Scottsdale, Ariz. - Nebraska Offensive Line Coach Milt Tenopir points toward, of all games, the Huskers' Oct. 23 loss to Texas. Center Dominic Raiola and guard Jon Rutherford say it happened two weeks later against Texas A&M.
|James Sherman, No. 63, is one of the members of the improved Nebraska offensive line blocking for quarterback Eric Crouch, No. 7, during this run Nov. 13 against Kansas State.
Guard James Sherman can't find a defining moment.
"We had it in us all year," Sherman said.
The NU offensive linemen and their coaches fail to agree on the time at which something clicked with this group, the moment when everything suddenly became much easier and opponents began to again fear the Nebraska rushing attack. They only agree it happened, and that it feels good to know it happened.
"It's been kind of weird," said Rutherford, a sophomore reserve from Midwest City, Okla. "All of a sudden we played, we pretty much started dominating at the line of scrimmage. I don't know what it is.
"There's just a lot of confidence out there now with us. Everybody is having fun. No one is looking at it as a job."
Rutherford speaks for the entire group of offensive linemen when he talks about the feeling of redemption that circulates through their meetings this month as they prepare for Sunday's 7:20 p.m. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Tennessee.
In fact, Tenopir said, the linemen seem relieved to have helped the Huskers reach this point of accomplishment after two years of near misses and critical reviews.
Nebraska has lost five games in the past two years, and more often than not the linemen took heat and felt a share of the responsibility. Though the 24-20 loss at Texas in October marks the Huskers' only blemish of the season, Tenopir said he saw it as a turning point. NU rushed for 192 yards and a pair of touchdowns against a stingy UT defense.
Six weeks later, Nebraska pounded out 234 yards rushing and two scores against Texas in a Big 12 championship game rematch, won 22-6 by the Huskers.
Tenopir, in his 26th season of guidance for the offensive linemen, notes the 11-1 NU record and No. 3 ranking - despite a nation-leading 25 lost fumbles - as a testament to the work ethic of his players.
"It's tough to be a lineman," Tenopir said. "A lot of things can happen in a football game, and a lot of it can be disheartening. You've got to come back and fight off the frustration. They've been very physically and mentally tough all year. And as it has gone along, a lot of different players have taken key roles."
Since a 24-17 Nebraska win over Kansas Oct. 30, statistics point to considerable improvement among the linemen. NU rushed for 14 touchdowns and an average of 308.5 yards in its final four games - against Texas A&M, Kansas State, Colorado and Texas. In its first eight games, which included a 439-yard effort against Iowa State, the Huskers had 23 rushing touchdowns and a 244.7-yard average on the ground.
In addition, NU allowed 14 quarterback sacks in its first eight games and three in the last four.
Raiola, Sherman and Russ Hochstein at guard and Adam Julch and Dave Volk at tackle started each game. Among that group, NU counts 87 games of career starting experience for its offensive line.
Hochstein, a junior, and Raiola, a sophomore, earned first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors. Volk, another sophomore, was named to the honorable mention all-conference team.
"What stands out in my mind was the A&M and Kansas State games," Raiola said. "Everything was in a groove. We definitely wanted to be successful running the ball, and we certainly had some redemption on our minds just in terms of running the ball."
The feelings that lingered after a 9-4 season in 1998 motivated NU throughout the offseason prior to this fall, Raiola said. From the sidelines, senior tackle Jason Schwab watched the improvement. Schwab, a returning 13-game starter, tore a knee ligament early during two-a-day practice sessions in August.
He applied to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Because of a knee injury that kept Schwab out of the entire 1996 season, he said, NU officials told him he stands a good chance to receive the extra season. He said he worked this entire year with the mindset that he'll rejoin his teammates next March for spring practice.
"I'm amazed at how everybody came together," said Schwab, who watches Nebraska's daily bowl-site practices at Scottsdale Community College. "Dave Volk stepped in and did an amazing job. He's a great player. In the past, I think each class of players was kind of segregated. We could always tell you who was in what class.
"This year, it's become such a tight knit group that I don't think anybody even knows who came in what year."
If Schwab gets another year and returns to the starting lineup, NU sits in a position to take into next fall 55 games of starting experience among its five top linemen. The only new starting spot would likely go to either Rutherford or Toniu Fonoti, a true freshman reserve behind Sherman this season.
"Whether I come back or not, they're going to be an excellent group," Schwab said. "It may sound kind of funny coming from me, but I'm really proud of all of them. We need to take this bowl game and win, and next spring will be the next step toward another great year."
Participants: No. 3-ranked Nebraska (11-1) vs. Nos. 5 and 6 Tennessee (9-2)
When: Sunday at 7 p.m. CST
Where: 73,471-seat Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Television: ABC and KETV-Channel 7 (announcers: Tim Brant, Dean Blevins and Leslie Gudel).
Radio: ESPN National and Pinnacle Sports Productions (Warren Swain and Adrian Fiala), including KKAR, 1290 AM
The Latest Line: Nebraska by 31/2 points.