Rout's wound stays raw for Nebraska

Cornhuskers' defense on mission vs. Miami

Rose Bowl

January 02, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. - The rumors began in the aftermath of Nebraska's 62-36 loss at Colorado, a humiliating defeat that ended the regular season for the Cornhuskers and, it seemed, any chance of playing for a national championship.

The whispers around Lincoln were that the defense's legendary Blackshirts, given to players as a symbol of excellence, had been taken away after what senior middle linebacker Jamie Burrow would call "the debacle."

Though some of those hurt feelings were eased when the 11-1 Cornhuskers were given a reprieve by the Bowl Championship Series and a place in tomorrow's Rose Bowl against top-ranked Miami (11-1), the memories linger.

The Blackshirts are still worn in practice, but those on the Nebraska defense given that honor hope they don't have the same red faces after playing the Hurricanes that they did after being stampeded by the Buffaloes.

"It was embarrassing. I think we felt we let down generations and generations of Blackshirts, and the people who looked up to us and thought our defense was great," Burrow said yesterday.

Ever since they arrived in Southern California last week, the Cornhuskers have been asked to explain their lopsided loss in Boulder and justify their presence in the national championship game over Colorado or Oregon.

The defense has taken most of the heat.

"The big thing for us is to prove that we're a better team than we showed against Colorado," said junior defensive end Chris Kelsay, a second-team All-American.

It didn't seem to matter that Nebraska had been one of the most dominating defensive teams in the country through 11 games, giving up an average of 11.6 points and holding opponents to 10 points or fewer seven times.

All anyone wanted to talk about was Colorado. All Nebraska could think about was giving up a school-record total of points in a game. As senior cornerback Keyuo Craver said: "I think we were down by about a billion points."

That defeat turned the Cornhuskers' coaching staff into part-time psychologists as they prepared for Miami. They treated the loss to the Buffaloes just as they did a 28-point win earlier in the season over Troy State.

"We knew we had to get ready to play a great game and end this thing on a great note," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said last week at an appearance at Disneyland. "We listed the reasons [the Hurricanes] are here, and the reasons are many.

"They played 11 straight ballgames better than anyone in the country. They were not challenged. They won every game by at least 10 points; most of them were won by the middle of the fourth quarter. No team can say that."

The problem against Colorado was not strictly the fault of the defense, given Nebraska's four turnovers, but the Buffaloes ran for 380 yards, passed for 202 more and scored four times in the first quarter, including twice in a span of 30 seconds.

"You don't want anything like that to ever happen again," Craver said. "That game was completely embarrassing. You know that whatever you did you have to do better the next time out."

One thing Solich said he hasn't done is use the Colorado game to motivate his players.

"We've not built our program around building from a loss," Solich said. "We've always taken wins, looked at why we won and moved on. We looked at why we lost and moved on. We haven't used it as an ongoing thing."

As much as the Cornhuskers want to show that their defensive performance against Colorado was an aberration, proving that against Miami will be difficult.

The Hurricanes boast one of the most balanced and potent offenses in the country, their school-record 43.2-point scoring average bolstered by wins of 59-0 over Syracuse and 65-7 over Washington.

Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl knows what the Cornhuskers are up against in trying to slow Miami.

If they blitz quarterback Ken Dorsey, they leave Nebraska's corners in man-to-man coverage against wide-out Andre Johnson and the other dangerous receivers. If they focus on tailback Clinton Portis, they risk Dorsey finding tight end Jeremy Shockey.

"Every defensive back wishes they could play against the best receivers," said Craver, a second-team All-American. "It's going to be a big challenge for us."

The biggest challenge could be Shockey, a 6-6, 236-pound junior who finished second to Colorado's Daniel Graham in the voting for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. Graham tore up the Cornhuskers for 121 yards on four catches, including a 21-yard touchdown pass in the opening quarter.

Bohl said the mind-set going into the Rose Bowl is a bit different from what these Cornhuskers are accustomed to in postseason appearances. They are eight-point underdogs, for starters.

And they will be coming into the game off a blowout defeat. No matter how they try to distance themselves from that Colorado game, somebody is there to remind them.

"Certainly when you underachieve, which is how we felt we did in our last game, there is a feeling that you want to come back and achieve well," Bohl said. "Watching the Miami tape, we know what kind of challenge we have. There was no problem getting them focused. This is an opportunity for us to win a national championship."

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