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Published Sunday, August 31, 1997,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.

KR logo
Knight-Ridder
newspapers

No Miracles On This Day

  • But Zips survive; will play again

    LINCOLN, NEB.
    he light. That is Twhat hits you first.

    You have spent the last 40 minutes in the dressing room with the Akron football team. It is cool, almost like a cave in the bowels of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium.

    You have heard speeches that will stir your heart.

    You have heard dreams that make you believe in miracles.

    You have heard players insist, ``We can play with these guys, we really can.''

    These are Akron players.

    Akron players at Nebraska, where the Huskers have the longest home winning streak in the country -- 36 games.

    But you have been with the Akron players and coaches as they talked about doing what everyone knows is impossible -- yet, they believe it might happen.

    Then you leave the cool of the dressing room. You walk through the stadium concourse, down an aisle with ropes holding back the fans.

    It is still cool and dark.

    The fans wear red, but they are polite. Nebraska fans, but they wish you luck.

    Then you come into the stadium, and it almost flattens you.

    The stark blue sky.

    The relentless, piercing, yellow sun.

    The red.

    Everywhere, it is red. You have never seen so many people wearing red.

    It blinds you.

    Then there's the heat.

    It comes right up through the artificial turf, right through your shoes.

    You can't see.

    Your feet are burning.

    In two minutes, you've sweated so much, your shirt is a dish towel.

    Suddenly, everyone coming out of that tunnel knew they weren't at the Rubber Bowl anymore.

    The light of reality that is Nebraska washed down on this young team from Akron.

    Imagine being George Custer the night before Little Big Horn -- only you know it's coming.

    That was how it felt to be Akron football coach Lee Owens this weekend.

    He took his team to Nebraska, a team that was a 56-point underdog. He took it into a stadium that is the home of the No. 6-ranked team in the country, a stadium that has had 75,000 fans for every game since 1962.

    Now you know why Owens didn't sleep Friday night. Few football coaches coming into Lincoln ever do the night before a game.

    ``I finally closed my eyes,'' Owens said. ``And the alarm rang.''

    Lee Owens is 41 years old. He's starting his third year as coach at Akron, which is rated as one of the worst Division I-A football teams in the country.

    If somehow Akron could win this game . . .

    Owens isn't sure what would happen, but he knows his life would never quite be the same.

    ``And I could see it happening,'' he said. ``Everything would have to go absolutely perfect, but I can see a way, I really can.''

    About a half-hour before the game, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne sought out Owens.

    ``Coach, you may play us very well like you did against Virginia Tech (last year, a 21-18 loss),'' Osborne said. ``Or the game may go the other way. We don't know. But I promise that no matter what happens, we won't embarrass you.''

    Owens thanked Osborne.

    The heat.

    Nothing Akron did could prepare for the heat.

    Forget the actual temperature, on the field it was 103.

    The Zips even spent $2,000 for special cooling fans. For two days, they had their players drinking extra water and Gatorade.

    But the heat would wilt you. It sucked the air right out of your lungs, it took away your legs.

    In his dream game plan, it would be cold, wet and windy in Nebraska so the Husker players would slip and/or drop passes. That was the weather when the Zips nearly upset Virginia Tech last year.

    Instead, it is sweltering, dry and the air is almost still.

    The waiting.

    Owens brought 70 players to Nebraska, and yesterday morning they were 70 men in suits and ties looking as if they were on a job interview.

    They picked at their breakfast at the Quality Inn.

    After they were done, you saw plate after plate of half-eaten eggs, pancakes, sausage and hash browns.

    It is only 9:30 a.m. The game is still three hours away.

    The sheer weight of the waiting has become unbearable. Akron has known this game was coming for nine months. It has been nine months of dreaming and scheming, nine months waiting for this day.

    The players and coaches have dedicated themselves to this game, this season. They're aren't like most of us. They don't see this game as Akron going to Nebraska, cashing its $450,000 check and heading home.

    A part of them wants Nebraska.

    The players want to measure themselves against guys they know are headed to the NFL.

    The coaches against Tom Osborne and his Nebraska staff.

    They have spent nine months wondering what it would be like to be David, to slay Goliath.

    How can you eat breakfast when that day finally comes?

    The dreams.

    Akron won the coin toss and elected to kick off.

    And the Zips actually stopped Nebraska, the Huskers driving for a while, but missing a 38-yard field goal.

    The defense is exhilarated. The offense inspired.

    For four minutes, all is well.

    You think of what Owens said before the game. Imagine 70 huge young men, helmets off, eyes intent, feet bouncing on the floor to their own nervous beat.

    The coach stands in front of them, this young coach facing one of college football's most legendary programs and coaches. Owens is one of those people who seems destined to always look as if he just graduated from college. He is blond, well-groomed and usually very quiet and carefully spoken.

    But now, his voice rises and cracks with emotion.

    ``We will go out there, 70 brothers, hand-in-hand,'' he says. ``We have to be a physical football team. GET A HAT ON THE BALL CARRIER. HE HAS TO GO DOWN.''

    His face is scarlet, his lower lip quivers.

    ``You are not playing the Nebraska mystique,'' he says. ``You are not playing those 75,000 fans. You are playing the man across from you, and that man isn't taking you seriously. We win this game by winning the individual battles, your man and you. We play everything to a VIOLENT finish.''

    Owens doesn't mean play dirty, but hit hard.

    And for a few minutes, it worked.

    The speed.

    When you play Nebraska, you think of big, corn-fed lineman. You think of heads cracking, of players turned to pancakes.

    You don't think of speed.

    Speed.

    That is what kills.

    You open holes in their defensive line, and they close them. You think you can catch their running backs, but they are gone.

    You try to tackle them, their feet are like pistons.

    In terms of strength, Akron is not being overpowered.

    But the Zips are like Grandpa's 1962 pickup trying to win the Daytona 500.

    The schemes.

    Dave Snowball is Akron's defensive coordinator.

    He is considered a coach on the rise, and his defense was ranked 26th in the country last year. He is only 30. He is trying to stop Nebraska's offense, whose plays have been called by Osborne for the last 30 years.

    The night before the game, he had his defense in the parking lot of the Quality Inn. The kids were in T-shirts and sweatpants. He had them line up against 11 chairs, representing Nebraska formations.

    ``We tackled the right chair every time,'' he said.

    The heat.

    You see steam coming off players' shaved heads.

    You see them sitting in front of the $2,000 fan, and you see trainers ringing out wet towels of ice water on them.

    You see them puff, trying to find air.

    Early in the second quarter, it is already 21-0.

    Snowball was furious. He looked at his defense and said, ``Maybe Jason Peter is right.''

    Before the game, Snowball had repeated a quote from Peter, a defensive lineman from Nebraska.

    ``I'm sure Akron will be nervous,'' Peter said. ``They're not sure if they can take us. Once we start breaking them down, they'll lose confidence.''

    Not exactly inflammatory stuff, but it was the best bulletin board material the Zips could find.

    ``You took this challenge,'' Snowball told his defense before the game. ``You didn't have to play this game. But you took it on faith, and faith is believing in something you can't see. Don't let Jason Peter be right.''

    Then assistant Joe Palmisano said: ``People like Jason Peter, people on ESPN and in the newspapers who have been talking about us -- they don't know the heart of the warrior. Those who say we'll get killed, they don't play this game. You play it.

    ``The field is the same size as always. You are the same age. You are the same size and just as strong.''

    All of that is true, only Nebraska has so many more players than Akron -- players the likes of which the Zips had never seen.

    Reality.

    At halftime, it was 38-0.

    The dressing room was quiet, business-like. Defense in one corner, offense in the other.

    They knew more than the score. They knew Goliath will not fall to the turf this day. The coaches talked strategy, made adjustments.

    The players were still paying attention, no fingers were pointed.

    ``Guys,'' Owens said. ``Don't you want to know what it would feel like to get into the end zone?''

    The words echo as the players filed back onto the field, back out of the cool cave and into the heat and the light.

    The heat and the speed.

    Akron just couldn't cope.

    Osborne kept substituting. He didn't throw many passes. The Zips couldn't stop them on defense, couldn't move the ball on offense.

    Finally, a touchdown.

    With 5:17 left in the third quarter, running back Bo Hunter scampered around end 11 yards and into the corner of the end zone. The Akron bench erupted, waving helmets in the air.

    The score, 45-7.

    But the heat wouldn't let up.

    An Akron player vomited. Several felt dizzy.

    The speech.

    For months, Owens knew this might happen.

    Despite all the sweat, the dreams and the schemes, his team would come to Nebraska and be blown out.

    The final was 59-14.

    The players gathered around the coach.

    KEEP IT POSITIVE, Owens told himself.

    ``Some people thought we'd lose by 90,'' he said. ``Some people said we would need stretchers and ambulances to carry us out. Anyone here need to be carried out?''

    ``No,'' screamed the players.

    The only injury was a sprained ankle to linebacker Bill Burke, who stood up and vowed to be ready to play the next game.

    ``Physically, they didn't destroy us,'' Owens said. ``But we also know, we didn't play a good football game.''

    KEEP IT POSITIVE, Owens told himself again.

    ``In two weeks, we go to Miami of Ohio,'' he said. ``Do you think their Big Red will be any worse than this?''

    ``No,'' screamed the players.

    ``All together now,'' Owens said. ``MAC champs.''

    What do you say when your dreams have been sacked by the light of reality?

    If you're Lee Owens, you search for the right words. You are appreciative of Osborne not running up the score. You notice how the fans lined the way to your dressing room, cheering and patting your team on the back -- wishing you well.

    These are Nebraska fans, holding to their reputation as the best behaved in college football.

    Your team had no punts blocked, and made only one turnover. It could have been worse, much worse -- but you honestly thought it would be better.

    ``They are as good a college team as I've ever seen,'' Owens said, shaking his head.

    And in the end, Lee Owens knew there was nothing he could do about it.

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