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Oct. 24, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Big Red White-Knuckler

Everything seemed perfect.

I was back home in Nebraska, bathed in the warmth of a gorgeous fall day. My seats for the Texas Tech game were epic — 45-yard line, seventh row of the east side balcony — and I had a warm Runza in my hands. The Tunnel Walk had just ended and kickoff was mere moments away, when a lone negative thought pervaded my state of bliss.

Were things too perfect? Was this all too good to be true? Was my trip to gridiron heaven, instead some sort of cruelly ironic sting operation, cooked up by the gods of football to crush my exceptionally good mood? Was my invitation to dine in college football nirvana, in fact a sleazy presentation for a time-share condo in Lubbock? Would Texas Tech pull off the upset?

For a while, it looked like this might be the case. Though the Cornhuskers offense moved the ball well throughout the first half, Texas Tech was equal to the task, tying the score 28-28 at the break. But ultimately, the fates (and Josh Brown) gave the DH and the rest of the Husker nation a break, and Nebraska prevailed by ten.

As intense and nerve-wracking as last week’s game was, it won’t come close to the mania surrounding this week’s tilt against the Sooners. Media will swarm. Pulses will race. Fans across Oklahoma will tear themselves away their prime seats in front of the bug zapper in order to watch the two powerhouses collide.

It’s big. But while it can be tough to focus on anything other than the OU game this week, let’s not forget to pay homage to Saturday’s victory.

What went right
Despite a few untimely turnovers and dropped passes, the Cornhusker offense played well. Texas Tech never came close to stopping the option, which opened things up for a few big pass plays in the first half.

Setting injuries to the O-line aside for a moment, the NU rushing attack is hitting on all cylinders. Eric Crouch, Dahrran Diedrick and Thunder Collins ran over, around and through the Red Raider defenders, as Toniu Fonoti and the rest of the offensive line kept up their string of pancaking performances.

Wilson Thomas, with his graceful stride and sticky fingers, continued to impress at the receiver position. And the kicking game appeared to be on relatively solid footing, as Josh Brown knocked through two huge field goals in the second half.

What went wrong
You’ll notice there is no mention of the defense in the "What went right" section. Although the Blackshirts weren’t horrible on Saturday and only gave up three points in the second half, they did have a tough time shutting down Kliff Kingsbury and the Texas Tech passing attack.

While some of the credit should certainly go to the underrated Kingsbury, the Husker defensive line didn’t get enough pressure to mess up the Red Raiders’ timing. Granted, this is tough to do against an offense that predominantly relies on the short pass, but there were opportunities. Expect the Blackshirts to be more aggressive against a similar Oklahoma offense.

Of course, the most worrisome part of Saturday’s game was the Husker injuries. One by one, Big Red starters headed for the sidelines and did not return. These injuries could severely test NU’s depth against Oklahoma. Solich’s top two fullbacks are banged up. Keyuo Craver, Nebraska’s best cover corner is hobbled. John Gibson and Tracey Wistrom are coming off injuries. And forty percent of the starting offensive line — Dave Volk and Dan Waldrop — are hurting.

Not good going into the biggest game of the year. And, since the coaching staff has recently become extremely secretive about the status of injuries, we may not know how much of a factor this will be until game time.

Desert Husker Offensive Player of the Game
Crouch was solid. Diedrick ran tough. But this one goes to Josh Brown, who came up huge with two field goals in the second half. Husker fans were sweating bullets until Brown added a relative layer of comfort by booting a clutch 36-yarder with 3:25 on the clock. Coming off a less-than-perfect summer (typical summer adversity — a few sunburns, a couple mosquito bites, a drunken rampage), Brown’s confidence had waned. This prestigious award could be the ego-boost he needs going into the part of the schedule in which he may be asked to win games.

DH Defensive Player of the Game
Hmmm. There were certainly no perfect performances against Texas Tech, but I’ll give this one to Scott Shanle. Although he didn’t necessarily have an All-American-caliber game, Shanle did have some clutch pass break-ups against Tech. And, when one compares his year-to-date performance versus last year, it is mind-boggling how much improvement Shanle has made at covering backs and tight ends.

Question answered
Would NU look past Texas Tech? Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think they did. Tech came in with a game plan that kept NU’s defense off balance all evening. From my vantage point, it looked like Husker players were focused and playing hard, but had trouble dictating the tempo of the game.

Question remaining
Can E.C. win the Heisman? All year, I’ve been skeptical that an option quarterback could command enough national respect to win college football’s most coveted award. My theory has been, if Tommie Frazier couldn’t win it in 1995, no Nebraska QB could. That said, if Crouch comes up big against OU, his stock will skyrocket (unless he has any of those tech stocks. Damn you Pets.com!).

What this week’s game will teach us
Does Oklahoma’s incredible defense have a weakness? If so, it may have been partially exposed a few weeks ago against Kansas State. K-State was able to run up the middle against Oklahoma’s small, but quick defense, and in doing so, set up the Sooners for some effective play-action passes. This is precisely what Frank Solich didn’t do in last year’s loss to OU. If Nebraska abandons the power running game in this one, the Huskers could be in for a long game.

How I see it
Oklahoma and Nebraska each have some key advantages going into Saturday’s contest. Bob Stoops’ Sooners most likely have a better defense, filled with playmakers like Rocky Calmus and Roy Williams. On the other side of the field, Solich will have the rabid hometown crowd and a team bent on revenge over last year’s debacle. The difference, as the DH sees it, will be at the most important position on the field — quarterback.

Although Oklahoma’s Jason White came through with some big plays in the Sooners’ win over Texas, at this stage in his career he can’t hold Crouch’s jock strap (and he probably doesn’t want to). In a big game like this one, the importance of good QB play is magnified. This completely unbiased columnist will take Nebraska in a close one.

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 billAZhusker@aol.com.

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