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January 03, 2000
Tom Shatel: NU Looks to Title Race Without Charlie
BY TOM SHATEL
WORLD-HERALD COLUMNIST

Tempe, Ariz.

pz:R, left, 0
Tom Shatel

So long, Charlie. Hello, Orange Bowl?

The Nebraska Cornhuskers won the Fiesta Bowl and lost a defensive coordinator, a warrior and true friend of the program on Sunday night. On a night of cheers and tears, NU Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride announced he was going to hang up his gray sweatshirt and give his aching back a rest.

The least the Huskers could do was go out in Uncle Charlie-like style. They beat Tennessee 31-21 in a brawl that wasn't as close as the bruises indicated. The Huskers did McBride proud, holding down Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin and running over and through the Vols in a punishing back-alley victory that was as old-school Nebraska as McBride.

The Huskers ran and ran and ran. They looked as if they could have run all the way to Miami, site of next season's national championship game.

The Nebraska football team can't win the national championship this season. In another galaxy, long, long ago, what the Huskers did to Tennessee on Sunday night might have been enough to cause some voters to lose some sleep and Florida State or Virginia Tech to lose some votes. Remember Jan. 1, 1998, and the miracle at midnight?

Those subjective, melancholy days are gone. Now, in the cyber age of college football, FSU and Virginia Tech are locked into the national title game, and even if Willie Miller ran to Tucson and back on Sunday, there was nothing the Huskers could do about it. The best the Huskers can do this season will be No. 2.

Next season is another story.

The Huskers wrote the rough draft on Sunday night, sending the college football world a message that was about as subtle as Dan Alexander going off tackle. Nebraska beat the Vols in a game that re-asserted the Huskers' swagger in their own minds and maybe even college football analyst Beano Cook's, too.

Frank Solich's third season as Husker head coach should begin with his team ranked somewhere in the top three. No. 1 seems about right.

The Huskers pounded that theme home most of the night, rushing for 321 yards and reminding the Vols that they still have some late nights in the weight room ahead before they can match smashmouth for smashmouth with Nebraska.

This was a statement game for NU and the loudest ones came late. Nebraska finished the game with 23 straight running plays, including a 13-play drive that ate up the final seven minutes and 25 seconds-after a Tennessee onside kick went out of bounds-and kept any Colorado deja vu from entering the premises.

If the Huskers have to learn how to become national champs all over again under Solich's watch, then consider this Fiesta Bowl trip a step in that process. A major step.

Everything about the Fiesta Bowl is first class, from the weather to the community support to the hospitality. Most of all, it's a national championship environment. Unlike the Holiday Bowl, which was as laid back as a day at the surf, the Fiesta Bowl had any number of hoops for the Huskers to jump through. Daily press conferences. Endless breakfasts and appearances. Enough calories and distractions to drive a head coach crazy.

Well, now Solich has had his run-through for a national championship game, if that's where the Huskers are headed next season.

All signs point to Miami.

Start with Eric Crouch. The quarterback will enter his junior season with the confidence of a break-out season and knowing it's his team. If the Huskers have the look of a champion, it's the face of Crouch. This was the season Crouch became a leader, and he's only going to get better. As he grows, so grow the Huskers.

Then there's the offensive line. It began the season maligned. But it developed, week by week, and ended the season playing to the program's high standard. The nucleus of center Dominic Raiola, right guard Russ Hochstein and right tackle Dave Volk is back and if freshman Toniu Fonoti develops this spring, this could be an awesome O-line.

Tight end Tracey Wistrom will be a junior. Willie Miller and Matt Davison will be seniors. The defense has a couple of Brown holes to fill, but several big-play guys, led by Carlos Polk, will return. The Blackshirts will be loaded again. But McBride will be missed. He's the Blackshirt you can't replace.

There will be some spring-cleaning issues. Keep Crouch healthy. Get more speed in the backfield (hello, Thunder Collins). Fumblers run 1,000 stadium steps. Stabilize the secondary. Find two new linebackers. Find a spot for Randy Stella somewhere on the field.

And, to paraphrase New York Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson, get Bobby Newcombe the darned ball. How Newcombe grows into wingback for one last run will have everything to do with how far the Huskers go in 2000. As if to emphasize that point, Newcombe provided a preview with an electric 60-yard punt return for a touchdown on Sunday night.

The schedule is set up for a run, too. Texas and Texas A&M are gone. The Huskers go to Notre Dame on Sept. 9, where they can show the nation what they've got. With Colorado rebuilding, if the Huskers can win in South Bend, then a trip to Kansas State might be all that stands in their way of a return trip to the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City - before about 70,000 Husker fans.

How about a preseason game? Somebody get the Kickoff Classic on the phone. Or the Pigskin Classic. The Eddie Robinson game is already set, with Kansas State and Iowa, at Arrowhead Stadium. There's talk about Virginia Tech and Purdue in a Michael Vick-Drew Brees battle for the Heisman lead game in one of the preseason tilts. What about Nebraska vs. Michigan State? Or Nebraska vs. Michigan? Nebraska-Alabama? The possibilities seem endless for next preseason.

Not to mention the whole season.


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