Cornhuskers playing role of spoiler

By Eric Olson
AP Sports Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is trying to ruin unbeaten and third-ranked
Texas’ chance to play for the national championship. It’d only be
payback for the 1996 Cornhuskers.

Even so,
such an upset would be hard-pressed to match the magnitude of the 1996
game in St. Louis, where 20-point-underdog Texas stunned the Huskers
37-27 and ended their hopes of winning a third straight national title.

Jason Peter, who played defensive tackle on Nebraska’s 1994-95
consensus and ’97 coaches’ national championship teams, said he
remembers that loss to Texas more than any of the 49 wins he was part
of during the Huskers’ domination of college football in the mid 1990s.

“There was a big emptiness in everyone’s stomach knowing what we just
let slip from our fingers, our grasp,” Peter recalled. “You can chalk
it up to a bunch of things — looking ahead, guys coming off the flu
after that Colorado game in the snow — or you can chalk it up to Texas
having our number. We just couldn’t get the job done.”

The setup for Saturday’s game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is similar to the situation in ’96.

The Longhorns (12-0), led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Colt McCoy,
have a quick-strike offense averaging 43 points a game and a defense
and special teams that rank among the nation’s best. All they need is a
win over Nebraska to play in the national championship game in
Pasadena, Calif., almost surely against Florida or Alabama.

The 21st-ranked Huskers (9-3), like the Longhorns in ’96, are playing
their best football late in the season and have nothing to lose. If
they win, they will have overachieved by earning a BCS bowl bid. If
they lose, they’ll likely play in the Holiday Bowl and meet preseason
expectations for coach Bo Pelini’s second year.

“Texas is the favorite, but if you ask those fellas from the ’96
Nebraska team, that doesn’t mean that much,” said John Mackovic, who
coached the Longhorns from 1992-97.

entered the 1996 Big 12 championship game 7-4 and unranked. The
Longhorns had gotten off to a 3-4 start but won their last four
regular-season games to take the South Division.

Nebraska, which had a 26-game win streak end with a 19-0 loss at
Arizona State in the second game of the season, was 10-1 and ranked No.
3. With a win over the Longhorns, the Huskers would have played Florida
State in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.

Mackovic’s gutsy fourth-down call that all but finished off the Huskers.

Leading 30-27, Texas faced fourth-and-1 at its 28 with 2:38 left.
Instead of punting, Mackovic had quarterback James Brown roll to his
left. Brown could have run for the first down, but he passed to tight
end Derek Lewis. The play went for 61 yards to the Nebraska 11, and the
Longhorns scored to put the game out of reach.

Mackovic said he’s asked about the fourth-down play more than any other
in a head coaching career that spanned all or part of four decades.
Mackovic said he broke down every short-yardage and goal-line play run
against Nebraska that season. He saw the Huskers’ tendency to sell out
to stop the run.

“I firmly believed it
would work. I had no question in my mind,” Mackovic said. “Had we given
the ball to Ricky Williams, we would have had a 3-yard loss. But we
never intended to give him the ball. We intended to fake it to him and
for James to roll out and have the option to run or pass.”

The pre-game chatter for Saturday’s game is not as brash as it was in
’96, when Brown famously predicted that the Longhorns would beat
Nebraska by three touchdowns.

All Huskers
star defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh would say is that he and his
teammates believe they are up to the task of playing Texas.

Receiver Niles Paul said the Huskers relish the underdog role.

“We’re in a great position right now and we just can’t wait to play them,” he said.

Pelini said he would leave talk about point spreads to the bookies.

“Trust me, we’re not playing this game to lose,” he said. “You can ask
our guys in the locker room. That’s up to you guys to say what you’re
going to say, and build it up how you want to build it up. We just want
to take the challenge, line up and play, and let it all hang out.”

For Texas, the stakes are much higher, and there is no margin for error.

“We have handled our business each week so far this year,” McCoy said.
“We’ve got possibly the biggest challenge for us going against a tough
defense like Nebraska late in the season. From the film that you watch,
they get better every week, they are more aggressive, they are strong
and they are physical. It’s going to be tough, but we are in the
position that we want to be in. We have one more week.”

Received 12/04/09 10:20 am ET