The University of Utah football team made its season debut Saturday afternoon in Lincoln, Neb., and it was not a pretty sight. No, sir. After all the optimism and expectation surrounding the Utes during the off-season, it was a sobering day. The Utes fell 49-22 in old Memorial Stadium, but don't get the wrong idea. It wasn't that close.
Nebraska, a carbon copy of the team they've been fielding for three decades, simply ran over, around and through the Utes. It was 42-zip early in the third quarter when Nebraska called off the dogs. The Utes scored their three touchdowns against a team composed mostly of reserves.None of which was what Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and possibly the stadium's 76,234 fans had expected. The coach had spent the week trying to warn his following about the Utes.
"I was a little surprised that it went the way it did," he said Saturday. "I didn't expect that it would be pretty well put away by the half. I really thought it would go four quarters. On film, they looked like a good football team . . . I figured they'd be better this year. So, hopefully, we're good. I don't know yet."
Doesn't know? The Cornhuskers, ranked 11th in the national polls, totaled 524 yards - 399 on the ground - against a team that led the Western Athletic Conference in defense last season. Derek Brown rushed for 105 yards, Calvin Jones 92 and Lance Lewis 85. Quarterback Mike Grant rushed for 63 yards and 2 touchdowns and threw for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, the defense, supposedly the team's soft spot, intercepted four passes and recovered one fumble.
"I thought we were better," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "I thought we we more capable than we showed today."
And for good reason. After all, the Utes return 18 starters from last year's 7-5 team. But on Saturday nothing seemed to work.
The defense was baffled by the option play, just as it was against the Utes' own scout team during training camp. By halftime, it was 35-0 and it could have been worse. Nebraska receivers dropped three passes, including one in the end zone, but it was no matter. The Cornhuskers could do as they pleased on the ground, where the Utes had to deal with the option.
Early in the game, the Utes successfully attacked the quarterback, but they failed to cover the pitchman before he broke a long gainer. Later, they managed to play the pitchman, but then they couldn't contain the quarterback.
"They cracked down on me with a receiver," said safety Mark Swanson. "It just happened so fast, I'm not sure what happened."
"I don't know why we had so much trouble playing the option; I'll have to see the film," said McBride, echoing a refrain heard round the locker room.
On the second series of the game, Lewis took a handoff straight up the middle and didn't stop until he reached the end zone 57 yards away. Minutes later, Brown eluded safety Sharrieff Shah behind the line of scrimmage, skirted the right end and then left Swanson grasping for nothing but air on the sideline en route to a 26-yard touchdown.
The Ute defense even tried to play 12 players once in the second quarter - and Grant ran 16 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.
The rout continued. Andre McDuffy ran six yards for a touchdown and Jones took a screen pass 14 yards for another touchdown after running over a pack of would-be tacklers at the goal.
By the end of the half, the Cornhuskers were so confident behind their huge offensive line that they went for it on fourth-and-one from their own 16-yard line. Only a penalty forced them to punt.
Down after down, the Huskers pounded away at the Utes. It's the kind of game that seems to reflect the no-nonsense Osborne, a coach who is so bland that Sports Illustrated reportedly killed a feature story about him because it was boring. So is the offense in some ways, but no one in Lincoln is complaining these days. The Huskers averaged 7.2 yards per play on Saturday.
"We were out there a lot in the first half," said Ute defensive tackle Dave Chaytors. "I was out of breath."
That's because the Utes were running their old three-and-out offense, which kept their defense on the field. After fielding a lackluster offense for two years, the Utes hoped for better this season with a veteran group. On Saturday, they didn't manage a first down until the 13:17 mark of the second quarter. They managed 108 yards, total, in the first half.
When he wasn't being sacked three times, quarterback Frank Dolce was being squeezed out of a collapsing pocket, either because of poor pass protection or because none of his receivers was open. Dolce completed 21 of 38 passes for 207 yards and 1 TD and was intercepted four times. He threw a 15-yard TD pass to Henry Lusk in the second quarter, but the play was nullified by a penalty. Moments later, he was intercepted by cornerback Tyrone Bird.
"We made a lot of mistakes," said quarterback Frank Dolce.
Among other things, the Utes missed blocking assignments, ran the wrong pass routes, put two players in motion simultaneously and lined up in the wrong position.
In the second half, McBride shuffled players. He brought Ed Castillo off the bench to play guard, and utilized several of his part-time players more, including running backs Pierre Jones, Steve Abrams and Henry Lusk.
"We had to make changes," said McBride. "We were getting our butts kicked."
Midway through the third quarter, the Huskers benched Grant, along with most of their starters, but then the Utes managed a pair of TDs on a seven-yard pass to Lusk and a 54-yard run by Keith Williams. Out came Grant again, and he promptly threw an 11-yard TD pass to Gerald Armstrong. With 1:49 to play, Utah's Jones ran 25 yards for the game's final TD.
For the record, Williams rushed for 107 yards and Jones 44. Lusk led Utah's receivers, with five catches for 58 yards.
"You lost round one," McBride told his team. "It was a knockout, but we've been knocked down a lot in this program. You've just got to get back up."