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August 20, 2008

What's the quickest way for Nebraska to reclaim its place among the college football elite? Reclaim Memorial Stadium.

Not so long ago, the Huskers' old concrete football arena was one of the toughest places in college football for the visiting team to win. But in 2007, the Cornhuskers were lucky to escape with a 4-3 home record. Only a muffed touchdown pass by a wide open Ball State receiver late in the game allowed Nebraska to escape with a 41-40 win in late September and, as it turned out, kept Nebraska from suffering its first losing season at home since 1961.

Until last fall, it was rare for Nebraska to get walloped at home. I can remember how gut-wrenching it was to watch eventual national champion Colorado shut down Nebraska 27-12 in 1990 and fourth-rated Washington pound the Huskers 36-21 in 1991. Those were Tom Osborne's worst home-field defeats ever; he hated it so much that he never lost another game in Lincoln. His final tally was 15 home losses in 25 seasons.

Frank Solich went three years in a row (1999-2001) with no home losses. His teams dropped only four home games in six years, but the last one, a 38-9 pounding by Kansas State in 2003 that Bo Pelini still remembers, probably cost Solich his job.

Then things got a lot worse. When Bill Callahan took over the NU program, the Huskers had won 70 of their last 74 home games, but they lost eight in four years under Callahan. Last year, they suffered home-field thrashings from Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M by an average of 23 points. And no diehard Husker-hating extremist ever imagined Nebraska trailing 38-0 on Homecoming – at halftime. Not in his wildest dreams.

One of Pelini's major tasks this season will be to re-secure the home-field advantage that Nebraska has held so well for so long. Accomplishing that one objective would repair much of the damage from last year.

A lot of Nebraska fans had gotten somewhat bored with blowout victories in Lincoln by the end of the 20th century. That little problem ended abruptly during the Callahan era, and it will not reappear this fall. The Huskers have enough ground to recapture that each week will bring a new challenge. The Big 12 will be tougher than it's ever been. There is no reason to take anything for granted anymore.

It will be interesting to evaluate the atmosphere in the stadium this season. Perhaps the Texas game in 2006 was the only time that a Memorial Stadium crown truly became a factor during the Callahan years. That will change quickly. There will be more noise and intensity this fall than we've seen in a long time.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if the Husker marching band were more prominent than the canned music from Husker Vision? And wouldn't it be great if the faithful gray hairs in the West Stadium – God bless 'em – would stand up and cheer, at least during crucial moments in the game? And wouldn't it be fantastic if the student section were so loud and rowdy (not obnoxious, just rowdy), and led the crowd in becoming such a distraction to the opposing team that Osborne rescinded one of his first decisions as athletic director and moved the students down to field level for the 2009 season?

NU has eight home games this fall. It's a challenging schedule, including Virginia Tech and Missouri back-to-back, and Kansas and Colorado in November. If the Huskers win six of them – a pretty big step considering the way they played last year – they will have a respectable season. Seven home wins would make quite a statement nationwide.

How worried is Missouri about coming to Lincoln this fall? Last week, an ESPN Radio announcer said that if the talented Tigers can get by Illinois in their season opener, it will set the stage for their big game at Texas on Oct. 18. Not a mention of their Oct. 4 trip to Lincoln, a place where Missouri hasn't won in 30 years. The fact that nobody is talking about that streak shows how far the Huskers have fallen in the nation's eyes. That's just fine; it could allow NU to sneak up on a few teams this fall.

When Nebraska reclaims its own stadium, the Huskers will cause a lot of problems for top 25-rated teams, and they'll start to force their way into conversations around the nation once again.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive