Skip to main content
Original Issue


On the warm afternoon of Labor Day, five days before Nebraska
would open its football season with a 55-14 pasting of Michigan
State, Cornhuskers junior defensive end Grant Wistrom paused as
he left the practice field in Lincoln and pondered the ribbon of
greatness that stretched back over two years. His eyes grew wide
with wonder. "I've never played in a loss," Wistrom said. "I've
never been on the field when we lost a game." He let the thought
die and slowly shook his head at the improbability of such a
run. The Nebraska winning streak, which included back-to-back
national titles, had reached 26 when the Huskers arrived in
Tempe last Saturday for a game against Arizona State.

Like Mike Tyson in the ring, Michael Johnson in the 400 meters
and NBC on Thursday night, Nebraska football was an unbeatable
constant. Opposing coaches, struggling with scholarship
limitations and galloping parity, regarded the Cornhuskers with
awe. "As far as I can tell, everybody is in a big group trying
to catch up to Nebraska," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said in

Before last week's game, Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder
recalled the Sun Devils' humiliating 77-28 defeat last year in
Lincoln and said, "I could live with another loss to Nebraska.
What I'm most concerned with is getting blown out again. It took
us almost a month to get over that loss."

Big deal. It will probably take Snyder and the Sun Devils 10
years to recover from the events of last Saturday night, though
they won't try too hard to erase the memory. Spurred on by the
bitter memory of the 1995 loss, and inspired by the emotional
halftime dedication of the Sun Devil Stadium field to former
coach Frank Kush, Arizona State (3-0) not only beat the Huskers
but also shut them out 19-0. Nebraska's shocking loss,
consummated during the small hours of Sunday morning in much of
the rest of the country and carried on TV by only a few cable
systems, nonetheless rippled seismically across the landscape of
college football.

The Cornhuskers squad that pounded Florida 62-24 in the 1996
Fiesta Bowl in Tempe was one of the best college football teams
in history. With 14 starters back this season, including seven
on the brilliant defense, Nebraska seemed poised to win an
unprecedented third consecutive national championship. But last
Saturday night the Huskers were outgained in total yards 401-226
and were nailed for three safeties. In retrospect perhaps the
difficulties that Nebraska's secondary had with Michigan State
on Sept. 7 should have been given greater attention. Last
Saturday night, blown coverage by the Cornhuskers led to the
game's only touchdown, a 25-yard pass from Sun Devils senior
quarterback Jake Plummer to senior wideout Keith Poole. And it
now seems naive to have assumed that the Huskers' offense
wouldn't suffer after losing quarterback Tommie Frazier. His
replacement, Stanford transfer and Nebraska native Scott Frost,
had a dreadful night against the Sun Devils, with just six pass
completions in 20 attempts and with a hand in all three
safeties. "We knew a lot about their offense," Snyder said
afterward. "The one thing we didn't know about was Scott Frost.
Maybe he was the next Tommie Frazier. But we decided that we
wanted to take away everybody else and see if Frost could beat

The beneficiaries of Nebraska's improbable loss stretch from
Florida to California. "Unbelievable," junior All-Big Ten
cornerback Shawn Springs of Ohio State said on Sunday, a day
after the Buckeyes ran their record to 2-0 by beating Pitt 72-0.
"They lost. Now everything is up for grabs." It had been assumed
that the road to the national title would end with the
Cornhuskers playing some opponent in the Sugar Bowl. But with
Nebraska (1-1) dislodged from the top spot in the rankings, the
Rose Bowl, which matches the winners of the Big Ten and the
Pac-10, is suddenly a possible site for a national-title game.
(Would you believe Arizona State against Ohio State?) And
various undefeated teams--No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Florida State,
No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 10 Miami and No. 18 Virginia Tech--find
themselves fighting for two spots, not just one, in the Sugar
Bowl, which will be the national-championship game if the Rose
Bowl doesn't horn in on the action. Games such as this
Saturday's between Notre Dame and Ohio State are suddenly more
meaningful, and the air may yet thicken with controversy if the
eventual Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl matchups preclude a true
national-championship game.

The challengers for the title now must include Arizona State,
which hasn't been to a bowl since the 1987 Freedom Bowl. It has
19 starters back from a team that went 6-5 a year ago, with
three losses by a total of only eight points. There was much
buzz about the Sun Devils in the preseason, yet few observers
predicted that Arizona State's resurrection would begin with a
win over Nebraska.

At the heart of the upset was Plummer. "I've got the best
quarterback in the country," Snyder says of the four-year
starter, who has toiled in the relative obscurity of the soft
Pac-10. Plummer was sacked by Nebraska six times, but he
completed 20 of 36 passes for 292 yards. He is not the only
standout on the Sun Devils' roster. Poole and offensive left
tackle Juan Roque were All-Pac-10 last season. Against Nebraska,
defensive end Derrick Rodgers, a 24-year-old junior college
transfer, had 10 tackles and a sack and dropped Frost for one of
the safeties. Nebraska wasn't beaten by accident.

The postgame celebration in Sun Devil Stadium was loud and
emotional. Arizona State fans flooded the field and pulled the
goalposts to the turf. After this remarkable night they envision
many more victories.

Snyder, unlike his fans, suddenly found reason to worry. "When
confidence turns to arrogance, you lose that fear," he said
after the game. "That's not good. I think a lot of guys on our
team right now are saying, 'Damn, we're good.'

"And I don't know...," Snyder said, reconsidering and once more
embracing the joy. "Can you blame them?"

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Vince Amey (98) and the Arizona State D held Huskers rushers like Ahman Green to a scant 130 yards.