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November 14, 1999
Tom Shatel: Huskers Give Solich First 'Big' Win
BY TOM SHATEL
WORLD-HERALD COLUMNIST

Lincoln

Welcome to the club, Frank.

That is, the "Big Game Club." To get in, you need to beat somebody good, preferably ranked in the top five, with a load of chips on the table, like a conference or even national championship. To get in, you need to prove that you can stand on the sidelines, under the hot lights, with the weight of the college football world on your back, and make the tough decision, the big call, play the right instinct, outfox the fox across the field and sometimes, well, just figure out a way to win.

Well, it took him longer than some folks wearing red hats, red pants and red underwear would have liked, but Nebraska Head Coach Frank Solich joined the club on Saturday. He won his first "big game," in the 10th game of his second season. Solich and Nebraska thumped Kansas State, 41-15, at Memorial Stadium, in front of 77,000 of his closest friends, now that he's a big-game kind of guy.

Sure, former Husker Coach Tom Osborne always used to say, "They're all big games around here." And everyone would nod and agree. But even Osborne knew that some games are bigger than others. Others are downright end-of-the-world, cats-and-dogs-living-together stuff. That was Saturday.

Kansas State and its resident genius, Bill Snyder, were in town to win for the first time in Lincoln since 1968, take a second straight Big 12 North "title" and knock Nebraska all the way to a second-tier bowl, none of which is taken lightly in this part of the country.

Nebraska's program needed Saturday's statement. Solich needed it more. He needed a big win, to show he could call the right plays, make the big moves and validate all that confidence that Osborne put in him by basically handing him the job in 1997. Can Solich coach? Sure. Does Frankie know football? Absolutely. But ultimately, coaches are judged, and keep their jobs, based on landmark wins. Big wins. In big games.

All Solich needed to do to join on Saturday was say the secret password. "Tremendous."

"It was just a tremendous win," Solich said.

It was just a tremendous coaching job by Solich.

The man with the hardest job in college football won his hardest victory on Saturday. But Solich did it in style, outcoaching the man considered to be the best coach in the Big 12, pushing the right buttons and even some buttons that were hard to activate.

When I-back Dan Alexander fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, he never returned to the game. When I-back Correll Buckhalter, who had fumbled on the Texas 1-yard line three weeks ago, did the same on K-State's 1 in the second quarter, he was replaced. A little cruel? Not for a big game. Solich was sending his team a message. This is serious. Execute or exit.

Tremendous.

Solich had come up with a bunch of new plays for this game, maybe 12 or 15 or so. He was going to show Snyder. He was going to try to outfox the fox. But this was no time for fancy stuff. This was time for Nebraska to show it could still push K-State around, Nebraska-style. Nebraska rushed for 309 yards. Quarterback Eric Crouch didn't spend all day in the pocket, exposed to K-State defensive end's Darren Howard's assaults. But Solich mixed in just enough play-action plays to tight end Tracey Wistrom.

Absolutely tremendous.

And with the I-backs playing hot potato, Solich gave the ball - heck, the game - to Crouch, who rushed for a Nebraska quarterback-record 27 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. K-State knew Crouch was coming and still couldn't tackle the hard-running No. 7.

Incredibly tremendous.

Johnny Rodgers was even safe. His NCAA-record seven career punt returns for touchdowns wasn't touched by K-State's David Allen because, well, Allen never touched the ball on a punt. That's right. Not once. NU's Dan Hadenfeldt had five punts: one out of the end zone, one that Allen let roll by him and three absolutely brilliant punts. Two of them bounced out of bounds away from Allen. The fifth one sat down like a wedge shot, five feet from the hole, er, sideline. Eat your hearts out, Texas Coach Mack Brown and Iowa State Coach Dan McCarney.

Tremendously tremendous.

It was a tremendous day for Solich, who wouldn't admit to the pressure of having to win this game or have the pressure on his back grow by another 16 tons. It was his best day, the best his team has looked in two years. The only glitches were those 10 fumbles - "only" three lost- that extended Nebraska's nation-leading total to 18 balls handed away.

"It stared us in the face some today," Solich.

But Solich didn't blink.

Solich is a good man. Sometimes too good. In his two seasons, he's tried to tread lightly. He's been called wishy-washy, indecisive. It seems he's tried to keep everybody happy. But head coaches can't do that. Not if they want to win. Not if they want to win big games. So Solich, with a furrowed brow and heavy heart, benched two of his favorites, Alexander and Buckhalter, even though he knew it would crush them.

He didn't hesitate in sitting them down and going to third-team Dahrran Diedrick, who looks more like a first-teamer.

"That was a tough decision," Solich said. "Those guys have been good players for us. We felt we needed a change."

Pressure will make you react one or two ways. Sometimes you may react in a way you never thought possible. That may have been Solich on Saturday, spanking his boys and sending them to the corner and giving the game to Crouch, who had his best game, one in which he became commander, playmaker, and leader. It was a breakthrough game for both head coach and quarterback, who have been through so much so fast.

"It's weird how it's working out," Crouch said. "We're all growing together, as coaches and as players.

"Coach Solich has grown tremendously (of course). In two years he's been faced with so much and made some tough decisions. He made some more today. We couldn't ask for more from Coach Solich. He's better than a lot of people expected him to be."

Said senior rover Mike Brown, "People have to understand you're not going to be as good as Coach Osborne or Coach (Bob) Devaney in your first year or two. He's going to be a great coach. I think people are starting to understand that."

A big game will do that. But even though Solich reeled in a big one, chased the Big 12's resident poker-face from the table and put his team two wins from a possible shot at a national championship, he should know that all this good will won't mean a thing if he doesn't win at Colorado in two weeks.

Welcome to the club, Frank.


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