Fiesta rolls out red carpet
BY STEVEN M. SIPPLE Lincoln Journal Star
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Now, if Frank Solich can get his option attack to operate this smoothly ...
Unlike recent seasons, the Nebraska football team enjoyed a smooth day of bowl travel Friday, arriving here at about 9:15 a.m. MST -- 15 minutes ahead of schedule -- to continue preparation for the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 2 at Sun Devil Stadium.
"(The trip) went pretty well -- it was a little scary in that regard. Everywhere we went, we were early, including getting out here to practice," Solich said late Friday afternoon after leading his third-ranked Huskers through drills at nearby Scottsdale Community College. "I hope it stays this way until the game."
Nebraska's entourage of 295 -- including 145 players and coaches, assorted staff and family -- departed Lincoln Municipal Airport at 8:10 a.m. on a DC-10. Upon landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, the Huskers received the red-carpet treatment. Literally.
About 200 Fiesta Bowl officials and other well-wishers rolled out the carpet on the Tarmac and formed a human corridor to greet the 11-1 Huskers, who will face No. 6 Tennessee (9-2). A musical quartet enlivened the scene. Solich addressed media briefly then led his squad to its Arizona headquarters, the Scottsdale Plaza Resort.
Practice began promptly at 2 p.m. MST.
"It was maybe the smoothest arrival ever," said Fiesta Bowl Executive Director John Junker. "Excellent. Super. And the weather (afternoon temperature in the 70s) doesn't hurt."
"It was sharp," said Nebraska senior punter Dan Hadenfeldt, making his fifth bowl trip. "It was so nice to be out of Lincoln and to be out here. Once you get down here, it's so easy to focus on the game."
Nebraska students last week completed the fall semester with final exams. Now the Huskers can concentrate on one more difficult test -- beating Tennessee.
All-American rover Mike Brown, a former Scottsdale high-school standout and one of three Nebraska players from Arizona, treasures this trip. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior is home with his family for the holidays for the first time in college. He's relaxed, focused.
"Every year I've been at Nebraska the bowl preparation has been real, real intense -- our most intense practices," he said. "I think it's because guys are more relaxed. There's really not anything else to worry about. The guys just want to get the job done."
Hadenfeldt said the smooth day of travel "definitely helps everybody's attitude, which helps practice." Nebraska -- which lost only to Texas in October before avenging the defeat in the Dec. 4 Big 12 title game -- practiced for nearly two hours in half-pads Friday on three grass fields.
"It was a tough practice on them," Solich said. "With the plane travel, getting checked into the hotel, the fact we hadn't practiced for 2 1/2 days ... I think it all caught up with them a little.
"We are glad we did practice on the same day we arrived, to get them moving and get them going. I expect it will pick up (today). I think the effort was there; we were just sluggish."
Nebraska will practice late this morning before taking Sunday off.
Tennessee -- which lost to Florida and Arkansas -- arrives Sunday afternoon and begins workouts Monday.
Both teams face a climate adjustment.
"I think it is ideal, but of course, we're not used to it," Solich said of the temperatures, expected to remain in the 70s and above throughout the next several days. "That also played a role in us being sluggish today. It's a good reason for us to get out here early, so we can push hard right now, get used to the weather and then back off a little as we get closer to the game."
Offensive lineman Chris Dishman and fullback Joel Makovicka --former Husker standouts who now are starters for the 6-8 Arizona Cardinals -- visited NU's workout.
"It brings back a lot of memories. It was a great game when we came out here and beat Florida (62-24 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, for the national crown)," said Dishman, then a junior.
A national title is out of the picture this time. But Nebraska would like to repeat the result.