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Sept. 19, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Football isn't the most important thing - but it is good!

I was putting the final touches on a column about Nebraska's spirited victory over Notre Dame when I learned two planes had just crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center. I watched in horror as terroristic acts changed the landscape of our country and forever altered our collective sense of safety, comfort and infallibility.

As I held my family and counted my blessings that my son was too young to remember that day, I doubted the game of football would ever seem as important as it once did. When the news came down that the Huskers had postponed their game against Rice (a game I had planned on attending), and eventually other conferences and schools had followed suit, I felt a sense of relief.

It seemed that the frivolity of sport had no place in a country that needed time to remember, to console and to grieve. For those of us lucky enough not to know anyone injured or killed in the attacks, it was a time to appreciate the presence of family and friends while honoring the memory of those not so fortunate. It wasn't a time to appreciate the intricacies of the 4-3 defense.

But, while I completely agree with the decisions to postpone sporting events this past weekend, I came to a conclusion that maybe sports really are important.

Granted, compared to the loss of life and threats to our freedom, the outcome of a football game is beyond insignificant. But ultimately, sports are important because they bring joy. And with the events of this past week we've all gotten a glimpse of how empty life is without joy.

As you make your way into Memorial Stadium, or listen to Thursday's NU game on the radio, I realize it will be with a heavy heart. But I would still encourage Nebraska (and Rice) fans to cheer like crazy. Jump up and down. Applaud great effort. Question bad calls. Wear your most obnoxious red outfit. Accidentally spill a Coke on the guy in front of you and blame it on someone else. Live it up. This is why we're here. Nebraska football is one of the many joys of life, and we can't let anyone take those joys away from us.

Notre Dame: a brief recap
Although it seems like it happened a long time ago, it isn't too late to celebrate a good win against the Fighting Irish. The bottom line on this one is that the Huskers played some inspired football. True, the second half was a snooze, but ultimately you have to be happy with a 17-point win over a top-25 opponent.

What Went Right?
A lot. The primary props go to the Big Red crowd. Even though I was watching the game on television (I was darn close to making a trade for a couple of tickets, but my wife kept on insisting that we would eventually need our retirement savings account), it was obvious that the fans were rabid. From the record-setting turnout for ESPN's College Football Gameday, until the final tick had gone off the clock, NU fans were psyched, and Notre Dame players were psyched out. In my 25-plus years of watching and attending Nebraska football games, I can't remember the fans having a bigger impact on the outcome of a game.

While the offense still has plenty to prove, the Notre Dame game was a step in the right direction. Although the Huskers didn't score in the second half, this had more to do with Coach Solich's conservative play calling than the effectiveness of the unit. The offensive line created some holes against a Notre Dame defense that was clearly the team's strength, and Dahrran Diedrick ran hard throughout the contest.

I still don't think the Blackshirts have matched up against a better-than-average offense, but they sure have looked good so far. Against Notre Dame the secondary had its best game of the year. Keyuo Craver and Dejuan Groce stepped up their games and completely shut down the Irish receivers. Newcomer Barrett Ruud continued to impress, and Jamie Burrow further solidified himself as a primary frontrunner for defensive MVP.

What Went Wrong
Yes, we won the game handily. Yes, one shouldn't be too critical about a 17-point victory over a storied program like Notre Dame. Still, I have to question the conservative gameplan in the second half.

While I understand that the gameplan was so vanilla because Solich wanted to run the clock and prevent any turnovers, I don't necessarily agree that this strategy was all that effective. Yes, we won the game, but by not calling any options or pass plays, the Husker offense came to a grinding halt. Because they weren't able to get first downs or sustain any kind of drive, the Huskers weren't able to use much of the clock, and instead kept giving Notre Dame the ball back, thus giving them more opportunities to score. Fortunately the Husker D was up to the challenge, and Notre Dame never put together much of a scoring threat.

Overall the coaching staff did a good job of preparing the team and keeping Notre Dame off-balance, but in the future I'd like to see Solich and Co. be more aggressive after earning a lead.

The other significant negative was the season-ending injury of defensive tackle Jason Lohr. After having a so-so campaign in 2000, Lohr was off to a tremendous start in 2001. Fortunately for the Big Red, this is a position with quite a bit of depth. Lohr's back-up John Clanton has looked very capable of sliding into a Blackshirt. Still, losing a player of Lohr's caliber could have an impact down the road.

The Desert Husker Offensive Player of the Game
The winner of the DH Offensive Player of the Game, and 125 Powerball Lottery tickets (purchased a month ago), is Dahrran Diedrick. Against the Irish, Diedrick ran tough and ran often. Amazing what not being suspended can do for a guy's productivity. In his two starts this year, Diedrick has established himself as "the man" at I-back. He's hitting holes, he's breaking tackles, and he's holding on to the ball. While Diedrick's workman-like day didn't include any highlight reel quality runs, it did show he's a solid back who has earned Solich's confidence.

The DH Defensive Player of the Game
While one could make a pretty good argument that the player most responsible for shutting down Notre Dame's offense was Irish signal caller Matt Lovecchio, I'm giving this award to Dejuan Groce. Groce's day against Notre Dame featured a few jarring tackles, tight pass coverage, an interception, and a punt return for a touchdown that was called back because of a penalty. With his performance, Groce gained some much needed confidence and sent a message to future Husker opponents that NU will be tough to throw against this year.

The Desert Husker Inanimate Object of the Game
This one is a toss-up between my remote control (likely the most underrated technological advance in the last hundred years), and the Notre Dame offensive line.

What will this week's game teach us?
We've seen glimpses of the talent possessed by this year's version of the Big Red, now we get to see how focused and resilient they are. After coming off a very emotional victory against Notre Dame, and then dealing with the horrors of the past week, it would be understandable if the Huskers played without much intensity on Thursday. I don't see Rice having the talent to pose a real threat, but wouldn't be surprised to see a mistake-laden effort by the Huskers. Even if this is the case, it will be good to have something for which to cheer.

Take care of each other. I'll see you next week.

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

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