LINCOLN, Neb. — First things first. This is a rivalry.
Anyone who doubts that wasn’t standing on the Memorial Stadium sideline when Nebraska’s kicker pulled a 57-yard field goal out of some hat, sending the Huskers’ sideline and stands into a frenzy. Nor did they see dozens of Huskers jog off the field after they won without shaking the hands of visitors they clearly disdain. And, clearly, they ignored the calls from Lincoln this week, when the Huskers declared they wanted to sentence CU to a holiday season without a bowl.
There was nothing at stake Friday for the Huskers besides the chance at revenge. They got it. Then they celebrated.
“I’m just glad we could go out winners, instead of going out the other way,” Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz said.
Ahh, the other way. Ganz wasn’t directly referring to CU, but the other way is one the Buffs now know well.
For the second time in three years, they’ll sit and stew rather than practice and prepare next month. There are 68 Division I teams headed to bowls, and CU isn’t one of them. Tailback Demetrius Sumler said it’ll be “pain, agony.”
There’s been a lot of pain in coach Dan Hawkins’ tenure. The man who is 13-24 in three seasons in Boulder gripped both sides of a lectern in the postgame news conference and glared straight ahead, wearing a look of defiance. He fielded several of the same old questions. He said he’s never been prouder of one of his CU teams. Then he offered a few thoughts that are open to interpretation.
“It’s never fun sitting around watching everybody else play,” he said. “But you know, it’s interesting. ... It’s easy to sit out there and write about everybody else’s failures and successes, but there’s something about living in the fire. Until you do that, until you have enough guys to do that, you never experience the highs and you never experience the lows.
“Clearly we’re on the right path, and guys are doing the right things and they have a great future ahead of them. ... I think the guys have the belief that going into the offseason, that if we get all healed up and grown up, we’re going to be fine.”
CU lost more than 120 player games to injury or illness in 2008. Forty-two times, it started a freshman. That’s 95 freshman starts over the past two years, which is the most in program history.
Academic challenges remain. Coaches and staff sweat out the grades of several players every semester. Losing receiver Markques Simas in the summer stung badly.
And then there’s the suspensions and dismissals for things like off-campus fights.
Every program battles attrition. CU just appeared to battle a perfect storm of it in 2008. This was an excuse everyone grew sick of hearing and all Buffs became sick of making. That doesn’t make it any less relevant, though.
Next year, the schedule features road games at West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma State. Kansas will return the same quarterback that has beaten the Buffs three years in a row. Don’t expect Missouri or Nebraska to fall far even though both lose their quarterbacks. Think Colorado State will be easy?
If CU loses a bunch of key players in 2009, it’ll probably have another bad year. That’s reality. If the program wants to succeed, it must stem some of this attrition.
Otherwise, a year from now, we’ll not only wonder just how big of a rivalry this thing between CU and Nebraska is. We’ll also wonder what four straight losing seasons means.