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HUSKER FOOTBALL: Colorado coach certain Nebraska game still matters
BY CURT McKEEVER Lincoln Journal Star
Colorado football coach Gary Barnett talks about how important Friday's game at Nebraska will be for his freshmen.

"They're going to play there at least one more time, so I think as much as anything it's going over and getting used to the environment," he said.

Just don't take that statement to mean Barnett is conceding victory. Although his 3-7 team is about to finish with only the second losing campaign at CU since Bill McCartney's first club went 1-10 in 1984, Barnett still sees a lot of fight in the Buffs.

"We know we're walking into a hornet's nest. But you know what? We lost, too, (the last game) so we're pretty angry ourselves," he said. "It's two teams that are coming off losses and we're playing on their site. That's what it boils down to. And it's the Nebraska-Colorado game."

Like his former CU boss, Barnett, who guided Northwestern to Big Ten titles in 1995 and 96, makes no bones about the importance of the game against the Huskers.

"It's Nebraska week, and that's all you have to say around here. It's a big game for the state. It's a big game for our team, big game for our program," he said. "I think we're trying to continue with our thoughts of this being in a new season for us and we just want to try to play sound, play with great emotion and make some plays."

Colorado had won two straight before falling at home to Iowa State 35-27 a week ago Saturday.

As was the case in 1998, the Buffaloes have been depleted by injuries. At one point in camp this fall, 17 players were unable to practice. Among the seven players that have been lost for the season are veteran linebacker Ty Gregorak, freshman sensation Marcus Houston at tailback, defensive tackle Matt McChesney and free safety Medford Moorer. CU also lists nine other two-deep players as less than 100 percent for Friday's game.

Amazingly, Barnett calls his team "decently healthy" and sounds like he wished there was more left of the season.

The high point came when Colorado snapped Texas A&M's 22-game winning streak at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, on Oct. 7.

That marked the first start for freshman quarterback Craig Ochs. The Boulder, Colo., product has played well enough since to become the top candidate for Big 12 Conference Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Despite playing in a little more than six games, Ochs is currently third in the nation in passing yards by a true freshman (1,524). His quarterback rating of 126.4 also is third best among first-year freshmen.

"I really think the first couple of days we had him in camp we knew that he would eventually be the guy. We just didn't know how long it would take him," Barnett said. "We wanted to do the right things by the other two guys and make sure they had a fair shot to win the job. . .Craig needed to learn the offense and those sort of things, but we could tell right away his brightness and how quick his delivery was that he had a chance to be a really good player."

Barnett went with Zac Colvin at the start of the season, then moved to Bobby Pesavento before inserting Ochs in the fourth game of the season against Kansas State.

"After three games, we really hadn't gelled as an offense, both our tailbacks were hurt at that point (and) we felt like it was time to see what he could do," Barnett said.

While Ochs' has been able to rely on his phyiscal skills, Barnett said he still plays like a freshman.

"You never know totally what to expect. And you don't know how we're going to handle Nebraska's defense and exactly what they're going to do," he said. "But Craig's just got to be Craig. He's got to do what he does best, and that's get rid of the ball, not take sacks, know what we're doing in our offense.

"We don't ask him to get us in the right play a whole lot, we just ask him to execute what we're doing. Now with a freshman the one thing it forces you to do, and it's probably good, is that you've got to be pretty simple. You're not going to put a whole lot of new stuff in. What we want him to do is not give up negative-yardage plays, not take sacks and just throw the ball on time. That's what his role is in this game."

Oh yeah, and not get mesmerized by a Nebraska crowd that has rattled many a young quarterback.

"We've been in some good places. We've been in A&M and in the (Los Angeles) Coliseum, so this team is not going to be all that much caught up in that sort of thing," said Barnett, who is 10-12 at Colorado and 45-57-1 in eight-plus years as a NCAA Division I-A head coach. "I mean, we've played a heck of a schedule. We've played a bunch of great teams this year. We're playing another great team, we're playing at another exciting, difficult place to play, and I think we'll take that in stride."

Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or cmckeever@journalstar.com.

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