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Published Tuesday, July 22, 1997,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.

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Knight-Ridder
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Cornhusker countdown on for Akron

  • Thoughts of Nebraska are motivation for Zips

    By Terry Pluto
    Beacon Journal sports columnist

    NLY 40 DAYS UNTIL NEBRASKA.

    That's the sign in Othe University of Akron weight room.

    Forty days until the opening of the football season. Forty days until what many football experts claim is the biggest mismatch since Custer at Little Big Horn.

    Forty days . . .

    About 80 Akron football players have been working out this summer. It's all voluntary, and they all have Nebraska on their minds.

    ``I'm convinced that we never would have had this strong a turnout in the summer if we were playing someone else,'' said Zips coach Lee Owens. ``We had only 40 kids last year.''

    And the 80 players have been lifting cars.

    OK, not exactly carrying cars on their backs, but pushing them.

    In early July, the players had a contest. Who could shove a Chevy Corsica over 40 yards, and who could do it the fastest?

    The answer is Dan Wessman.

    It took the offensive lineman 11 seconds to push assistant coach Dan Bailey's Corsica over those 40 yards.

    The players also threw medicine balls. They ran 40 yards carrying a 120-pound dumbbell in each hand. Word is they nibbled on rusty nails and washed them down with a quart of Quaker State.

    Just don't try any of this at home.

    ``It was our tough man competition.'' said Bailey, who is the Zips' strength coach. ``With Nebraska coming, you can't be tough enough.''

    Bailey knows. He played at Nebraska in the middle 1980s, a backup offensive lineman. The setup of his weight room is based on Nebraska's.

    Posted in his weight room is a breakdown of the Nebraska roster.

    There also is this clipping from a Lincoln newspaper: ``How hard will the team work this summer knowing Akron and Central Florida are the first two games on the schedule?''

    Bailey considered that an insult. He wants his players to feel the same way.

    ``I have a friend in Nebraska,'' Bailey said. ``He sends me stuff (for the bulletin board). When I first heard we had a chance to play Nebraska, I thought it was great. On Aug. 30, our kids will play in front of a packed house in Lincoln, 75,000 fans. That is what college football is all about.''

    No fear of failure

    In his office, Coach Lee Owens also knows Nebraska is only 40 days away.

    On his desk, he has Rick Pitino's new motivation book.

    One page he marked as follows: ``Some say failure teaches us nothing. I don't believe it. The only time failure is bad is if you use it as an excuse to quit.''

    And Owens will probably use those lines sometime during Nebraska week.

    In the meantime, he has watched films of Nebraska -- all the games from the Huskers' 11-2 season.

    ``We sent them tapes of all our games, too,'' Owens said.

    Owens said he probably won't show a full-game tape of Nebraska to his players.

    ``I doubt they'll show a complete game of ours to their players, either,'' said Owens. ``Of course, it will be for different reasons.''

    No kidding.

    ``I've talked to a lot of coaches who have played Nebraska,'' he said. ``They all say the same things. In the beginning, it's not too bad. Your first unit usually can hold their own against Nebraska's. But their second and third strings just crush you, because they are as good as the first string.''

    Owens talked about how the two teams have one common opponent last year -- Virginia Tech.

    The Zips lost, 21-18.

    Nebraska hammered Tech, 41-21, although the game was close until the fourth quarter.

    ``In my mind, I can see where we can play with them,'' Owens said. ``Everything has to go right, starting with the kids. They have to believe they can play with Nebraska. Right now, our kids do.''

    Kids, Lord love 'em.

    ``But I've also had coaches tell me that you can't be shocked by anything that happens out there,'' he said. ``If it goes bad, you have to walk into the dressing room and have The Speech ready.''

    The Speech?

    ``The one where you tell the kids you love them, and how one game doesn't make a season,'' he said.

    In rebuilding Akron, Owens has a 6-16 record. He's had some practice with The Speech.

    ``The neat thing is people are excited about the game and our team,'' Owens said. ``The other day, I was jogging by my house. Two guys recognized me, and they jogged along. I spent 20 minutes telling them how we could beat Nebraska. I was ready to play the game right then.''

    Owens laughed, and shook his head at his own dreams.

    Formidable foes

    Back in the Akron weight room, Dan Bailey browses the Internet.

    There is a web page called ``Husker Power,'' updated weekly with information about the Nebraska football team.

    Dan Wessman is probably the strongest member of the Zips. He bench presses 460 pounds, squats 600 pounds. He is 6-foot-2, 309 pounds.

    But when he arrived at his workout the other day, there was a surprise for him in his assignment sheet.

    It was information about Jason Peter, the man he'll line up against on Aug. 30 in Lincoln. Peter is a preseason All-American, a guy with a barbed wire tattoo on his arm and the kind of face that makes little children and big dogs run for cover.

    Wessman's note said that Peter had gained 14 pounds of lean muscle mass this summer. He had all of Peter's times and a list of how much weight he carries. He's faster than a greyhound, stronger than a mule.

    Akron tight end Chuck Webb (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) found information about Nebraskas Grant Winstrom on his workout sheet. Winstrom is a preseason All-American defensive end who has turned a million quarterbacks into slabs of jello in his Husker career.

    Bailey pulled this information from the Internet and the Nebraska football guides.

    ``We want our kids to know what they are up against,'' said Bailey. ``But we also want them to know that they can work hard enough to play with these guys.''

    At first, the Zips agreed to play this game primarily because there was a $450,000 paycheck waiting at the end of the black and blue afternoon.

    Now, it has become more than that.

    It's a recruiting tool. It's a conversation starter. It's a lure to the weight room for the players.

    ``The other day, we had players volunteering to run 16 sprints, and these were 110-yard sprints,'' Owens said. ``It was a real humid day, and the kids wanted to do it for time. I'm telling you, that was a killer. If we don't play Nebraska, I'm not sure that happens.''

    For now, the Nebraska game is fun.

    Forty days from now . . . well, reality can wait.

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