The last time his team played Nebraska in October 1997, Devin Lemons could barely keep his breath.
The game was a physical mismatch, Lemons said. Quarter after quarter against Lemons and Texas Tech, Nebraska increased its gap from a field goal in the first to a 22-point advantage in the third.
By the time the game ended that year in the middle of the Nebraska plains, Tech had fallen victim to a processional march of constant bulldozing in a 29-0 loss at Memorial Stadium.
''It was a case of them wearing us down,'' said Lemons, a senior defensive end whose team faces the No.1-ranked Cornhuskers in today's 6 p.m. game at Jones SBC Stadium. ''They just continued to hammer it out, hammer it out and hammer it out. They mowed us down to the point where nobody had anything left. This year, they do that, too, but we have more athletes at every position to handle it.''
Tech (5-1) hopes to handle it today with the key of the season against Nebraska. In coaches' terms, it's called ''competing the full 60 minutes.''
Few other teams have been able to do it this year against the Huskers, giving Nebraska a combined 56-14 advantage in the final quarter after opponents have managed to keep a closer-than-expected pace before halftime.
Case in point came in the last three games against Iowa State, Missouri and Iowa. Nebraska (5-0) fell into a 7-0 deficit against each before blowing them all out by at least 18 points. Iowa State had even come within one point of Nebraska at the end of the third quarter last week before giving up four rushing touchdowns in the final 15 minutes of a 42-17 loss at home.
''Late in the fourth quarter, they have confidence,'' Tech linebackers coach Ruffin McNeill said. ''They don't panic, and they get real patient. Playing 60 minutes is even bigger (against Nebraska). We're going to stay fresh and keep people fresh, but at the same time, we're not going to change our style.''
Tech's style is centered around similar late flourishes, though they're not as heavily lopsided as Nebraska's. The Red Raiders have outscored their opponents 75-37 after halftime, keeping them in tune for 60 minutes under the strength and conditioning program of Tech coach Kelvin Clark, a Nebraska graduate and former player.
Call it the Huskers' trademark. If they don't make it an issue in the final quarter of the game, they'll put the game out of reach long before it even reaches that point.
Tech's closest game against Nebraska since 1976 was a 24-10 loss in Lubbock in 1996. Today, Tech hopes the difference against Nebraska is the second-best statistical defense in the nation and an offense that finally may have found its long-lost stride. The Raiders have scored touchdowns in seven of the last eight quarters, including each of the last five.
''Our best game on offense was last week (in a 28-0 win) against Baylor,'' Tech head coach Mike Leach said. ''Our second best may have been against Texas A&M; (in a 33-15 loss the week before). Like I said, we did some dumb things, but we played and executed pretty decently. All things considered, we were a whisker away from having 200 more yards.''
Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury has completed 61 of his last 100 passes and will face a Nebraska defense that ranks 70th nationally against the pass with 214.8 passing yards allowed per game. The biggest crimp in his recent style may have been penalties by the offense, which has committed 40 of Tech's conference-leading 71 penalties for the year.
Only 19 of Tech's penalty explosion have been committed by the defense, which hopes to be as technically sound today against Nebraska, the No. 1 rushing offense in the nation with 351.4 rushing yards per game.
''You don't get a chance to play the No. 1 team in the nation very often,'' Tech defensive tackle Kris Kocurek said. ''We look at it as more of an opportunity than a challenge. The main thing with Nebraska is that when you see the 'N' on their helmet, you think they're unbeatable. But anybody's beatable. They put their pants on the same way we put ours on.''
Brent Schrotenboer can be reached at 766-8733 or at email@example.com