Nebraska’s scheduled opener against Akron was canceled last Saturday, which means the Scott Frost era will open this Saturday as the Huskers host Colorado (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). The Frost era is supposed to be a long-awaited return to glory for Nebraska, when the favorite son at long last returns home, aged and enlightened from a journey that took him to faraway places like Oregon and Florida, to apply what he learned and make the Big Red as good as they were in the Old Days, back when life was simpler, children respected their elders and everything made sense.
And so it’s kind of fitting the New Era of Nebraska football will begin against Colorado, because it was Colorado who tore down the Big Red Wall in the first place.
On Nov. 23, 2001, Nebraska traveled to Colorado with the Big 12 North championship on the line — though, it seemed, only technically. The Huskers were 11-0, riding a 13-game winning streak and No. 1 in the BCS standings. Colorado was 8-2 and ranked No. 15. And, yes, the Buffs had lost only once in Big 12 play, so, technically speaking, whoever won on Black Friday would head to the Big 12 Championship the following Saturday in Dallas — but Colorado had only played one top-10 team all year and was absolutely crushed, falling 41-7 at Texas just four weeks earlier. Nebraska, meanwhile, knocked off defending national champion Oklahoma three weeks earlier. The Sooners used a win over Nebraska to propel themselves to the 2000 national title, and Nebraska was primed to return the favor in this season.
Nebraska was going to win, because Nebraska always won. The Huskers were 11-0 in that season, 21-2 since 2000, 33-3 since 1999 and 91-9 since 1994. The numbers continued like that, unbroken by even a single down year, through 1969, a record string of 33 consecutive seasons with at least nine victories. Nebraska was always good, but the Big Red kicked it up a notch in Tom Osborne’s final years and continuing into the Frank Solich tenure. Nebraska of the late ’90s and early 2000s was what Alabama is today. They were invincible.
So, sure, there was a division championship on the line that day in Boulder, but not really, because everyone knew Nebraska was going to win.
And then the game started.
Nebraska accepted the ball to open the game and immediately went three-and-out. Colorado took over at its own 32, moved into Nebraska territory with a 26-yard pass from quarterback Bobby Pesavento to receiver Matt Brunson, and then, on the next play, Colorado hit Nebraska with a play for which the Huskers would have no answer: they ran the ball right at them. Bobby Purify tore through the middle of Nebraska’s defense for a 39-yard touchdown run, and the avalanche was underway.
Nebraska’s next possession ended with a fumble inside its own territory and one play later — less than three minutes into the game — Colorado had a 14-0 lead. After a turnover on downs at midfield, Colorado pushed the lead to 21-0 before the game was 10 minutes old. The Huskers got on the board with a field goal on their next touch, but Colorado immediately marched 80 yards in five plays — four of them runs, for 73 yards — to take a 28-3 lead. On the Buffs’ next possession, they also went 80 yards in five plays, stretching the lead to 35-3 at the 12:30 mark of the second quarter.
The Huskers actually won the game’s final 42 minutes, pulling within 12 points at one point in the third quarter, but the damage was done. Colorado won the game 62-36, in the process setting Nebraska opponent records for points in a quarter (28), a half (42) and a game, most total touchdowns (nine) and most touchdowns by an individual player (Chris Brown, six).
“The holes were huge,” Brown said afterward. “The first guy I’d usually run into was a safety. And their safeties were scared to come straight up and tackle me.”
Colorado would go to Dallas the following week as the Big 12 North’s champion after all.
But 62-36 was more about more than just one game. Rome fell that day in Boulder. Rarely, if ever, can you pinpoint a Before and After in a college football program’s history to a single game like you can with Colorado 62, Nebraska 36.
Colorado won a rematch with Texas in the Big 12 Championship but, thanks to trademark BCS hijinks and LSU’s upset of Tennessee in the SEC Championship, Nebraska snuck into the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl ahead of Colorado by five hundredths of a point. That may have seemed like a blessing at the time, but it wasn’t. Miami led Nebraska 34-0 at halftime.
A year later, Nebraska went 7-7, snapping the record 33-year streak of 9-plus wins, and the first time the Huskers had lost seven games in a season since 1958.
The Huskers rebounded to a 9-3 regular season in 2003, but AD Steve Pederson fired Solich after the regular season, setting the program on a tailspin it’s never recovered from. Bill Callahan went 27-22 in his four seasons. Bo Pelini lasted seven years and won four division championships but never a conference championship. Mike Riley was a violent course correction from Pelini’s abrasive personality, but went just 19-19 in his three seasons.
Nebraska has played 210 games since the program boarded the plane for that fateful Black Friday game in Boulder. Here is a comparison of how the program fared in the 210 immediately before that day in Boulder and in the 210 games since.
|Before 62-36||After 62-36|
|W-L Record||180-29-1 (.860)||130-80 (.619)|
|AP Top 10 Finishes||11||0|
|Major Bowl Appearances||14||1|
Here’s how Omaha World-Herald writer Dirk Chatelain classified that game 14 years later:
The loss didn’t knock NU out of the national title game, but it did inflict long-term psychological damage. “This is pretty much a nightmare,” Eric Crouch said. Nebraska arguably still hasn’t woken up.
There’s a definite fairy tale element of Frost’s return to Lincoln. And if this new era is to meet a fairy tale ending, it will begin with the perfect opponent.