A Big Red rush / Nebraska runs over Huskies, end hopes of UW national title
September 21, 1997
Bob Condotta; The News Tribune
The University of Washington thought it was ready to once again claim a spot among college football's elite.
But it took only one Joel Makovicka run up the middle, one Ahman Green sprint outside on the option, one Scott Frost scramble off tackle to prove otherwise.
Those three combined for 355 rushing yards as Nebraska grabbed control of this national championship eliminator in the opening minutes of the game and like a kid who just found a $10 bill, never let it go until they had completed a 27-14 pounding of Washington in front of 74,023 at Husky Stadium.
And in doing so, Nebraska exposed the Huskies as a team that still doesn't know what it takes to win a big, national game, just as Notre Dame and Colorado did last year, and Notre Dame and Ohio State did in 1995.
The Huskies entered the game ranked No. 2 in The Associated Press poll, No. 3 in the coaches poll, but will surely slip after falling to 2-1 on an afternoon when the lone bright spot was the performance of true freshman quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who played the final three quarters after starter Brock Huard twisted his left ankle.
The Huskies tried to win this big game by pretending that it wasn't necessarily all that big, saying they were preparing as if they were playing San Diego State again.
But it was an act that didn't work, either during the week or on the field.
"I tried to treat it like a normal game, but there was tension," said UW linebacker Lester Towns. "The coaches were uptight and everyone was nervous about it. It was hard for the players to block it out and take it normally if the coaches are nervous about it. So I don't know. É Everything was kind of different."
While the Huskies were confused, the Huskers were confusing, throwing more changeups at Washington than Greg Maddux in a shutout.
The Cornhuskers had looked sluggish in opening victories over Akron and Central Florida, but admitted they were saving themselves for Washington.
"We held a lot of things back against the first two opponents," said Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. "A week ago, we weren't sure in the fourth quarter (when they were barely leading Central Florida) if we would be able to hold them. But there were a few things we worked on with Washington in mind that we hadn't had to show."
They showed them on their first two drives of the game, making a Washington defense that had led the nation in rushing after two games look softer than a down pillow.
The Huskies actually had a chance to grab the early momentum, driving to the Nebraska 16 on the game's opening drive. But a third-and-2 run gained nothing. Then after bluffing on fourth down in an attempt to force an offsides penalty, UW's Randy Jones missed a 33-yard field-goal attempt.
"We could have set the tone right away, even with three points," said UW tight end Cam Cleeland.
Nebraska responded by driving 80 yards in six stunningly successful plays, Frost scrambling the final 34 yards for a 7-0 lead.
UW then went three plays and 15 yards backward, and Nebraska took over. This time, the Cornhuskers drove 56 yards in 10 plays, Frost running the final 30 yards for a 14-0 lead with 4:05 left in the first quarter. A UW defense that had given up a total of minus-5 yards rushing in the first two games was pounded for 141 in the first quarter alone with Frost getting 68.
"They did an excellent job of breaking the tendencies that we went into the game anticipating," said UW coach Jim Lambright. "They changed up a lot of things and obviously did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage."
Matters looked absurdly bleak when Huard went down late in the first quarter after being hit by Nebraska's Grant Wistrom after he threw a screen pass. A series later, the Huskers made it 21-0 on a 4-yard run by Green and the Huskers sensed the Huskies had given up.
"After we got (21) points on them, you could tell the difference in their eyes," said Nebraska guard Aaron Taylor. "It was like they didn't want to be there."
But a Tuiasosopo 12-yard scoring pass to Cleeland made it 21-7 at halftime, and the Huskies had hope even though they had been thoroughly dominated up front, allowing 204 rushing yards while gaining only 35.
The Huskies did defend Nebraska's triple option attack better in the second half. And Tuiasosopo stayed hot, leading a seven-play 76-yard drive, capped by a 4-yard pass to fullback Mike Reed that closed the gap to 21-14 with 3:47 left in the third quarter.
But then Lambright gambled with an on-side kick that instead flew out of bounds, giving Nebraska the ball at the Washington 47.
The Huskers then drove for a Kris Brown 20-yard field goal that made it 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, and UW never got past the Nebraska 49 the rest of the game as the Cornhuskers proved they haven't slipped all that much.
"People were writing us off," said Cornhuskers defensive tackle Jason Peter. "Everybody was predicting a Washington victory. But we've got the confidence back that we had when we dominated college football in 1994 and 1995.
"That's how we feel now."
And they similarly felt that the national title rode on the game Saturday, knowing a loss would make it almost impossible to finish No. 1.
"I knew we had to win this game to win the title," Wistrom said. "Every (weightlifting) repetition I had all summer, this is the game I thought about."
And it's a game the Huskies now will find hard to let go.
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