The night of January 2nd, 1996 will always have a place in my memory bank. For many, that date will be meaningless. Or maybe they’ll remember it as the day they started their new exercise program that quickly fizzled away. More likely, they’ll associate it with the day they recovered fully from their celebration of the new year just a few days before.
I wasn’t into partying at that time as I was still only in 7th grade. My drug of choice was sports, particularly college football. I knew the majority of the players from all of the teams. If questioned, I could give you the height and weight of anybody taking the field. With the help of the preseason magazines, I knew what the top player from each team looked like. From watching numerous games, I could tell who was in on the tackle before the announcers said it. When watching football or other sports, you notice certain tendencies of the players.
I was that into the game of college football. However, there was something that intrigued me even more to a far greater depth. That was the 1995-96 Nebraska football team .
That’s why when you mention that night in 1996, I’ll always think about that great team. The Tommie Frazier run, the spectacular performance of Lawrence Phillips , and the safety on Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel . Those are specific themes but the main category that these all go under is pure Nebraska domination. 62-24 in a title game. I’ll never forget the score either. Whenever I hear about big blowouts, I always think back to that game and the exact score.
I’ve always been a fan of the bad guy. You know, people who add personality and character. They don’t let things get boring. Wuerffel, the Florida quarterback, was the opposite of this. He was promoted as this great guy. He turned into somebody I couldn’t stand. I hated Florida to begin with. They would always throw the ball. They had no running game. They weren’t physical.
Nebraska, on the other side, was the complete opposite. Everybody knew they were going to run the ball on offense but nobody could stop it. I completely loved this. It was what football should be. Running backs were my favorite position players . Seeing their different styles was thrilling. Add to this, the fact that there was going to be a huge pileup and any kid would be in his dream world.
Nebraska was a running back factory at that time. They were talented and very deep at that position. Anybody they plugged in could easily run for 100 yards against any opponent you placed in front of them.
Phillips was my favorite. The guy was just a talent. He had the perfect combination of speed and power. He ran around teams, making their players look like they were still at the high school level.
Of course, he had help as evidenced by him missing most of the year due to suspension and the team not missing a beat. Ahman Green proved to be a worthy starter in his absence. Clinton Childs and Damon Benning and the fullbacks added to the running attack.
That’s actually a very fitting name for it. It was an attack. Eleven guys all going forward and beating on the opponent. There was no retreating. With Nebraska, everyone was going at the enemy. Even the quarterback wasn’t backpedaling.
Frazier, the quarterback, was a very skillful runner. He could run on every play or dish it off to the tailback behind him. That is where the defense had to guess. Either way they were going to get beat. The Nebraska running game was never stopped.
The guys with the ball all were hard to tackle even when they were grabbed as evidenced by that Frazier run against Florida. Adding to the pain of the defense was the fact that the guys blocking for those skilled players were big and tough.
Nebraska’s offensive line comprised of guys who looked nice. Get them on the field though and they were anything but. I loved a picture of all these guys standing together. This wasn’t just one dominant guy weighing 320 pounds who could knock over the man in front of him. All five of them could do that. Combined they weighed about 1500 pounds. How would you like that running at you with bad intentions? Don’t forget, you still have to try to tackle the ball carrier.
The wide receivers on the team didn’t catch a ton of balls since this was a pure running team. However, they had a presence as they would block down the field. Remember, this was an offense with all eleven guys attacking the defense. Once the guy carrying the ball got past the linemen and the linebackers laying on their backs, they still had to elude the defensive backs. That is where the receivers came in.
Nebraska’s receivers were hard. Definitely more so than Florida’s speedsters. Nebraska played football as it was meant to be played. Florida was what the game of football has turned into today. More passing, more glory, less hitting.
Nebraska killed opponents all year long. There wasn’t a close game. However, people had to give Florida a shot against them because the Gators were also undefeated.
When two unbeaten teams play each other, you think it’s going to be a pretty good game. At least, there is a lot of intrigue surrounding the matchup.
I, even though I was young, knew better. That Nebraska team wasn’t going to lose. They were way tougher than the Gators. It wasn’t even close. Also, they were a team destined to be dominant all year. When you’re a kid, you want to see a team like this. They never lose, never get hurt, never show a weakness. Instead, they win, inflict pain on others, and demoralize any opponent that steps in their way.
Also, when you’re young you imagine different scenarios. For example, you think about how these players are probably idolized on their campus by everyone. And if someone fails to give them the respect they are beaten up by the very athletes taking the field.
That is where the defensive line comes in. Specifically, the Peter brothers in the middle. Jason and Christian Peter just looked mean and rough. I could just imagine that the center and guards for the opposing team were dreading constant battle with these two for the entire game.
They were surrounded by some talented ends. Jared Tomich and Grant Wistrom both came hard off the corner. It was great to see them ravage the poor quarterback week in and week out and make many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. They had an added advantage. It was easily seen on Wistrom as he would wear a small jersey. The guy had abs that shouldn’t have been seen on a defensive lineman. He wasn’t lacking in size. He was just ripped.
That actually leads to the linebackers on this team. The linebackers were smaller than those on other teams but they could fly around the field twice as fast as those other guys. It clearly showed that speed and aggression will always beat just plain size.
Because of their speed, the linebackers were great all-around players. Terrell Farley did everything. He roamed all over the field. Add Jamel Williams to the mix and you had Wuerffel getting hit by both in the championship game. Those were memorable moments that will live on in any Nebraska fan’s mind.
With the linebackers faster than everybody else they could intercept passes, hurry the quarterback, and basically terrorize opponents more than anybody else could. So, in effect, the team had more guys chasing the quarterback and also defending the pass downfield at the same time than any other team. It was unfair.
Not that the team had to be concerned with defending against the pass on deep passes. Usually the linemen would be on the quarterback too quickly to let him heave one. But there was also the fact that the defensive backs were really good.
Mike Minter and Tony Veland played the safety positions while Tyrone Williams and Michael Booker covered the opposing receivers. These guys all played in the NFL following their college glory days. What was so great about them was that they were also aggressive. They weren’t the cornerbacks who didn’t like to tackle. They would get right in on the action.
This is what was so great about those teams. They were always in the right place at the right time. They never made mistakes, it seemed. Even if an opponent was there to stop them, it didn’t matter. They would simply run over the obstacle or keep pushing until the play worked. With eleven guys working together on each side of the ball at a given time, it was sure to work.
And it did. Let’s not forget that the team was so loaded with talent that all the backups were vital parts as well. For example, there was Eric Warfield and Mike Fullman who were defensive backs.
For me, this team will never be forgotten. The whole year but especially that night in January. The pure domination will never be seen again. Maybe that is the perception of a teenager. However, the beating that I saw that night makes me see the date, the two teams involved, and the Fiesta Bowl in a different light. Whenever the mention of any of them comes up I always think about that January night in 1996.