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Aug. 3, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Let's Get Ready to Runza!

August in Arizona is generally not a time for rejoicing. To say the weather is merely hot would be an insult to heat-producing elements everywhere. It is beyond hot. It's Thai food dipped in Tabasco hot. It's fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk at 7 a.m. hot. It's oven mitts on your hands so you can stand to touch the steering wheel hot.

And yet, despite the sweltering heat, life is beautiful for the Desert Husker. College football teams are beginning fall practice. Kickoff for the first Husker game is only weeks away.

It's about time. I've been ready for weeks. I've already pored through all my college football annuals, and have even scanned a few non-sports magazines on the off chance they might contain something remotely related to college football. (By the way, Cooking Light magazine picks the Cornhuskers to win the Big 12 if Crouch's whisking shoulder can hold up.)

The season is nearly upon us and it's time to channel the pent up energy stored up during the seemingly endless off-season into something useful. Put simply, it's time to get psyched. Are you ready to rumble? Just in case the answer is "no," and your internal Husker fire isn't burning as hot as the interior of my car, I've put together 10 reasons to get your adrenaline pumping for the 2001 Nebraska football season.

Awesome home schedule - Although the Rice and Troy State games will likely never appear on ESPN Classic, most of this year's home slate is killer. On September 8, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame come into Memorial Stadium looking to avenge last year's nail-biting defeat in South Bend. Then, as the leaves change color, it will be the Cornhuskers who will be seeking revenge when the defending national champion Oklahoma squad, and 2000 Big 12 North champion K-State make the trip to Lincoln. These are just three of a whopping eight home games for the Big Red in 2001.

New faces on the field - You've heard the names and the hype surrounding some of the young Huskers, now you'll finally get to see them in action. While guys like Benard Thomas, Willie Amos and T.J. Hollowell played some snaps as freshmen last year, 2001 will bring their first real opportunities to shine. Several other future big-timers will hit the field for the first time, this season. Look for powerful defensive tackle Manaia Brown, speedy receiver Ben Zajicek, and offensive lineman Mike Erickson to open some eyes and drop some jaws this fall.

The Tunnel Walk - I'll admit, there are greater traditions in college football. Texas A&M's 12th man and the "dotting of the I" by the Ohio State band are awesome spectacles that have stood the test of time. Still, when the music starts and the Huskervision screen shows the Cornhuskers making their trek through the stadium and to the field, it's serious goose bump time. Although the Alan Parsons Project tune and animated lead-in lack a little in the originality department, the emotions stoked up in the crowd and in the players are genuine.

ESPN College Football Gameday - Yes, it is tough to conceive how Lee Corso ever landed a paying job. But his idiocy aside, college football pre-game shows simply don't get any better. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit know their stuff, and, like him or not, Corso's shtick of donning the head gear of whichever team he's picking to win the day's biggest game is pretty cool. When the Gameday crew sets up at a college campus full of screaming (and often chemically unstable) fans, it provides the home viewer a glimpse of the passion that surrounds big-time college football. Even if you're coming off a boisterous Friday night, these guys are worth setting the alarm for.

The walk-on tradition continues - How is it that Nebraska has won three national championships in the last seven years, and yet the coaching staff never seems to land a "top 5" recruiting class? Well, there are several factors, but certainly one of the most important is the Big Red's unparalleled walk-on program. They come from small towns and unheralded teams, but the names of these non-scholarship performers read like a "who's who" of past Husker greats. I.M. Hipp, Joel Makovicka, Jared Tomich, Adam Treu and Dan Hadenfeldt are just a few of the notables who helped build and maintain Nebraska's walk-on tradition. This year, look for guys like Scott Shanle, Ben Cornelsen, Casey Nelson, Kyle Larson and Aaron Terpening to contribute and carry on this competitive advantage.

The gameday Runza - In Arizona, when you ask someone for a Runza, you're handed an English dictionary and pointed to the nearest interpreter. However, as my fellow Midwestern carnivores will attest, nothing tastes better during a Husker home game than this concoction of seasoned ground beef in baked bread. Sure, Runzas are great any time of year, but for some reason their brilliance is magnified when consumed while cheering on the Big Red. A nice, hot Runza is especially good during a particularly cold game. The heat coming off the bread keeps your hands warm, and the extra fat you're ingesting helps cut down the winter chill. Granted, after an hour of being flattened under the weight of their grease-laden brothers, the Runzas at Memorial Stadium typically aren't the most presentable fare. Still, I'll take a smashed "meal in a bunza" over a hot dog shot out of a cannon any day.

Eric Crouch for Heisman? - Scan some of the preseason magazines and Web sites and Nebraska QB Eric Crouch is prominently mentioned among the top candidates for college football's most coveted individual award. Of course with talented players like Oregon State running back Ken Simonton, and over-hyped players like Miami's Ken Dorsey, the competition will be tough. Can E.C. win it? I think he has the talent, reports on his surgically repaired shoulder are promising, and if he comes up big in the most important games he has an outside shot. Yet, I have my doubts that he'll end up with the hardware. Many so-called experts consider Husker quarterbacks to be one-dimensional because they don't throw the ball often and don't put up impressive numbers. If Tommie Frazier couldn't win it after his stellar 1995 campaign, it may not be possible for an option QB. Still, even if Crouch doesn't win the Heisman, it should be a treat to watch his senior season.

The wearing of the red - Even though I now live in Arizona and watch most Nebraska football games from the comfort of my home rather than in person at Memorial Stadium, I haven't been able to shake the habit of wearing red on a gameday. Picking out the right Big Red shirt and shorts combo is arguably the most important part of a Saturday morning pre-game ritual that also includes trying to teach my one-year-old son the words to "Hail Varsity" and strategically setting up pillows into which I can throw my remote control when times get tough (I learned this lesson the hard way). For the especially big games, I bring out a red and gray sweatshirt I've had since high school. Having been through some epic battles, it's looking a little worn these days. During the excitement and celebration of Tom Osborne's first national championship in the 1995 Orange Bowl, it nearly lost a sleeve. Still, I know when the game calls for a little extra karma, the gray and red sweatshirt will be there to push the Huskers over the top.

The Big 12 is big time -- Never, since the inception of the Big 12 Conference in 1996, has the league boasted as many quality teams as will compete in 2001. Oklahoma is looking to defend its national championship utilizing the arm of new signal caller Nate Hybl and a ferocious defense. Mack Brown's Texas squad has stockpiled a frightening amount of former high school All-Americans, and will begin the season rated in or near the top 5 nationally. Texas Tech returns rubber-armed QB Kliff Kingsbury and a bevy of talented receivers. Iowa State is coming off their best season in years. Kansas State and Colorado will likely appear in or near the nation's top 20. And, the teams expected to be at the bottom of the league - Kansas, Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma St. - should be improved. With so much talent and the added challenge of the Big 12 Championship looming at the end of the year, it's hard to imagine any Big 12 team going undefeated.

Senior leaders step forward - When one reflects on Nebraska's recent national championship teams, it's hard not to pick-up on a common theme within them - outstanding senior leadership. Some players have been quiet leaders (Tommie Frazier, Brook Berringer, Aaron Taylor), others have been more vocal (Jason Peter, Grant Wistrom, Scott Frost), but they've all been able to combine great talent with the ability to motivate their teammates. While the 2001 version of the Cornhuskers is, for the most part, a fairly young team, there are some seniors who I think will step up this year and assume leadership positions. Guys like Eric Crouch, Tracey Wistrom, Keyuo Craver, John Gibson, Jeremy Slechta and Jason Lohr have seen good times and some tough times. Their experience and maturity will ultimately play a large role in determining how successful this season will be.

Ready yet? I certainly am. In fact, I got so psyched while writing this column, I went and slipped on the old gray and red sweatshirt (possibly not a bright move considering the previously mentioned Arizona heat). It's looking awfully beat up, but like me, it's definitely ready for the season.

Bill Marks, a.k.a. the Desert Husker, is a professional business writer and consultant living in Chandler, Ariz. He is a long-time Husker fan and can be contacted at [email protected].

Previous columns: 07/25/2001 | 07/18/2001