BY KEN HAMBLETON
Lincoln Journal Star
Hey, was that a cloud?
For much of the afternoon, it looked like a pure, blue sky over Memorial Stadium for Frank Solich's first game as Nebraska head football coach.
Well, maybe it was just a mirage in the blast furnace heat Saturday.
Solich's team was solid, even spectacular at times, in rolling to a 56-27 victory against Louisiana Tech Saturday before 76,021 fans baking in the sun for the first Eddie Robinson Classic.
The defending national champion Cornhuskers, winners of 61 of their last 64 games and three national titles in the last four years, frolicked to a 35-6 lead in the first half. Sophomore quarterback Bobby Newcombe was sparkling in his debut. He hit tight end Sheldon Jackson on a 46-yard touchdown pass 48 seconds into the 1998 season.
"Sheldon knew he better get open or I'd tuck the ball in and run up the middle," Newcombe said of the bootleg pass. "It was a great way to start and it showed right away, we can pass."
Newcombe ran for two touchdowns and completed all but one of 10 passes for 168 yards.
Even though the shadow of Tom Osborne, coach of the Cornhuskers the last 25 years, was nowhere near Lincoln, his presence was obvious in the run-option first and pass second presentation by Solich in his play-calling debut.
Running behind a new offensive line, sophomore I-back Correll Buckhalter and the slammers — 255-pound I-back Dan Alexander, 240-pound fullback Joel Makovicka and 230-pound Willie Miller — NU pounded Louisiana Tech's defense for 256 yards in the first half.
"We pushed them around and they were sagging on their knees and sucking in a lot of wind by the end of the second quarter," said Nebraska senior center Josh Heskew. "Bobby (Newcombe) came in and took control from the very first play. You could see the confidence in his eyes. We scored right away and we scored a lot.
"And besides, the score does matter in this game."
The bright lights of a typical Nebraska offensive cruise and defensive delights dimmed in the shadow of a monster passing day by Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay.
Rattay threw for 590 yards, and receiver Troy Edwards caught 21 passes for an NCAA-record 405 yards.
"In all my days, I have never seen a person do what he (Edwards) did to us today," said Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown. "That is the most impressive performance I have ever seen in my life."
That was of little consolation to Louisiana Tech Coach Gary Crowton. "The object wasn't to gain yards, our object was the win."
Just as there was no celebration for the Bulldogs, there was no funeral in the Nebraska locker room.
"Hey, we lead the nation in rushing defense," said Nebraska secondary coach George Darlington. Sure enough, Louisiana Tech had minus 21 yards rushing.
"Seriously, we can do better. But I remember giving up 489 yards to Chad May and Kansas State in 1993 and we played for the national championship. I remember Wyoming throwing all over the place in 1994 and we won the national championship.
"We're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater because of this game. We're not going to change from being an aggressive defense to a passive one with two-deep zone coverage. That's not what got us this far."
Certainly, Solich was willing to look past the record passing game against his team.
Long after the game was over, Solich shook Darlington's hand and thanked him for his efforts and the efforts of the defense. "Thanks. Congratulations. We got a win," Solich said. "We'll work on things."
The work will have to start with the pass coverage, Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride. His list was to the point. "We did not get the production out of the front four guys and we've got to improve or we're going to be average," he said.
Nebraska was credited with three sacks — one by rush end Chad Kelsay at the end of the first half, and one by rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"We didn't get sacks because their whole game is built on pass protection and we weren't quick enough to get to their quarterback," McBride said. "When you rush the passer every play, you're going to kill somebody."
Eventually, Nebraska got to Rattay and stopped the Bulldogs from getting any closer than 49-27 with 12:45 left in the game.
Rattay hit Edwards on a 52-yard touchdown pass to open the third quarter. Nebraska stalled for the first time in the game, and Rattay hit Edwards on a 94-yard touchdown pass over Nebraska's top defenders Ralph Brown and Mike Brown to close the score to 35-21.
"I think they set us up and they caught me relaxing on that long one," said Ralph Brown, a junior three-year starter. "They had been throwing Edwards short passes all game. The play before the bomb, Rattay threw long but Edwards wasn't even near the ball. Then, boom, he's by me and gone."
Nebraska pounded out 77 yards in nine plays to ease the strain. Buckhalter, who finished with 143 yards, ran four plays in a row for 27 yards to set up a touchdown by Alexander.
Louisiana Tech reared to strike again, as Rattay hit 5 of 6 passes for 45 yards, but the Bulldog center snapped a ball way over Edwards' head in the "Swinging Gate" formation for a 19-yard loss, and VandenBosch tossed Rattay to the ground for a 13-yard loss on fourth down.
Five plays later, Buckhalter scored on a 4-yard run to pad the lead to 49-21.
Still, Nebraska, winner of 42 consecutive home games, couldn't relax. On the first play after the kickoff, Rattay found Edwards alone on the sidelines for an 80-yard touchdown play that closed the score to 49-27 and erased the NCAA single-game receiving record.
"I was uneasy because they scored quickly and knew they had the potential to score quickly," said Solich. "They came back and give our kids credit because they came back, too. We put some pressure on them and they almost invite you to try it. Then, they come up with a big play."
Finally, Nebraska's defense took control of the situation. Louisiana Tech stalled on downs at midfield, then Rattay was intercepted for the only time in 68 passes, by defensive tackle Jason Wiltz.
"I'm relieved that we got one down," Solich said. "This was difficult because of all the things leading up to this game. It's been a long time coming. The game got a little sloppy in the second half. I still felt good about our team because they have the right attitude and they are ready to go to work.
Vanden Bosch said it was a warning sign of the future.
"It was like last year, when we had just one or two sacks against Daunte Culpepper (of Central Florida). When a quarterback like that gets in a rhythm and you don't get to him, he can really get things going.
"We're going to face this again against Washington, against Kansas State and against Corby Jones and Missouri again. It doesn't sit well now, but we'll work on it and we'll get better."
Solich wasn't nearly as worried.
"All in all, I was really pleased with the team and their performance. All in all, it was a win and we are delighted by that. The offensive line played well and we put a lot of points on the board in a variety of ways. Bobby Newcombe did a great job. I had a good time. I think I'll keep this job for awhile."
Nebraska plays Alabama-Birmingham in Memorial Stadium in a 12:30 p.m. game next Saturday.
Web posted August 30, 1998