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KU defense anxious to see whether it can measure up to NebraskaKU defense anxious to see whether it can measure up to Nebraska

By BOB DUTTON - The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/28/99 22:15

LAWRENCE -- The Kansas defense almost seems to welcome Saturday's test against Nebraska. Amazing, isn't it, how a shutout can transform the confidence of even the most-beleaguered units?

Statistics still suggest this is the Big 12's worst defense, but last week's 21-0 victory over Missouri provided the Jayhawks with a whole new attitude in preparing for the Huskers.

"We've ironed out a couple of wrinkles," defensive end Dion Johnson said. "We're going to go out there and compete with them up front. Every game is won or lost at the line of scrimmage."

And Johnson contends KU can outslug Nebraska in the trenches. In that, he isn't alone.

"Early in the season, we weren't really in sync," said Dion Rayford, the Jayhawks' other starting defensive end. "Now, we have a lot of confidence that we can stop anyone."

Brave talk? Remember that is No. 8 Nebraska on the schedule for 6 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, not another free-falling bunch from Missouri.

Yes, the Huskers stumbled last Saturday in a 24-20 loss at Texas, but I-back Dan Alexander still rushed for a career-high 136 yards. Quarterback Eric Crouch also established a career high by passing for 204 yards. In all, Nebraska piled up 429 yards.

"If you look at it statistically," Huskers coach Frank Solich said, "we did fairly well in a lot of areas. We were in position to score 30-40 points in that game."

The problem was three turnovers, including two inside the Longhorns' 20. Those mistakes dropped the Huskers to 6-1 overall, 3-1 in the Big 12 and to the fringe of the national-title picture.

"We had seven big plays," Crouch said, "and the potential for a lot more. If we keep doing that, we're going to score a lot of points and beat some teams."

That, of course, is what usually happens when the Huskers meet Kansas, 3-5 and 1-3. Nebraska owns 30 consecutive victories in what, at 94 consecutive years, ranks as the longest continuous series in NCAA Division I-A.

The Huskers have scored at least 30 points in 26 of those 30 straight victories. A year ago, they posted a 41-0 victory in Lincoln, Neb., when, coincidentally, they also were coming off an upset loss -- in that instance, at Texas A&M.;

Rayford says forget history, the Jayhawks aren't awed by Nebraska. Not anymore.

"I've played against them," he said, "so it's not like -- `Oooo, Nebraska.' That mystique isn't really there anymore. As you get older, you don't look at people the same way."

After a pause, though, he admits: "They are going to come in here really upset and trying to prove a point."

That point being, precisely, to stop Big 12 teams, particularly the conference's bottom feeders, from dismissing the Huskers' long-held status as a preeminent power.

"I think our players have accepted the challenge," Solich said. "They were stung pretty good by the loss."

The Huskers also realize a loss Saturday or next week against Texas A&M; could turn their much-anticipated North Division showdown against Kansas State on Nov. 13 into nothing more than an opportunity to spoil the Wildcats' perfect season.

"We really don't have a shot at the national championship," strong safety Mike Brown told the Omaha World-Herald. "A lot of things would have to happen.

"But we could still win the Big 12 championship, and that's become a big goal for us."

The goal for Kansas, coach Terry Allen said, is to avoid a quick knockout -- a Big Red trademark. After that, who knows?

"They do a great job of not allowing people to believe they can win," he said. "They do that by being very effective in the first half -- 138-13, that's how much they've outscored their opponents in the first half.

"Put yourself in a situation where you get ahead. That is the most paramount thing for us to do on Saturday. If Nebraska comes out and rolls down the field for the first couple of possessions, and we don't get a first down -- then game over."

That might happen, but the Jayhawks, for the first time in a long time, seem to be demanding that Nebraska prove that it's still Nebraska.

"Hey, they lost to Texas," Johnson said. "So that shows they can lose. They're going to come in here mad because they lost, and trying to prove a point.

"But we're going to go out there and fight. May the best team win."

To reach Bob Dutton, Kansas reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4352.

All content 2000 The Kansas City Star