Nebraska waiting for rising OU

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Keith Whitmire/Dallas Morning News

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska backup quarterback Jammal Lord almost had it right. He said this Saturday's game at Oklahoma is going to be "like the Super Bowl."

No, Jammal, the whole week is going to be like the Super Bowl, full of predictions and paparazzi. Forget the Big 12 Championship game in December. That probably will be just a rematch, a sequel to the mania that's about to take place.

By beating Texas and Kansas State back-to-back, Oklahoma sent the message that its program is back at an elite level.

Nebraska has sent its own message the last two weeks, although it's a subtle one because the Huskers have faced lesser opponents. Nebraska beat Texas Tech, 56-3, and Baylor, 59-0, and served notice that Oklahoma better be ready.

The Huskers certainly were thinking ahead to Oklahoma. Nebraska coach Frank Solich admitted it while explaining why starting quarterback Eric Crouch was removed after one quarter. As a general rule, Solich always plays the starters a full half.

Outscoring Baylor, 38-0, in the first quarter wasn't about Nebraska proving it wasn't looking ahead to Oklahoma. It was about telling the Sooners to look out.

"We wanted to come out early and set the tone on defense," said Nebraska defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "We have really been hungry these last couple of weeks, and that's a big change from earlier in the year. We came out and really wanted to prove something."

What the Huskers proved is that they are worthy of their No. 1 ranking. That wasn't always apparent in games against Iowa, Missouri and Iowa State, when lesser teams were able to keep the games in doubt into the second half.

It took a team meeting prior to the Texas Tech game to get the Huskers refocused and dominating the way we've come to expect the best Nebraska teams to do.

"Last week was kind of a turning point for this team," Crouch said. "We had a big team meeting before the game, and a lot of things were said that needed to be said.

"We think we turned the corner, and to be able to carry that over, seeing the execution and the way we handled this game and last, I think says a lot about our team. I know the attitude has definitely changed. The attitude level is very high."

Of course, it's easy to be fooled by a team that faces outmanned competition. It's the Kansas State mirage: Beat up a bunch of pushovers, then lose the first time you face a big-time team.

But this is no mirage. Nebraska has had nothing to prove except to itself.

"Starting the season at No. 1, we took a lot of things for granted, and we kind of had a gut-check," said Vanden Bosch. "And these last couple of games, we really wanted to come out and prove something. Our defense, our offense and special teams, everybody's hungry right now. ... We are a lot better team than we were three weeks ago."

Three weeks ago, Nebraska was a No. 1 team with minor flaws, and Oklahoma was an unknown entity. Now, Oklahoma is the hottest team in the nation, even with a week off. But while Oklahoma got red-hot in a hurry, Nebraska has gradually reached a boiling point.

Oklahoma's offense seems unstoppable. But unlike Kansas State, which seemed in a hurry to match Oklahoma's production, the Huskers have the patience to wait out the Sooners. Make them work for every yard and wait for them to make a mistake.

You won't see Crouch anxiously trying to hit deep passes the way Kansas State's Jonathan Beasley did against the Sooners. The Huskers are going to take the ball and keep it behind those earth-movers on the offensive line. If Oklahoma's Josh Heupel wants to throw touchdown passes, his defense is going to have to give him the ball.

The Huskers have served notice: Oklahoma may be back, but Nebraska is right where it should be.