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That Guy's Wearing Red, Too!

Exploring the State of Nebraska and its unique football tradition

New Tricks on Old Dogs

After reluctantly leaving the warm surrounds of the indoor tailgate party I made my way over to Levi’s Stadium for the Foster Farms Bowl where the Huskers would take on the heavily-favored Bruins.  UCLA fans dressed in blue mixed good-naturedly with the red-clad Nebraska fans as they entered the modern stadium that had been built just a year or two ago for the San Francisco 49ers, but once inside each group went its separate way. The segregation I had witnessed at the pre-game tailgate party carried through to the game itself as It seemed that the west side of the stadium had been reserved for Bruins fans and the east side for Husker fans. In many ways we could have been almost anywhere in America except for one thing. Just when I was getting over the traumatic experience of the Great Stella Artois Deception, not to mention the as-yet-unseen Foster’s beer, I was thrown into a tailspin all over again by the indignities perpetrated on that great staple of cold weather football games, the hot dog. Ok, I was willing to accept that there would be no Valentino’s in the stands, nor Runza’s, but vegan hot dogs for crying out loud? I mean, who ever heard of a vegan hot dog? And where else but in California could you find one? Where I grew up the slang term for a dachshund was a “sausage dog”. In Canada and the US they call them a “wiener dog”. But what on earth do they call a dachshund in California – a “zucchini dog”? And what kind of garnishings do you use on a vegan hot dog – sautéed lentils and quinoa dressing? They'd never get away with such tomfoolery in Lincoln!

After a shock like that it was only the presence of more sane and sensible sights such as grown men wearing giant plastic corn cobs and Santa hats on their heads that allowed me to calm down so that I could focus on the game. The stadium looked less than half full with 33,527 fans in attendance, but their enthusiastic support combined with the presence of bands from both teams served to create a festive atmosphere despite the falling temperatures. Apparently the designers of the stadium had forgotten the small detail of adding a roof to their giant sporting shrine, but many fans had come well-prepared to face the conditions.

For example the four members of the family in front of me were each wearing several layers of clothing underneath the blankets that covered them. The husband is originally from Omaha and has lived in Sacramento for the past 30 years, but it was good to see that he was doing his best to raise his two teenage daughters in the Husker faith.

The game began well for the Bruins. On the first possession of the game they scored a touchdown within the space of 4 minutes as they marched 80 yards down the field looking like a well-oiled machine. Less than 7 minutes later the Huskers returned the favor by covering 75 yards to score a touchdown on their own first possession of the game. The key difference between these two drives was that UCLA’s approach was focused on passing plays whereas Nebraska’s was focused on rushing by three different players, most notably Cross and Ozigbo.

I was encouraged to see that the Big Red had established so early in the game that several different players had the capacity to run the ball against the Bruins defense. However my excitement was tempered when the Bruins scored the next two touchdowns, making it look very easy as they did so. By midway through the second quarter the Bruins led 21-7. But the Huskers refused to back down and continued their run-heavy offense based around several players including Armstrong. Some long pass completions at critical moments combined with solid rushing saw the Huskers score two touchdowns of their own to level the scores one minute before halftime. The Huskers were looking good and we really had a game on our hands going into the second half!

Since this was to be the last game of the season, it was also my last chance to conduct my own unscientific survey to determine the approximate percentage of Husker fans who know the words to the team’s fight song “Dear Old Nebraska U”. I was seated within earshot of the band, and after each Husker touchdown I followed the traditions I had observed in Lincoln as the music got underway: the waving arms…the rhythmic clapping…and then the song. I would sing both verses of the song at the top of my lungs, followed by the three shouts of “Go Huskers!” at the appropriate moments cued by the band. This was in turn followed by repeating the two verses of the song, and the grand finale was four shouts of “Go Big Red!” Of course I knew that all the people around me would surely join in participating in most of these traditions, but my aim was to see how many would sing along to the song with me.

After going through this routine for several Husker touchdowns, I must say I had never felt so lonely in my life. I could see some other red sections of the crowd enjoying their own celebrations of these same traditions that my wife had followed as a student at UNL in late 70s, but an air of bemused silence reigned in my part of the stadium. While making a spectacle of myself I had learned nothing about whether any of my fellow Husker fans knew the words to the song, but I did learn that they were a tolerant bunch who were polite enough to put up with the antics of a lunatic foreigner in their midst without calling Security to have him escorted to the exits. However I was later relieved to a certain extent when Anthony from the tailgate party suddenly appeared on the big screen at the other end of the field, complete with his red-and-white face paint and corn hat. I bet he would have sung along with me.

On the field the second half continued in the same way that it had begun. The Huskers dominated the game with their run-by-committee approach and continued to wear down the Bruins’ defense, while the Huskers defense was all but impenetrable. By 38 seconds into the 4th quarter the score was 37-21 and the Huskers had scored 30 unanswered points. The Blackshirts had completely shut down the well-oiled Bruins offense that had so quickly put three touchdowns on the board in the first half.

And then just as quickly as it had disappeared, the machine-like UCLA blitzkrieg offense suddenly reappeared. Within the space of 3 minutes, the Bruins marched 76 yards down the field with 8 plays to score a touchdown followed by a silky-smooth 2-point conversion to make the score 29-37. When Nebraska’s next drive stalled, the Bruins got the ball back on their own 27-yard line with nine minutes left to play. After watching the way the Bruins had run their last drive I was seriously concerned that they would march down and score another 8 points to tie the game. My worst fears looked like coming to fruition as the Bruins used 5 plays to reach the Nebraska 17-yard line. This next series of plays would be critical to the result of the game.

On first down the UCLA quarterback Rosen threw a rare incomplete pass. On second down his receiver dropped a pass he would normally have caught. On third down the Blackshirts broke through the Bruins offensive line and sacked Rosen for the loss of 11 yards. And on fourth down UCLA’s 46-yard field goal attempt missed wide left. But all was not lost for UCLA, and they would have another possession following a Huskers three-and-out. With just under 5 minutes left in the game they got the ball back on their own 46-yard line. Five plays later they were on the Husker 32 with a first down. However once again the Blackshirts stood firm and intercepted Rosen’s fourth down pass one yard from the end zone.

With 3:08 remaining, the Huskers needed to run out the clock starting from their own 1-yard line. This was no easy proposition given the poor field position and the fact that UCLA still had two timeouts left. Nevertheless the Huskers were up to the challenge and continued to run the ball against the tiring Bruins defense, with Armstrong and Carter making key runs to reach first downs at important moments when they were most needed to seal the game.

It was a remarkable victory that will live long in the memories of the players and fans. Even more remarkable was that we saw Mike Riley in an animated and excited state after the game. “How ‘bout those Huskers!” were his first words into the microphone in the center of the field at the trophy presentation ceremony. I’m pretty sure that if you study the photo carefully you’ll see they’ve got some celebratory Foster’s out there on the field!

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