MANHATTAN, Kan. — Joe Bob Clements, in an effort to avoid family uproar, diplomatically categorized his first victory as a Kansas State football player against Nebraska in 1998 when the Wildcats snapped a 29-game losing streak to the Big Red.
“That was one of the greatest feelings in my life. I've got two kids and a wife. I can't say it was the greatest one,” said Clements, now K-State's defensive-ends coach and recruiting coordinator. “But it's up there.”
Just to emphasize the importance of beating the Red Menace, Clements continued.
“It's up there.”
Yes, once upon a time, Nebraska vs. K-State meant everything. Championships were up for grabs. Undefeated seasons hung in the balance.
“As soon as I got here, I learned what it meant to beat them,” K-State senior tight end Brian Casey said.
But will the game carry the same sheen, that much-anticipated spark, when Nebraska faces the Wildcats at 1:10 p.m. Saturday at KSU Stadium?
It was four years ago when Casey, a redshirt freshman, looked on in awe that snowy November night at KSU Stadium. K-State fans, chilled to the bone, were all warm and fuzzy inside because their No. 16 Wildcats had just knocked off fourth-ranked Nebraska 29-28.
Their prey was the goal post in the north end zone. It was supposedly made out of indestructible steel. After more than 60 minutes of trying, determined goal-post predators finally managed to peel away a piece of an upright.
That was the last time the goal posts have been targeted at KSU Stadium. Now, it appears almost anybody can beat Nebraska. By 60 points, no less.
“They're not the powerhouse I grew up watching. Obviously, they've changed,” K-State center Mike Johnson said. “But they're still Nebraska.”
K-State, too, is anything but a lock. The Wildcats are working on an O-fer in October. They've lost all three games this month and are in danger of not only failing to repeat as North Division champions; their bowl goal suddenly is a shaky proposition, too.
This will be the first time since 1968 that neither Nebraska nor K-State is ranked when they meet. According to K-State defensive tackle Jermaine Berry, that hardly reduces the importance.
“I think it's a feeling that you can't have unless you play in it. Even the fans don't like each other,” Berry said.
K-State coach Bill Snyder, asked whether Nebraska is K-State's biggest rival, buys more into the notion that the upcoming opponent isn't the main issue.
“I think this team's got its hands full right now. I think they're so involved with what they can do to get things going in the right direction, and how they can make themselves better and make our football team better,” Snyder said. “I think we're more internal right now than we are who we are going to line up and play against, and what that means.”
That doesn't mean, however, that Nebraska is meaningless anymore to Snyder.
“I can't define that there was any particular time that the focus on that ballgame became any greater than it was at. … I mean, it's always been important,” Snyder said. “I think maybe after we won a ballgame finally against them (in 1998), then I think it maybe all of a sudden became a little bit more of interest to youngsters in Nebraska. Maybe that heightened the possibility that it would become somewhat of a rivalry game.”
Nebraska, 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big 12, surely views Saturday's game as one of its biggest in the K-State series. If the Huskers win, their North Division hopes still have a pulse.
Lose, and it'll be the first time — get this — ever that K-State has beaten Nebraska three times in a row. Saturday will be the 89th game in the series. The Huskers have won 72 of them.
K-State, 2-4 and 0-3, can't say for certain whether fewer people will be paying attention to this year's game with the Huskers. But the Wildcats might just be thrilled not everyone can see it. For the first time since 1992, the game isn't on TV. That could be just as well for K-State, 0-3 when it has been on the tube this year.
K-State has proved to be best in much of the recent history. The Wildcats have won four of the last six against the Huskers, including a convincing 38-9 win at Nebraska in 2003. Casey said: “I'm 3-1 against them so far. We expect to beat them now. Before I got here, you really didn't expect to beat them. Now, I just feel we have the confidence, we know we can beat Nebraska, and they're not the bigger program than us anymore.”
But K-State defensive end Kevin Huntley still sees Nebraska as the obstacle. Ultimately, that may never change between these two bordering states.
“In the back of our minds, we want to play in the Big 12 championship again,” Huntley said. “To get there, we have to go through Nebraska. They are always in our way.”