LINCOLN, Neb. — The talking heads might term Nebraska’s trip to Columbus this weekend as make or break. To Jay Foreman’s gut, though, it feels more like make or take.
“I would tell these guys, ‘Look, in football, you can do one of two things: Make your opportunities or go take them,’” Foreman, the former Nebraska linebacker and current analyst, said of his alma mater’s visit to No. 6 Ohio State on Saturday night. “They’ve made (them) before. Now it’s time to go take something from Ohio State that they think they’ve won.
“We’ve got a long tradition. Same as them. And (we’ve) got the players to do it. They can definitely go down there and get the job done. When you kick down a door, you don’t just kick it open and ask to come in.”
Foreman did a fair amount of kicking himself, back in the day, recording 233 tackles from 1994-98 and contributing to three national championship teams (1994, ’95, ’97). The 6-foot-1 defender was at the heart of the last Nebraska bunch to beat a top 6 Associated Press team on the road — Sept. 20, 1997, when the eventual national champions, ranked seventh, won at No. 2 Washington, 27-14.
“I told (current Huskers linebacker) Josh Banderas, I told him, ‘You guys need to have a baseball-bat mentality,’” said Foreman, who played eight seasons in the NFL, primarily in Buffalo (1999-2001) and Houston (2002-04). “That’s the type of mentality you need to have. It’s not swagger. It’s a quiet confidence.”
When it comes to knocking off national title contenders away from Lincoln, over the past generation, terms such as swagger and confidence have been in comparatively short supply. In the 18 full seasons since the 1997 national championship (1998-2015), the Huskers have yet to beat an Associated Press top 6 squad on the road. In the 18 seasons prior to 1998 (1980-97), the Big Red won four true road contests vs. top 6 opponents.
With Saturday’s 23-17 setback at No. 8 Wisconsin thrown on to the pile, Nebraska is 5-24 against ranked foes in true road games since 1998, the year after coach Tom Osborne’s retirement from coaching.
“I’m still kind of shocked that Nebraska, being a blue-blood type of program, hasn’t won (against a top 6) on the road in that long,” said Foreman, now a driving force behind the Foreman Foundation, which launched in 2013 to provide assistance and education to those living with Type 2 diabetes. “Because I know we’ve had plenty of chances.”
The Big Red of present is a long, long, long way from Seattle. In more ways than one.
Quarterback Scott Frost had been booed by Huskers fans in Lincoln the weekend before that trip to Washington, during a 38-24 win over the UCF Knights — a team he would one day coach.
“One thing I do remember about that game (is) we looked forward to that game all offseason,” Foreman said. “We were talking about it sparingly in spring ball. Through summer workouts, that was our main focus. We knew that was going to be a big test.”
The Huskies came in rolling with an offense led by quarterback Brock Huard and wideout Jerome Pathon and a defense that was tops in the country against the run, anchored by linebacker Jerry Jensen and safety Tony Parrish.
Nebraska ran for 384 yards anyway.
“We knew what they were going to do,” Huskies linebacker Jason Chorak told reporters after the game. “We just couldn’t stop it.”
The Big Red stormed to a 21-0 lead thanks to two long touchdown runs by Frost, while Huard would get knocked out of the game in the first quarter and replaced by Marques Tuiasosopo. I-back Ahman Green and fullback Joel Makovicka rumbled for 129 yards each and Frost nearly matched them in the century club (97 rushing yards).
“We got after them pretty good,” said Foreman, who recorded a sack and nine tackles — five solos — at Husky Stadium and would finish the season second on the team in stops (61). “I wouldn’t say it was a letdown, but it was one of the things where we were used to going up against each other as far as being physical (and our) speed.”
They wanted to redeem themselves, feeling that an 11-2 season in 1996 that included losses at Arizona State and in the Big 12 championship game to Texas had let down Big Red fans and Osborne himself. The Huskers had won back-to-back titles in 1994 and ’95, posting a two-year record of 25-0.
“We weren’t done,” Foreman said. “We knew, if we wanted to get the respect back and get another national championship and be ready, that that was an early test. Going to Washington, at their place, it wasn’t an ideal situation. So we knew if we wanted a national championship we had to go win on the road. Winning that game kind of cemented our confidence and kind of propelled us to do some great things that year.”
The Big Red would go on to post a 13-0 record, with only two of the wins — the 45-38 overtime escape at Missouri and a 27-24 win at Colorado — decided by fewer than 14 points.
“You can’t win a division championship or a Big Ten championship without winning and beating a good team — generally, it’s going to be a top 15 or above, a top 10 — on the road,” Foreman said. “It’s something that’s obviously been a thorn in our sides for a while, and we need to start righting the ship.
“When you go on the road, all things being equal, I think it really shows the fire of your team, because the odds are stacked against you. To upset a team on their own turf is something that’s hard to do, especially having a dominating performance.”
‘They’re going in the right direction’
Like the Huskers coaches and players, Foreman took more positives from the loss at Wisconsin than negatives, especially given the way Nebraska (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) rallied from a 17-7 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter against one of the league’s most suffocating defenses.
“They look like they’re going in the right direction,” Foreman said. “You need to get over that hump. They got ranked again this year and got some national notoriety. Now they need to cement it with the big win, period. And a win on the road at Ohio State would be really good.”
It might finish the Big Ten West race for good, too. Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) visits Northwestern (4-4, 3-2) this weekend, and the Badgers haven’t won in Evanston in 17 years. The Huskers will likely be favored in their final three contests, which include a home date with Minnesota (6-2, 3-2) on Nov. 12 and a visit to Iowa (5-3, 3-2) on Nov. 25.
“If I would talk to them, I’d say, ‘Look, any team can get beat, any team, any day, any time,’” Foreman continued. “‘Ohio State is no different than you guys. You’ve got to go out and dictate the tempo and be the aggressor and go out and play for 60 minutes.’”
“That’s the PG version. If I had the full floor, there would probably be a lot of expletives and four-letter words.”
Spoiler alert: The full-floor version is better.