By Gene Wojciechowski
TEMPE, Ariz. -- One wonderful night in January didn't erase one terrible night in September -- or the rest of the longest season of Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips' troubled life.

But it helped.

For the first time in months, Phillips ran as if he didn't have a rap sheet and the greater Lincoln area strapped to his shoulder pads. For the first time in months, he was dodging tacklers instead of minicams and notebooks. And though unconfirmed, there might have been an actual smile on Phillips' face.

If anybody deserves credit for nearly ruining Nebraska's season and then perhaps saving it, it's Phillips. His 42-yard touchdown run moments into the second quarter was the first of 29 unanswered points by the Cornhuskers. His 105 first-half yards also helped explain why Nebraska led Florida 35-10 after two periods.

It wasn't vindication for Phillips, but it was close. After all, he had spent the week deflecting criticism of Coach Tom Osborne's decision to start him against the Gators. Nobody questioned Phillips' talent, only his right to be on the field.

The reasons were obvious enough. Since early September, Phillips has found himself in the middle of misdemeanor assault and trespassing arrests, of the no-contest pleas, of the much-debated six-game suspension, of the wrath of women's groups everywhere, of the after-effects of court-imposed probation. Along the way, his Heisman Trophy hopes evaporated and his NFL standing took something of a beating.

Phillips declined to answer questions about the assault against his former girlfriend. But his public defender of sorts, Osborne, did what he could to explain why Phillips was part of Nebraska's second consecutive national championship team.

``We set standards and parameters for Lawrence and he truly has tried to make some changes in his life,'' Osborne said recently. ``He owned up to what he did. He entered treatment. He did well in therapy. He has been faithful to his academic commitments. He has a great work ethic, and while I can't predict the future, hopefully is a better person for what has transpired over the last 3 months.''

Florida can't vouch for his character, but the Gators are available to comment on his running skills. In the first half alone, Phillips averaged 9.5 yards each time he touched the ball. Not bad for someone who hadn't started a game since Sept. 9 against Michigan State.

The 42-yard scoring run, which came with 14:28 remaining in the second period, was suitable for bronzing. He took the handoff, stepped toward the middle of the line, and broke free to the outside, where he broke one, two, three and finally four tackles.

© Copyright 1996, The Salt Lake Tribune

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