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Cornhusker Conversation

Saturday will mark the 84th time Oklahoma and Nebraska have played each other in football. There have been some epic battles like the 1971 Game of the Century and there have been plenty of routs as well, like the decade of the 90’s where the only game that was within a touchdown was the 1991 game. As we prepare for the Big Red Rivalry Saturday night I had the opportunity to visit with the editors of Corn Nation about this game and their best memories of the rivalry.

The last time Oklahoma and Nebraska played was in the 2006 Big 12 Championship game. Describe how the Nebraska program has changed since then.

Husker Mike: Well, in a nutshell, Nebraska is trying to rewind the mess the last regime left behind, especially on defense. In 2006, the defensive line was stocked with guys who went onto the NFL. Even the position coach (John Blake, remember him?) left. Their replacements...well, were poorly coached and out of shape, as were the rest of the defense, which ended up being one of the worst in all of college football. So Bo Pelini was brought back from LSU, and they spent most of the last year getting back into shape and trying to forget bad habits fostered by the previous staff. It was rough initially, but things have started to improve in recent weeks.

Corn Blight: Remember in the Wizard of Oz when Toto runs over and pulls back the curtain to reveal some dorky guy who turns out to be the great wizard. Dorothy was at first shocked, then disgusted, and then outraged.

If that reference doesn’t work for you, then imagine the look on my son’s face this past year when he turned 15 years old, opened up his birthday present and it was a blender. (No kidding.)* That was 2007.

2008 finds us full of hope, with a guy many wanted to be the head coach before Bill Callahan began. Most of us realize how much damage was done in a very short time frame, however, and that it will take a while to get back where we’re competing for the Big 12 North on a regular basis.

With all the high powered offenses in the in the conference it seems like Nebraska gets overlooked a little but they aren’t a doormat. Tell us about the Husker offense.

Husker Mike: There aren't any stars on this offense, but they've become extremely efficient since the Missouri game. They've adopted a bit of a spread look in a West Coast framework to open things up. Joe Ganz and Nate Swift are the offensive MVP's; neither is going to knock your socks off, but they make plays. Ganz has mobility and can hurt you outside the pocket both with his arm and legs. Swift is a possession receiver with great hands and deceptive speed (witness his punt return against Virginia Tech.) Marlon Lucky is dangerous when he gets into open space with the ball.

Corn Blight: We were adamant about running the football out of the heavier sets earlier in the season. It didn’t work very well, so as Mike says, we’ve adopted more of a spread look and have relied on a short passing game to reliable receivers to keep things moving. It’s worked fairly well, although there are times when we really need to run the ball better.

No one is going to claim that the black shirt defense is back in Lincoln but how much progress has the defense made?

Husker Mike: It takes time to forget bad habits, but they went from being one of the worst defenses to merely mediocre. Speed is much improved, and Cody Glenn has shocked everybody as a playmaker in his first action at linebacker. Most importantly, the players believe in this coaching staff.

Corn Blight: Are there any defenses “back” in the Big 12 this year?

Pelini is playing a lot of young, inexperienced guys and they’re finding out who can play and who can’t. Safety Larry Asante started the season awful, but has played very well in the last couple games - you’ll hear his name.

OU is going to honor the teams from the 1971 Game of the Century on Saturday night. What are your most painful and joyful memories of the OU/Nebraska rivalry?

Husker Mike: Many more painful memories than joyful memories. One of my earliest games I remember attending was the 78 game when Billy Sims fumbled at the three yard line. Problem is at that time, I still was too young to really appreciate that game and victory.

So instead, I'll go with Black 41 Flash Reverse.

Painful? Marcus DuPree. Keith Jackson. Jamelle Holieway.

Corn Blight: With the exception of 1971, every Thanksgiving in the 70’s my family would be so disappointed again, and then finally in 1978, great elation until we found out we had to play you guys again in the Orange Bowl. I don’t see those as painful memories, as my dad died in 1974, so while disappointing, they’re still good memories.

1982 was my greatest day as a student at Nebraska. I’ll post a write up later about my experience of tearing down the goal post after that victory. I was nearly killed. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

1987 was the worst. I am in the stands next to the future Mrs. Corn Nation. At halftime, I turn to her and say “I know the score is close, but we’re going to kick their ass so bad I nearly feel sorry for them.” Our 19th anniversary was this week. There hasn’t been a single Oklahoma game gone by that she hasn’t reminded me of that comment. Talk about something that keeps on giving. Women.

I’m middle aged now, raising kids of my own. As time goes on, you tend to forget about “pain” associated with losing and instead just appreciate the damned good football that has been played between these teams over the years. That’s why I wish we were playing every year again.

It isn’t because Nebraska has only it’s past to look to, it’s the understanding that both teams were going to play their guts out, then walk off the field with mutual respect - something that’s sorely missing from sports these days. It isn’t enough anymore you beat your opponent - for some reason we feel we must demoralize or embarrass them when in fact all we’re doing is demeaning ourselves.

It isn’t impossible for Nebraska to win this game. If you were coaching how would you game plan?

Husker Mike: I'm not sure anybody has figured out how to really stop the Sooners on offense, so the number one thing I'd do is continue what the Huskers have been doing the last few games: An efficient, ball control offense that keeps the Sooner defense on the field that puts points on the board consistently. And then hope that the defense can get a couple of stops or force a turnover. It isn't so much that we're trying to outscore them, but rather limit the Sooners' opportunity to score.

Corn Blight: Same as Mike’s noting one difference. In last week’s Baylor win we didn’t throw the ball deep until later in the game, much like using the short passes to set up the big ones. Against the Sooners we won’t be able to wait that long. Look for a couple of young Husker receivers, Currenski Gilleylen or more likely Marcus Mendoza, to try to burn the Sooner secondary deep early.

There are some items that are critical for Nebraska:

We have to get positive yardage, particularly on first down. If we can do this, the options (no pun intended) stay open. If we’re one dimensional, it’s the Oklahoma/KSU game all over again this week.

We have to win field position, and that includes good punting which hasn’t been a strength this season. Our kicking is very good. Our punting sucks.

No margin for error. That means no turnovers and no penalties. For this Nebraska team, that’s the tallest order of the day.

Score prediction?

Husker Mike: Ugggh. You're going to make me do that? OK, Sooners 42, Nebraska 31

Corn Blight: I’m a homer. I’m forever optimistic. I never bet on games. Nebraska 31, Oklahoma 28

*(in italics) We gave him something else besides the blender. He didn’t have to go to therapy.  

Thanks for your time, guys. Enjoy the game Saturday night, but not too much!