COLUMN: What Notre Dame must do to beat Nebraska
By PEYTON BERG
Inside College Football
1994 was my senior year at the University of Colorado. As the season progressed, it looked like we were a team of destiny. Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy, and Kordell Stewart connected with Michael Westbrook in the end zone to steal a memorable victory at Michigan.
Destiny, that is, until we went to Lincoln to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After a devastating loss, I was forced to watch as the Huskers rolled to an undefeated season and a national championship. We finished the season by belting Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, thus giving the Buffs an 11-1 record and a No. 2 ranking.
With apologies to Dillon Hall, this was the genesis of my hatred of the color red.
Fast forward to 2000.
I'm a law student at Notre Dame now, but still unable to defeat the Children of the Corn. Thanks to the many greedy, disloyal faculty and alumni who shamelessly sold their tickets to the Husker faithful, the "House that Rockne Built" was transformed into a neutral site by a sea of red filling half the stadium.
I watched in despair as No. 1 Nebraska squeaked out an overtime victory against an underrated and determined Irish football team. This Saturday, Notre Dame must travel to Lincoln to face the college football juggernaut that is Nebraska.
The Huskers are 2-0 already this season, but clearly are not the same powerhouse that they have been in the past.
This is my last year as a student, and I've suffered long enough. Our time is now, and all indications suggest that they're ripe for an upset. In my years weathering the Cornhusker storm, I have learned how they work and, more importantly, how to beat them.
First of all, it is important to understand the evolution of the Cornhusker program. Ten years ago, Nebraska was known as the team that beat up on patsies all season long, then lost against "real" opponents in the bowl game.
Before 1994, Tom Osborn was the Phil Mickleson of college football; all the talent in the world, but still unable to win the big one.
To his credit, he made two decisions that changed Nebraska from perennial also-rans to three-time national champions.
First, in the Floridian age of four wideouts and pass-happy quarterbacks, he refused to change what has made Nebraska the most prolific offense in the 1990s: running the ball behind five behemoth lineman.
There's a reason why you don't see a Nebraska tailback in the Pro Bowl. Mother Teresa could rush for 1,500 yards in a season behind those human bulldozers.
Nebraska has also enjoyed an extraordinary lineage of standout option quarterbacks in the last decade. Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost and now Tim Crouch have provided stability, playmaking prowess and leadership during a time when rotating quarterbacks is curiously en vogue.
Second, Osborn injected speed into what was a stout but immobile defensive unit. The Black Shirts copied Dennis Erickson's Miami Hurricane defenses of the early 1990s: a 4-3 alignment featuring two nasty, aggressive defensive tackles complimented by a pair of hell-raising defensive ends whose only job in life is to maim opposing quarterbacks.
Add to the mix three linebackers who can run like the wind, and the overhaul was complete.
The result was only three national championships in four years and a job in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Osborn.
How, then, does Notre Dame defeat Nebraska on Saturday? Unlike last year's contest, where only 20,000 red-clad fans were present, the Irish can expect over 80,000 loud, proud Nebraskans dressed in red and hungry for blood.
Save for Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, there is not a more intimidating venue in college football for a visiting team. For the Irish to pull off the biggest upset of the year, keep the following points in mind as you tune in Saturday night:
1. Keep the Nebraska offense off the field. Bad things happen when Nebraska wins the time of possession battle. The offensive line wears down defenses, and teams lose a slow, painful war of attrition.
The Irish must rotate defensive linemen throughout the game and neutralize the line of scrimmage. The linebackers and safeties need to contain the Husker backfield and limit first downs.
2. Force Crouch to pass. In the last two weeks, a critical Cornhusker vulnerability has indeed surfaced. Crouch is a marginal passer at best, and the departure of receivers Bobby Newcombe and Matt Davidson have left him without a "go-to" guy.
If Notre Dame can repeatedly pin the Huskers in third-and-long situations, anything is possible. Tight end Tracy Wistrom is a legitimate threat as a receiver and should be watched accordingly. Frustrate Crouch by forcing him to throw on the run and off balance.
Oft-injured defensive end Grant Irons must play up to his yet-unrealized potential and punish Crouch's surgically-repaired shoulder all night.
3. Don't turn the ball over and don't commit any penalties. This was a problem for Nebraska last year. They have played two games this season, and this is our first. While the Irish should be the team with the butterflies, they must stay focussed and play four quarters of disciplined, flawless football.
Conversely, Nebraska must make some mistakes in order for us to have a chance to win. When they do turn the ball over, capitalize on the opportunity and score points. This all goes back to defense and special teams.
4. Will the real Kevin Rogers please stand up? After four years, I personally think Donovan McNabb made Kevin Rogers-not vice-versa. His schizophrenic play calling has left me cursing one moment and ecstatic the next.
I still don't understand his obligatory first and 10 run up the middle that always leaves the offense in second and long situations. While I will credit him with the fantastic fake field goal option play against Purdue, the Fiesta Bowl debacle showcased his apparent inability to find weaknesses in an opposing defense and exploit them.
Use all of your weapons, Kevin, and don't try to be macho and beat them at their own game. The Nebraska defense sees the best option offense in the country every day, and they will make you pay.
5. You gotta believe. Do not be surprised if Nebraska jumps out to a quick lead. The Irish cannot roll over and get pushed around, because Nebraska will embarrass you. Notre Dame must believe they can win, and play as if there is no tomorrow.
Wake up the echoes of former Irish greats Frank Stams, Chris Zorich and Jerome Bettis and play with heart, emotion, and a nasty attitude. The 2001 Huskers are not as good as they were one year ago, and now is the time to return Notre Dame football to national prominence.
This will be my last clash with the Huskers as a student, and the stage is set for an awesome game under the stars in Lincoln. Notre Dame is at itsbest as the underdog, as any Gator, Hurricane or Seminole will reluctantly admit. With the bitter memory of the Fiesta Bowl still tangible, this team needs to face its demons and respond to Davie's challenge. I have a feeling we'll do it.
Peyton Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions of the column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, September 5, 2001