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Seeing Red Once Again

Beyond the Gainesville city limits, cocky Steve Spurrier may be the least popular head coach in big-time college football. But even those who'd like to see the man vanish in the Everglades may have sympathized last January when his high-octane Florida Gators were blown out of the Fiesta Bowl, 62-24.

"We have no answers, no answers," a deflated Spurrier admitted post-slaughter. Indeed. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who had passed for more than 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns in the 1995 season, was all but shut down in the Fiesta, and the Gator offense, which had averaged more than 500 yards per game, was held to minus-28 yards rushing in Tempe. Meanwhile, Florida's opponent ran for 524 yards and passed for 105 more en route to a 38-point win and a second consecutive national championship.

That opponent was, of course, Nebraska.
No college football fan in these parts has to be reminded. Sour Nebraska jokes still echo off the Flatirons, and wags on the Pearl Street Mall will advise checking out the Lincoln police blotter if you want a preview of Tom Osborne's starters. Coloradans with long memories still refer to their flatland neighbors to the east as the Bugeaters.

But a glaring fact remains: The Colorado Buffaloes haven't beaten Nebraska since 1990. They have had no answers, no answers. Last October 28 in Boulder, it was the same old story: Nebraska 44, CU 21.

However, a gleam of light striped the picture as the Buffs got 1996 under way in style Saturday with a 37-19 win over outclassed Washington State. Colorado is a stronger team this year on both sides of the ball--maybe even No. 1 material. Fifty-five lettermen, including sixteen starters, have returned from 1995, and slender quarterback Koy Detmer is back in the pocket after losing most of 1995 to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and some of the early summer to tendinitis. Head coach Rick Neuheisel, he of the stress-relieving rafting trips and team bowling nights and impromptu guitar recitals, now has a full season of battle and worry and surprises behind him. When he took over from Bill McCartney, he faced the unenviable task of replacing ten 1994 Buffs drafted into the NFL and responded with a 10-2 season as a rookie head coach, including a Cotton Bowl blowout of Oregon.

The toll? Look at Baby Rick these days and you'll see a few faint creases of, well, experience around the eyes. And a post-1995 assessment of himself that indicates, if obliquely, just what he learned in his baptism of fire: "Everybody starts with a blank canvas and just paints, and there will be certain colors I won't use next year."

Count on him, though, to use Red. Lots of Red. Big Red.
In a masterpiece of scheduling, Colorado and Nebraska will meet November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, in Lincoln. The final regular season test for both teams, it's already being touted as the "game of the year," and the football cognoscenti will be mildly surprised if Neuheisel and Osborne don't bring perfect records into the thing. Getting motivated for this one won't be any problem.

That might be leaping ahead of the story, though. In the next three months, the teams will face two of the country's ten toughest schedules: Nebraska's 1996 opponents were 76-40-2 last year, Colorado's 74-43-1. Almost everyone they will play went to a bowl game and won it. Not only that, the Buffs' and Huskers' newly expanded conference, now called the Big 12, is clearly the country's best, beefed up with the addition of four big-deal teams from Texas--Texas A&M, Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor. Luckily for the newcomers, they have been placed in the league's South Division with regional rivals Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; unluckily, A&M and Texas both face CU this year; Baylor and Texas Tech get Nebraska.

Meanwhile, Colorado faces sky-high Colorado State, still-mad Michigan, A&M, Oklahoma State and Kansas (which beat CU in '95) in its next five games--four of which are on national television. Reading between the lines: The Buffs have exactly two apparent pushovers on their schedule--Missouri and Iowa State, Big 8 cellar-dwellers in 1995. That Neuheisel's kids play those clubs on November 2 and November 9, respectively, probably isn't a bad thing--not with Big Red looming a few weeks later. But then, didn't it take an illegal extra down to beat Mizzou's toothless Tigers a few seasons back?

The burning question, as always: How does Colorado find the answers it has lacked against Nebraska for five long years?

One major clue may come straight from the Buffs' old antagonists. After Nebraska crushed Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, Huskers defensive backs coach George Darlington was asked about the vaunted speed of the Gators' wide receivers. "Quite frankly," he answered, "I thought Colorado had more speed than Florida."  

So, then. The good news: Neuheisel not only gets back Detmer, a quarterback who was leading the nation in passing when he got hurt last year, he also gets his entire 1995 receiving corps--a year smarter, a year faster, a year hungrier. There's senior Rae Carruth, who led the conference last year in receiving yards per game (91.6), caught 53 passes and scored 9 touchdowns. Oh, and he smokes the 40-yard dash in 4.17 seconds. There's junior Phil Savoy, an eyelash slower at 4.35, with 49 catches and 5 TDs in 1995, and James Kidd, with 23 catches and 5 TDs. Tight end Matt Lepsis, meanwhile, was hailed as the team's most improved player (25 catches, 341 yards, 2 TDs). This could be the finest group of receivers in America, with a golden arm pitching at them. But even if Detmer gets dinged again, backup John Hessler got so much playing time last year that he wouldn't be much of a come-down.

The running game? Once again Neuheisel will go with his one-back, three-wideout offense, but that lone back crouching behind Detmer is always likely to be fresh. Among the so-called "Thoroughbred Trio," Herchell Troutman led all CU runners with 826 yards and 5 touchdowns in 1995, but Lendon Henry had 463 yards and 4 scores, Marlon Barnes 44 yards and 6 TDs. These guys can wear out defenses in a hurry.

Little wonder, then, that when Neuheisel handed inspirational T-shirts out to his offense last week, the legend read: "Powered on the Ground. Second to None in the Air."

Of course, Florida was Second to None in the Air before the Fiesta Bowl.
How about the defense? Colorado gave up 329 yards per game in 1995 and ranked behind Kansas State, Nebraska and Oklahoma in the Big 8. But senior cornerback Dalton Simmons returns after missing last season with a bad knee, and the Buffs have all seven of their top 1995 linebackers back in pads. Defensive linemen? Neuheisel will probably learn a lot about this question-mark unit long before those huge, quick Nebraska backs start running at the Buffs the day after the turkey.

Now. How loudly should we deliver the bad news?
Over in Huskerland, bad-boy running back Lawrence Phillips has moved on, and the astonishing quarterback Tommie Frazier is gone, too. But Osborne, looking to win an unprecedented third consecutive national title, still has talent to burn, including powerful runners Ahman Green and Clinton Childs and his usual army of linemen, big as corn silos but shockingly swift. Otherwise, you can bet that Colorado is hoping that linebacker Terrell Farley's suspension after a drunken-driving arrest will keep him off the field for several weeks: He might be the best punt and kick blocker in college football, and the Buffs certainly had their problems in that area last year with five blocked punts.

Is that all? Afraid not. Nebraska's sophomore punt and kickoff returner Kenny Cheatham went down with a shoulder injury last year, but now he's back, complete with his 21.40 clocking in the 200 meters and 10.57 speed in the 100. And just as the Buffs wave a fond farewell to Mr. Frazier, here comes junior quarterback Scott Frost, who played two years of backup at Stanford before transferring to Big Red. Some say he remains the big question mark for Nebraska as that powerhouse puts a 25-game winning streak and a possible three-peat on the line. The bad news, for those here at altitude, is that our sources in Lincoln say he's bigger, stronger, faster and more accurate than the great Frazier.

If that's true, we'll all know soon enough. There's no use waiting until November 29, now, is there? Or asking Steve Spurrier what he thinks.

If Pat Bowlen didn't send a spray of roses and a case of champagne to the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse on Sunday, he's fallen down on the job. Thanks to the Cards' three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies over the Labor Day weekend and the Broncos' 31-7 demolition of the still-inept New York Jets at Mile High Stadium, this is Bowlen's town again--for now.

Only the dreadful San Francisco Giants trail the Rox in the National League West, and all the inflatable 100-RBI men in the world will have a hard time catching the Padres or the Dodgers for the divisional title. A glance at the wild-card race brings more bad news: Colorado now trails L.A., Montreal and St. Louis in the fight for the final National League playoff spot, and it will take a miracle--or actual pitching--to leapfrog over those three into the postseason.

Start packing up the balls and bats and gaudy offensive statistics, Fake Street Bombers. Winter will be here sooner than you think. And Ellis Burks, despite his Coors Field numbers, will win the MVP about the same day David Nied throws a no-hitter in Atlanta.  

But we were talking Bowlen-for-Dollars, weren't we?
While the Rox blew up on the road again, the Broncos' big opening-day win reminded Denver pro sports fans of first romance, of the half-remembered delights of a former spouse. As Biff and the boys cranked New York (nine quarterback sacks!), you could practically hear Bowlen counting the votes for his new stadium, and some of the lunatics in the south stands were already gearing up for another Super Bowl.

Savor the moment, Pat. The Rox may have stopped rolling, but the Donks visit Seattle this weekend, where snakebite is common. And if we have this right, it won't be long until Denver's flashiest new love starts turning heads again. She wears the scarlet letter on her chest--"A" for Avalanche--and she knows the way to really snow this town.


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