the
final three regular-season games and the Fiesta Bowl, in which
Phillips was sensational, rushing for 165 yards on 25 carries
and scoring three touchdowns. If McEwen's new allegations are
upheld in court, there will be little doubt that Osborne was too
lenient with Phillips. And if Osborne didn't know about the
additional incidents--he said last week that he had no knowledge
of the sexual assault, and McEwen says in her suit that she did
not tell Osborne about it--then, perforce, his
self-investigation of the Phillips affair was incomplete.
For now, Farley's and Phillips's names will hang over a Nebraska
team that had desperately hoped for a trouble-free autumn. "Last
year we won a national championship, and it got overshadowed by
everything else," says Huskers senior defensive end Jared
Tomich. "We really wanted it to be different this time."
There is a tone of resignation in Wistrom's voice when he
recites the tired we've-just-got-to-worry-about-our-games speech
from a year ago and says of the Farley incident, "Face it, with
180 guys around, if this is the worst thing that happens this
year, I'll be pretty happy."
Nebraska has proved to have sturdy resolve in the face of
distractions, however large. Two years ago the Cornhuskers lost
Frazier for eight games because of blood clots in his right leg
and still went 13-0 and won the national title. Last year they
plowed through the controversy and didn't win any game by less
than 14 points. They've won 26 consecutive games yet continue to
behave as if they're the hungry bunch that lost seven
consecutive bowls from 1988 through '94.
A case in point is Benning, who since the end of the 1995 season
has added 12 pounds to his formerly 204-pound frame, lowered his
40 time by nearly .1 of a second and given up soft drinks and
red meat. "Not popular to give up red meat in Nebraska," he
says. (It's not popular with junior center Aaron Taylor, that's
for sure. Taylor's in-laws own McWhorter's Meat Market in
Wichita Falls, Texas, and the 305-pound Taylor not only helps
carve up cows but also consumes them voraciously. "Eating a
steak is part of what I'm about," says Taylor. It works for him:
He's in the middle of yet another experienced, overpowering
Nebraska offensive line.)
There is also an emotional force. The Cornhuskers will play the
season with a black number 18 on their helmets, in memory of
former quarterback Brook Berringer, who was killed in a plane
crash on April 18. Berringer's family, including a niece, Ellen
Brook Nasseri, born just after his death, was at last Saturday's
Newly in control of this dynasty is junior quarterback Scott
Frost, who succeeds Frazier, one of the most effective college
football players of the last decade. Against Michigan State,
Frost ran for 58 yards and a touchdown and completed 5 of 11
passes for 74 yards, including a 35-yard third-quarter score to
senior wideout Brendan Holbein. It was a methodical performance,
unspectacular but safe. In any case, the strength of the
Nebraska defense and the power of sophomore running back Ahman
Green (71 yards on 16 carries) will give Frost time to grow.
"For my first game as Nebraska's quarterback, after everything,"
said Frost, "I'll take it."
Frost's first game with the Cornhuskers was a long time coming
because he took a circuitous route in covering the 100 miles to
Lincoln from his hometown of Wood River, Neb. (pop. 1,156),
where his father, Larry, was his high school football coach, and
his mother, Carol, a U.S. Olympian in the discus in 1968, guided
him to a gold medal in the shot put at the 1993 state track
meet. Scott was recruited by Nebraska in '93 but spurned the
Cornhuskers for Stanford during the brief, disastrous return of
Bill Walsh to college coaching. "Sometimes the grass is
greener," says Carol. "At that point, the grass was definitely
greener in Palo Alto than in Lincoln."
But instead of being tutored by Walsh to be the next Joe
Montana, Frost was shifted to free safety. As a sophomore, in
1994, he was the Cardinal's starting free safety in five games
and its No. 2 quarterback behind Steve Stenstrom for the entire
season. It was a bizarre existence, in which his first
interception was caught, not thrown, and in which he twice
played offense and defense in a game, an absurd proposition for
a quarterback at a major college. "It was two years spent not
doing what I wanted," Frost says.
His transfer to Nebraska in January 1995, only days after the
Cornhuskers had beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl to win their
first national title in 23 years, was given prominent play in
the local media, which made Frost uncomfortable. The next 12
months constituted a lonely sort of hazing. Frost says, "I just
kept to myself."
He was befriended by Berringer, for which he was deeply
thankful. And he earned the respect of the rest of the team by
surviving a brutal pounding as the scout-team quarterback in the
fall of 1995. "Everything [Florida quarterback] Danny Wuerffel
saw [in the Fiesta Bowl], I saw for three weeks," Frost says. He
never backed down from the contact, once fighting with 290-pound
senior defensive tackle Christian Peter during a scrimmage.
Just three weeks ago, even as the No. 1 quarterback, Frost took
a vicious hit during practice from senior free safety Eric
Stokes while running upfield on an option. One of Frost's shoes
was knocked off by the blow. "He just got stroked," said
Wistrom. "Eric decleated him, knocked him straight into the
air," Benning says. "Scott lays it on the line physically. That
demands respect. He's earned it."
Last fall, on game days, Frost would sit in the stands with the
other redshirts, most of whom were two years younger than he,
and he left most games early, longing to compete again. He
wanted to keep a low public profile, but that was shattered when
his name was dragged into the McEwen-Phillips mess. Frost had
dated McEwen, and she was in his apartment when Phillips entered
and dragged her out. "It wasn't a good deal at all for me," says
Frost, who tried to stop Phillips and, with help, eventually
pulled the two apart. "I wound up in the middle of it, just
doing my best to split them up."
If Frost's performance last Saturday was ordinary, his potential
is not. He has more size than Frazier, standing a muscular 6'3",
215 pounds, with 6.2% body fat, a 4.6 in the 40 and records for
a quarterback in four of Nebraska's arcane weightlifting
categories. But Frazier was a searing competitor, to the point
of intimidating not only opponents but teammates as well. "I
hope I learned from watching him," said Frost. "I hope I learned
a little of what made him tick."
More than an hour after the game, Frost met his family
underneath the southwest corner of the empty stadium. In the
distance a line of traffic snaked away from Lincoln. A small boy
timidly approached Frost and asked him for his autograph. Frost
signed, the child turned away and on the back of his black shirt
were the words nebraska, back-to-back national champions.
Another reminder of the legacy.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS COVER PHOTO RED ALERT Ahman Green and Nebraska set their sights on a third straight national title
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Mike Fullman's 62-yard punt return accounted for one of the Huskers' seven TDs in their 55-14 win.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Chad Kelsay helped hold the Spartans to 83 yards rushing.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Spartan Paul Edinger probably felt like kicking himself after Husker Eric Warfield blocked his punt.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Frost received a chilly reception when he transferred to Lincoln, but now he's Nebraska's main man. [Scott Frost in game]