There is nothing anyone can say to make Nebraska feel better
about last season. It's no use noting that the Cornhuskers
succeeded in extending their NCAA-record streaks of nine-win and
bowl-bid seasons to 30, and that they overcame inexperience and
injury to finish sixth nationally in rushing at 253.8 yards per
game. "Yeah, that's like being one of the worst offensive lines
in Nebraska history," says senior 320-pound tackle Adam Julch
sarcastically of the latter. "At Nebraska we should always be
first in rushing."
The Huskers' tradition of dominance on the ground--and of
contending for the national title--collapsed last season under
first-year coach Frank Solich. Injuries were the main reason.
Nine starters missed a total of 45 games with broken bones, torn
ligaments, pulled muscles and nerve damage. Quarterback Bobby
Newcombe and I-back DeAngelo Evans needed three surgeries
between them. For Solich, who had spent 32 years preparing for
his chance, it was like turning the ignition of a vintage
Rolls-Royce to find the pistons thumping out of synch, the
muffler backfiring and the radiator whistling like a teakettle
while a warm black pool of oil forms on the pavement. After a
5-0 start, the Cornhuskers finished 9-4, ending with a 23-20
loss to Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. They lost more games than
Tom Osborne's last five teams combined (60-3).
"I've never seen anything like it," Solich says of the wave of
injuries that hit his team. "I really felt bad for the
players--there was a lot of pressure on them with a new head
coach. We are conditioned to win championships, and when that's
not materializing, things can fall apart."
All of last year's injured underclassmen are expected to be
ready for the Sept. 4 opener at Iowa, with the exception of
junior rover Joe Walker, who should return in midseason after
recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. The Huskers are
intent on returning to the form that carried them to national
titles in 1994, '95 and '97. "Coming off the last national
championship season, it was easy to get a little lax," says
junior split end Matt Davison, who two years ago made the
miraculous catch off a teammate's foot against Missouri that
helped secure an undefeated season. "It's not that everybody
didn't work hard, but all of the intensity wasn't there." Now?
"This team has worked the hardest of any team I've seen," he
says. "Obviously, we know what defeat tastes like now."
A lot of players earned valuable experience last year by filling
in for one another. Seven defensive positions could be manned by
any of the 10 players who started four or more games in '98. The
strength of the defense is in the secondary, which returns
intact but will need help from a rebuilt line to reduce the
196.8 yards per game Nebraska permitted through the air last
fall. "There is a tension, a bitterness, a frustration that has
been building since the end of the bowl game," says senior
outside linebacker Tony Ortiz. "We're always talking about the
things we need to do differently from last year. The competition
is so fierce against each other."
No one seems more intense than quarterback Newcombe, who made
five of his six starts last season with a torn posterior
cruciate ligament in his left knee. "That injury has given me
more confidence," says Newcombe, who completed 63% of his passes
and rushed for 228 yards before undergoing surgery last
December. "I've watched myself on film playing at 50 to 60
percent, and I'm still running by some people, still shaking
some people. I wasn't practicing during the week, and I was
still going out there and winning the game. I'd like to see how
I look when I have both of my legs working."
Solich will have a quarterback controversy to sort out, as
sophomore Eric Crouch filled in over the last half of the
season, finishing as the team's second-leading rusher (459 yards
and a 4.8 yard average) despite being slowed by a hamstring pull
and a hip pointer. Newcombe sees no controversy. "I'm preparing
myself to lead this team to win a national championship," he
says in a commanding voice that belongs in the fourth quarter of
a tight game in October. "It's a good thing the coaches aren't
on the field in our summer workouts, because the guys have been
finding out who is real and who is fake. You're either one or
the other. It's tough for some players to be called to be
leaders, because they want to be liked by certain individuals,
but a leader can't worry about that."
Solich, who was Osborne's running backs coach for 15 years, has
spent hours trying to determine the causes of last year's
injuries. He has decided it was just a run of bad luck.
"We were doing the same things we've always done," he says. "I
think we were fortunate throughout the 1990s in terms of
injuries, and last year the odds just caught up with us."
Now his players are in the mood to turn those odds against the
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA All's well Newcombe (12) has recovered from the torn knee ligament that kept him from going full speed.
1998 record: 9-4 (5-3, tied for 2nd in Big 12 North)
Final ranking: No. 19 AP, No. 20 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 31.9 253.8 131.2 384.9
DEFENSE 15.3 116.8 196.8 313.7
Coach: Frank Solich
Second year at Nebraska (9-4); Career Division I-A record: 9-4
WR Matt Davison[*] Jr. First start in '98: 10 rec., 167 yds.
LT Adam Julch Sr. Recovering from right ankle injury
LG James Sherman Sr. 88 pancakes leads returners
C Dominic Raiola[*] So. Could become one of nation's best
RG Russ Hochstein Jr. Had 15 pancakes vs. Washington
RT Jason Schwab Sr. Walk-on anchors this line
TE T.J. DeBates[*] Sr. Has just two career receptions
WR Shevin Wiggins Sr. 22 catches, 326 yards, 1 TD
QB Bobby Newcombe Jr. Eight TDs rushing, one passing
RB DeAngelo Evans Jr. 14 TDs in '96; just four since then
FB Willie Miller[*] Jr. Slowed by abdominal injuries in '98
K Josh Brown[*] Fr. Could play QB or DB if needed
LE Aaron Wills[*] Jr. Younger brother Colin is a backup
NT Steve Warren Sr. Back spasms slowed him in '98
DT Loran Kaiser Jr. Had a four-game sack streak
RE Kyle Vanden Bosch[*]Jr. First-team academic All-Big 12
OLB Tony Ortiz Sr. 41 tackles in his eight starts
MLB Carlos Polk[*] Jr. 22 tackles off the bench
OLB Eric Johnson Sr. Six sacks led the team
LCB Keyuo Craver[*] So. Earned job with strong spring
SS Mike Brown Sr. 19 tackles (8 solo) vs. Texas
FS Clint Finley Jr. Had knee problems most of year
RCB Ralph Brown Sr. Three-time Thorpe candidate
P Dan Hadenfeldt[*] Sr. Walk-on has no career punts
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Schedule strength: 13th of 114
Oct. 23 at Texas
Ricky Williams and the Longhorns snapped the Cornhuskers'
47-game home winning streak last season. Nebraska is looking
forward to a little payback this year.
Nov. 13 vs. Kansas State
This is developing into an intense rivalry, but the fact
remains: The Cornhuskers haven't lost to the Wildcats at home in
If Newcombe can return to form and the defense regains its bite,
you'll see the Cornhuskers of old.