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Published Monday, August 18, 1997,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.

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Knight-Ridder
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Akron lives and breathes for Nebraska

By Terry Pluto
Countdown to Nebraska:

It is Saturday morning at the Rubber Bowl. Coach Lee Owens is at midfield, surrounded by 100 players in Akron Blue and Gold.

``Give me a knee,'' he says.

These are sweaty, dirty young men who look as if they could tear a Buick apart with their bare hands and eat it.

You see them drop to one knee as if the pope just walked through the Vatican.

The Zips had just finished their first scrimmage. A date with Nebraska looms two weeks away. The players are exhausted. Owens had kept them on the field longer than expected, because there have been problems.

``I could say that we've been working hard and let's take a day off,'' Owens tells his team. ``But we play in Lincoln on the 30th of August. You know that Nebraska isn't taking any days off.''

Owens pauses.

``Can we afford to take off one more day than Nebraska?'' he asks.

Another pause.

He has to say no more.

The opening game at Nebraska hangs over this team like a prom night that can go very well or very badly.

Or as junior defensive back Andre McCray says, ``This is our bowl game.''

In the team meeting, Owens praises his defense, the sheer passion with which his players crushed each other.

``But the mental mistakes . . . '' he says, as if someone has just broken a pipe and flooded his dream house.

Quarterbacks kept throwing the ball to the guys in the wrong colored jerseys. When they did find the open man, the receivers dropped too many passes.

Looking the part

The good news was the defense.

It has been a long time since you've seen an Akron team this large, this strong, this mean.

The sound of shoulder pads slapping and the smashing of bodies echoed around the Rubber Bowl. As defensive coordinator Dave Snowball said, ``We are physical and we like to knock people around, which is exactly how you play this game.''

Owens likes that. He and his staff have been recruiting guys who look like washing machines with legs and shaved heads. It is astounding that they have found so many in only three years.

Last year, the Zips were the third best defense in the Mid-American Conference. Even after losing Jason Taylor to the Miami Dolphins, they should be even better this year.

To make sure, Owens has sequestered his team in a football boot camp deep in the heart of Wayne County. They have been fed raw meat and slept on beds with nails instead of springs.

OK, it's not quite that bad, but you get the idea.

On this day of the scrimmage at the Rubber Bowl, they meet with family and friends, sharing a box lunch.

It is the first time they have seen anyone except each other for 10 days.

From the sound of this, you'd think Owens is a tyrant. Whips and chains, screaming and swearing.

But most of the time, he speaks in a remarkably quiet voice. He just turned 41, but he has one of those faces like Bob Costas. How can he be over 40 and look as if he just graduated from high school?

During the scrimmage, the Zip offense stalls on the 1-yard line. Twice they run the ball, and twice the defense is a wall.

The third time, Owens calls for quarterback Greg Gromek to throw a pass to the tight end.

Assignments are blown, and Gromek makes a ridiculous throw that is run back 102 yards.

Touchdown! For the wrong team.

Owens is furious. He takes off his cap and stomps around the sidelines. His face is scarlet, steam comes from his ears.

Owens pulls his quarterback aside, a good 10 feet from the rest of the offense. He whispers to Gromek. You hear words such as ``terrible . . . horrible . . . awful'' but no profanity.

It's hard to imagine a coach chewing out a player in a voice that can't be heard from three feet away, but Owens just did it.

Next, he talks to the offense. They sit on the bench, helmets off, heads down, expecting a tongue lashing. But Owens speaks like the high school history teacher he once was, calmly and analytically.

Then he whispers, ``Do you think we can do something like this at Nebraska?''

Then he turns and leaves them there to think about Nebraska.

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