It has not been one of the better starts in Nebraska football history. But then, it hasn't exactly been a disaster, either.
It isn't like the Cornhuskers are hurting. There was not a drug bust and the team hasn't suddenly found itself without good players. The coach didn't quit. The fans have not stopped packing the stadium. The athletic department didn't declare a financial crisis.The kinds of problems Nebraska - Utah's opponent Saturday at Memorial Stadium - has fielded so far this year fall under the category of "irritations." For example:
- Just prior to the season opener, investigative reporter Armen Keteyian published a book called "Big Red Confidential: Inside Nebraska Football". It alleges such things as pass-gate violations, sales of complimentary tickets by players, steroid and cocaine use, boosters paying players for performances and the frustrations of Coach Tom Osborne, who has failed to win a national championship.
But Osborne even managed to make light of the matter. "Personally, I'm pleased with the book," he said. "That may sound like a strange thing to say, but I believe the author called me a mysterious individual with conflicting emotions, and for years Nebraskans have felt that I was predictable, unimaginative, too nice a guy, unemotional and all these types of things. And here's a guy who comes from New York City, big-time writer, analyst of human behavior, and he says I'm mysterious and a man of conflicting emotions. I hope Nebraskans will sit up and take notice of that."
- Injuries to key players. Heisman candidate Ken Clark was kicked in the knee last week against Northern Illinois, and though he is expected to play against Utah Saturday, he may not be at full strength. All-America candidate Doug Glaser, an offensive tackle, is out four weeks with a broken toe.
- Graduation losses. Six all-Big Eight players, including two-time all-America Broderick Thomas, are gone.
- Lastly, there was a momentary scare against somebody called Northern Illinois. Nebraska committed five first-half turnovers and the teams were locked in a 17-17 tie before the Huskers ran off 31 straight second-half points.
"Halftime was pretty scary," said Osborne. "This could have been one of those deals that you never live down. And yet you know it can happen. If we had come out and dropped it a few more times the second half, it (an upset) could have happened." Of course, the frustrations haven't really done much to stop the Big Red Machine. Nebraska is 1-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country. The 73,650-seat stadium is sold out for the 163rd straight game, dating back to 1962. The Huskers, as always, consider themselves contenders for the national championship. And why not? With Oklahoma on probation and their non-conference schedule consisting of NIU, Utah and Oregon State, they could go undefeated.
Nebraska returned with six players making their first collegiate start. But the team of the I-formation attack never gets thin on talent. Ute Coach Jim Fassel was aghast when he looked through the NU media guide and found 208 players on the roster - even though only 95 are allowed to attend school on scholarship.
"When Tom (Osborne) says they are used to playing (against) passing teams, I think it's just a whole different set of personnel. They've got their option defense, and when they're not playing an option team, they get rid of those guys and say, `OK, we're going to play the pass defense guys this week,' " joked Ute Coach Jim Fassel.
Among the big name players - of which Nebraska always has several - are all-America center Jake Young; second-team all-Big Eight strong safety Reggie Cooper; outside linebacker Jeff Mills; split end Morgan Gregory; fullback Bryan Carpenter; quarterback Gerry Gdowski; defensive tackle Kent Wells; wingback Richard Bell; and Glaser and Clark.
Clark, a Heisman candidate, is the most visible of all. He rushed 14 times for 168 yards and one touchdown in one half against NIU. "He's a big, strong guy who's got a lot of speed. We compared him a lot to (former UNLV player) Ickey Woods, and he was the national rushing champ. The difference in Ickey Woods and Clark is that Clark's got a much better offensive line in front of him," said NIU Coach Jerry Pettibone.
Mostly unheralded before the start of last year, Clark carried for 1,497 yards, the third-highest single-season total in Nebraska history. The other two bests are owned by Heisman winner Mike Rozier. "Clark may have gained the quietest 1,500 yards in history," observed Dallas Cowboys' assistant coach Dave Wannstedt.
Gdowski, making his first career start, was six-of-eight passing with one interception. He rushed for 74 yards.
Backup kicker Chris Drennan executed a 55-yard field goal a week ago.
Meanwhile, the Utes are doing their best to avoid losing the game before they walk onto the field. "People make a big deal out of Nebraska," said Ute defensive end Joe Clausi. "They're just a good sound football team and we're going to line up and play against them and see what happens."