LINCOLN — Of the Huskers’ three national titles in the 1990s, the ’97 championship might be the most underappreciated.
Said Jay Foreman, a junior linebacker on that squad: “1994 was that magical team, the team that finally brought Tom Osborne a championship. The 1995 team was the best team ever in college football. It was like, ‘OK, we took our success to another level and obliterated people.’ ”
Then, Foreman said, there was the 1997 team, which will be honored Saturday before Nebraska’s matchup against No. 9 Wisconsin.
Those Huskers were good. Dominant. And somewhat forgotten.
Nebraska was coming off an 11-2 season in 1996, which washed off some of the Husker dominance from previous seasons. College football was ready to crown a new dynasty, Foreman said.
Nebraska began the season 9-0, then squeaked by unrankedMissouri thanks mostly to true freshman Matt Davison’s improbable catch in the end zone with two seconds remaining to force overtime. Though a win, Foreman said that hurt Nebraska’s aura even more.
It didn’t help that after a 42-17 win over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, Nebraska wasn’t No. 1 in the AP poll at the end of the season. Michigan was. The Huskers, No. 1 in the coaches poll, split the title — the only of NU’s teams in the 1990s to do so.
“The perception is that we just kind of backed into a national championship,” Foreman said. “But when you think about it, I would take the ’97 team against ’94 every day of the week.”
It’s been 20 years since Davison’s catch and the title. The current Huskers are wearing throwback jerseys from that season, with mesh numbers like the ’90s style.
But what might be most notable about the 1997 team is how vocal the players have been about the decline of the program, and the “need” to get back to the 1990s.
Foreman is a regular on radio shows in Lincoln and Omaha, helping host one on Mondays after games. Former defensive lineman Jason Peter was part of all three titles in the 1990s, and often engages with fans on Twitter about Nebraska’s need to get back to its roots. Davison is the color commentator for the Huskers and brings up the dominance of the past.
“We’re not necessarily trying to beat the program up,” Foreman said. “What people don’t understand is we want them to win as much as anyone, because once they do, once they get that feeling of winning at the highest level, you won’t ever want to let it go.”
Ralph Brown was a starting corner in 1997. He played in the NFL for a decade and is now a commentator for Fox Sports West. And those years in the ’90s, he said, were special. Former players hang onto that.
“Those times in the ’90s, they shaped my life,” he said. “It was a special time for the players, the way we played the game, the brotherhood, the standard we had, all the fun times we had traveling and winning.”
But since 1997, Nebraska has one conference title (in 1999). The program is on its fourth coach and soon-to-be fourth athletic director in 20 years.
Part of what players talk about when they mention “bringing back” the 1990s is that consistency at the top. Osborne was the head coach 25 years, and he had assistants who were with him nearly as long.
Defensive coordinator Charlie McBride was at NU for 23 years, but Nebraska hasn’t had that staff consistency since coach Frank Solich was fired.
“Having Coach Osborne there so long, Coach (George) Darlington, Charlie, they knew the system, they knew how to plan out each season,” Brown said. “It made it so easy and so comfortable.
“We just basically followed them, and it was basically plug-and-play, and that’s how we rolled back then.”
There was also an attitude around the program 20 years ago that former players don’t sense anymore. A refusal to lose. A controlled ego that flowed through Memorial Stadium where losing wasn’t an option.
Aaron Taylor, a lineman on the three championship teams, said he and teammates used to tell opponents what the upcoming play was. Even then they couldn’t be stopped, he said.
There is a story among former players about Davison and that 1997 season. On the flight to Seattle for Nebraska’s game against Washington, Davison leaned over to junior defensive lineman Chad Kelsay and whispered: “Do you think we will win?”
According to accounts, including Davison’s, Kelsay grabbed him by the throat. “Don’t ever say that again,” he responded.
Brown recalled in 1999, during the last conference title run, when Nebraska was crushing Southern Mississippi at halftime. The defense waited in the locker room for McBride to praise the performance. Instead, players were met with clipboards flying and expletives.
“I’m like, is he watching the same game we watched?” Brown said.
A few months later, McBride told Brown that he did it because they were playing so well, he didn’t know what else to say. But he also didn’t want them to let up.
That’s the mentality that’s missing from this current Nebraska program, Foreman said.
“You need to be able to push people in order to get results. And the guys that have been through this program (right now) have not been pushed to their max,” Foreman said. “And you can see it on the field. And it’s easy to see because we’ve literally done it before.”
Foreman said when he brings up the need to get back to the 1990s, about 70 percent of the time fans tell him to stop. Move on.
But disassociating with greatness? That’s what bugs Foreman the most.
“You’re trying to erase what made the university and Nebraska tick, and it’s the weirdest thing to me,” Foreman said. “Because you don’t see Nick Saban trying to disassociate with Bear Bryant. You never hear about Jim Harbaugh not trying to live up to the expectation of Bo Schembechler. You never see Miami getting away from Michael Irvin and those guys. They embrace it. And they try to add to the foundation instead of rewriting the whole deal.”
Honoring the 1997 team Saturday comes at an odd time.
Ten years ago, the 1997 team was honored before the Nebraska-Oklahoma State game. The Huskers lost 45-14. Two days later, Steve Pederson was fired as athletic director.
Ten years later, Nebraska is again in the middle of a season in which the athletic director was ousted and the coach’s job status is uncertain.
And every year that Nebraska isn’t as competitive hurts the former players a little more. Be it the champs from ’94, ’95 or ’97.
Debating who was better among that group is a good problem to have, Foreman said, but it also highlights the current issues. Success is in the past. And it’s getting further away.
McBride is in town this weekend and spent time at practice. He said he’s impressed with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and loved seeing that one of his former players, John Parrella, is now a coach.
Though he admits things have changed in Lincoln, his support is unwavering.
“I’ll never talk down to any of the coaches,” McBride said. “I always try to support them. I was a coach here. I know what they’re going through.”
However, he’s with his former players that he’d like to see the program back where it was. Everyone from that era does.
Some, like Foreman, are just more vocal about it.
“We’re straightforward guys,” Foreman said. “We’re not the most refined and we’re honest about what we think. If you ask us a question, we’ll answer. Sometimes people ask questions and want the truth, then they hear the truth, and don’t want it anymore.
“I don’t really view it as a negative, just more or less those teams in that era. That’s indicative of that 1997 team.”
Reinforcements, including Chris Jones, arrive for NU
LINCOLN — A cavalcade of Nebraska players who have missed multiple games with injuries are set to return Saturday night against Wisconsin, coach Mike Riley said following Thursday’s practice inside the Hawks Center.
Safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring), linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring), cornerback Chris Jones (knee) and right tackle David Knevel (ankle) should see the field in some capacity this weekend, Riley said. So should running back Mikale Wilbon, whom Riley called “much better” Thursday after Wilbon sprained his ankle against Illinois last week and sat out Tuesday’s practice wearing a boot.
“We’ll see what he’s like (Friday), see if he can be in the mix as maybe a rotation or at least an emergency guy on Saturday night,” Riley said of Wilbon. Junior Devine Ozigbo and true freshman Jaylin Bradley are also in position to accumulate carries.
Jones, who has been out all season with a knee injury, has been cleared to play, Riley said, adding, “He won’t play full time, but we anticipate him getting some action during the game.”
Jones suffered the injury in July but had been outspoken about beating the recovery timetable of 4-6 months he was given. Shortly after practice he tweeted, “Told ya so. God did it!!!!”
“I did see him working out and it was encouraging,” Riley said of the senior. “I think both the medical staff and Chris did a great, great job getting ready to go. And he’s very excited about his health and how he feels, so we’re all glad that he feels that good, passed all the tests with flying colors and was cleared to play.”
Newby will return on a “rotation basis” and Knevel will be back, though he’s not “100 percent back,” Riley said. Kalu practiced all week and coaches “anticipate him playing in the game,” Riley said.
“Remember, Josh Kalu has played like six quarters of safety in his life, so it’s not like a guy (who) has been playing his whole career is coming back to play safety,” Riley said of the converted cornerback. “However, we are also very glad to have him. He’s instinctive, he’s tough and it’s a great addition.”
Riley said true freshman Brenden Jaimes and sophomore Michael Decker will start at right tackle and center, respectively, for a third straight week despite the recent recovery of Knevel and center Cole Conrad (ankle).
A recipe for beating UW
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook is an efficient player. True freshman running back and Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor is a “well-rounded guy.”
Riley offered praise to some of the Badgers’ skill players when asked about them. But he spent more time discussing what Nebraska needs to do in order to upset the nation’s ninth-ranked team.
On offense? Run the ball and protect the quarterback against a Wisconsin unit that sacked Northwestern eight times last week.
“We can’t let them get off the ground, get in a sack frenzy,” Riley said. “So that’s the key issue right there.”
Defensively, Husker to-dos include finding success in critical third-down and red-zone situations. Riley said they will have to stop the relentless rush attacks while also staying alert for the kind of deep passes that broke Northwestern last weekend.
“That’s the beauty of what they do,” Riley said. “It’s the run and the hard play-action down the field, big post routes, big angle routes. That’s what they do. Gotta be in good shape.”
» Riley said he spoke with former Nebraska defensive lineman Grant Wistrom on Wednesday and is looking forward to honoring the 1997 championship team this weekend.
“We invited the team to practice here (Friday),” Riley said. “It’ll be fun to have them here.”
» The rotation at safety between Kalu, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed — who has been one of Nebraska’s best defenders since taking over for Kalu at Oregon — is something coaches will finalize Friday, Riley said.
“We want to keep Antonio Reed active and playing in the games,” Riley said. “He’s been a good player. With him and Aaron playing at safety, the defense has actually grown and done a nice job. So we want to keep Antonio active. We really like him.”
» When asked whether Newby would rotate with Luke Gifford at one outside linebacker spot or move to the other side where Sedrick King is listed No. 1 on the depth chart, Riley was noncommital.
“We can do either one of those things that we want to do,” Riley said. “And you’ll see on Saturday night what we do with those outside ’backers, if that’s OK for an answer.”
Wisconsin at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM