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Saban jumping straight into collegiate fire

(c) 1995 Copyright The News and Observer Publishing Co.
(c) 1995 Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Sep 8, 1995 - 17:06 EDT) -- Talk about a baptism by fire.

Rookie Michigan State coach Nick Saban risks getting burned good this weekend as he begins his head coaching career with the Spartans against defending national champion Nebraska.

As if those odds weren't long enough, the Cornhuskers have already played one game -- a 64-21 thrashing of Oklahoma State -- and Michigan State's top running back is sidelined with a broken leg.

But the laconic Saban is not one to publicly agonize about his fate. He's upbeat about his team and respectful about Nebraska's reputation as a powerhouse.

"The offensive team is coming together very nicely," Saban said. "I think we have some good skill players on offense. That part of our team is the strength of our team."

But he acknowledges "we have a ways to go" on defense.

That doesn't bode well for the Spartans, who are coming off a 5-6 season and are generally picked as a Big Ten also-ran this season. No. 2 Nebraska is coming off a perfect 13-0 season.

"When it's their time to play, they're ready to play," Saban said of the Cornhuskers' offense. "They have such depth and quality at most every position.

"Nebraska is a very aggressive defensive team," he added. "They pin their ears back and come a thousand miles an hour."

But when it comes to boasting, leave it to a college coach to make a defending national champion sound like an underdog.

"They probably know a little better what to expect from Nebraska than we know what to expect from them," Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne said. "I'm not saying that by way of complaint; that's just the way it is. We hope we've had some repetition (in practice) on what they do, but we won't know until Saturday whether we've guessed right."

One good bet is that the Spartans offense will revolve around senior quarterback Tony Banks. He hit 61 percent of his passes last year for 2,040 yards and 11 touchdowns.

"Tony has done a good job in developing leadership," Saban said. "That part of our team is the strength of our team."

But Banks will be lining up behind four offensive linemen making their first start against Nebraska. Michigan State also will be lacking senior tailback Duane Goulbourne, who rushed for 930 yards and eight touchdowns last year, but broke his leg in practice Aug. 31 and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

So two sophomore tailbacks and senior fullback Scott Greene will try to run through Nebraska's defense.

One top Cornhuskers threat will be quarterback Tommie Frazier, who completed 6 of 10 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns last week. He also rushed for 64 yards and a TD. And running back Lawrence Phillips piled up 153 yards and three touchdowns in just 12 carries against Oklahoma State.

"They have a lot of weapons on offense," Saban said. "They're very physical and a dominating team."