LINCOLN, NEB. -- All of the preseason talk in the Big 12 centered around Texas and Oklahoma. Presumably, those were the chosen schools, the ones best equipped to win the national title from the conference.
But don't count out Nebraska. The Cornhuskers' 27-10 win over Notre Dame Saturday night in Lincoln was impressive on many fronts and stamped them as legit. The Nebraska ground game was impressive and the passing attack had a pulse. It was a well-balanced effort.
Why can't the Huskers be in Pasadena on January 3 to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl? In addition to the strong overall effort vs. the Irish, Nebraska is buoyed by a schedule that will bring Oklahoma (October 27) and Kansas State (November 10) to Lincoln. There is no Texas or Texas A&M, but a season-ending trip to Colorado could be trouble.
But let's focus on the here and now.
Now hear this: The Cornhuskers are a player for Pasadena because of their defense. The Blackshirts are a fast, swarming force with good depth that limited Notre Dame to 162 yards overall and just 43 on the ground.
Sure, the Huskers haven't faced a formidable offense yet. Rice visits next week. After that, there's Missouri, Iowa State and Baylor. Texas Tech's visit October 20 could put some pressure on the Husker defense. But by then, Nebraska's stop-troops will be playing with lots of confidence.
"We were really confident," says Huskers linebacker Jamie Burrow. "We have a great unit. We went out there and set a goal of keeping them under 225 yards of total offense, and we did better than that. We came out and played with a lot of emotion. We were relentless."
There wasn't much confidence in the Nebraska offense the first two weeks of the season. The Huskers (3-0) season-opening wins over TCU and Troy State left those around the program unsatisfied. Nebraska still had an ineffective passing game. And the rushing game bogged down inside the red zone.
But against Notre Dame (0-1), Nebraska cleared up those concerns. The Huskers' offensive line, which features three new starters and came under scrutiny in the first two games, blew the Irish defensive front off the ball and made phantoms of star ends Anthony Weaver and Grant Irons.
Dahrran Diedrick led the Huskers with 133 yards rushing on 32 totes, as Nebraska finished with 182 yards on the ground and 270 total for the game. Tight end Tracey Wistrom led the team with four catches for 71 yards.
And then there was the play of quarterback Eric Crouch. No one doubts his ability to run. In fact, he's the team's best runner, combining speed and toughness like few others.
But his right arm has left something lacking. He had surgery in the offseason and all was deemed well. But he hit just 18-of-33 passes (54.5 percent) for 260 yards with no touchdowns and two picks in the first two games. If Nebraska couldn't pass, it was going to make its offense easier to defend.
But Crouch came alive vs. the Irish. He hit 6-of-9 passes for 88 yards and a score to John Gibson. Time and again, he found Wistrom deep over the middle. The Crouch-Wistrom tandem must continue to be used often to keep defenses off balance and to create running room for the I-backs.
And an effective passing game would allow Crouch to not be a one-man gang. That often was the case last year, which is why he hurt his shoulder. An injury to Crouch may be enough to ruin any title hopes.
"I think we dominated in the first half," says Crouch, whose Huskers failed to score in the second half. "We were really excited to get out there and to show the country that we have a great offense."
Things don't get easier for the Irish. They travel to Purdue next week, a place they've lost the last two times they've visited. Next, Michigan State, which has won the last four meetings with Notre Dame, visits South Bend. Then, the Irish go to Texas A&M. If Notre Dame doesn't emerge from September 2-2, it will struggle to make a bowl following a 9-3 effort in 2000.
The crux of Notre Dame's problems are at quarterback. Matt LoVecchio did a good job last year as a true freshman. He was 7-1 as a starter last year after Arnaz Battle suffered a season-ending injury in an overtime loss to Nebraska. LoVecchio excelled at making the smart play. As a result, the Irish set an NCAA record for fewest turnovers in a season with eight.
But in this game, the Irish had four turnovers and snapped the ball over the punter's head on one occasion. If Notre Dame is to take the next step, it needs more than just safe play from its quarterback. It needs a playmaker who can pass.
LoVecchio, who hit 11-of-24 passes for 78 yards and a pick, misfired often throwing down field. Sophomore Carlyle Holiday, who completed 5-of-8 attempts for 41 yards and an interception took over for a series late in the second quarter and led the Irish to a field goal, their only points through three quarters.
LoVecchio finished the half before Holiday took over for the third quarter, which opened with Nebraska leading 27-3. LoVecchio came back in at the start of the fourth quarter, but Irish coach Bob Davie should stick with Holiday.
Holiday, who eschewed Nebraska and signed with the Irish late in the recruiting process in the winter of 2000, is a better athlete than LoVecchio and is just as good of a passer. Besides, this is a team that doesn't need a quarterback derby. It would be best to suffer growing pains with Holiday -- especially if the Irish lose at Purdue next Saturday.
"We weren't prepared," says Davie. "I take responsibility for that. There are no excuses. We will get this right. We aren't going to leave our season on the field in Lincoln."
Staff writer Tom Dienhart covers college football for The Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.