VFL's remember playing Nebraska of the 1990s
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Nebraska and Tennessee have a combined 11 national championships (Tennessee 6, Nebraska 5), 1,714 wins (889 Nebraska, Tennessee 825), 53 bowl victories (27 Tennessee, Nebraska 26), but the two storied programs have met only twice on the football field.
The two meetings came during the height of both programs in the late 1990s, in a span of three seasons, 1997 and 1999, and the Cornhuskers won both.
Nebraska won the 1994 and 1995 national championships and was one win from a split national championship with Michigan in 1997. Their opponent, the Volunteers, were playing for a national title shot themselves; the Peyton Manning-led Vols needed to beat Nebraska and have Michigan lose the Rose Bowl.
Michigan won in the Rose Bowl 21-16 over Washington State, and Nebraska had their way in the second half against Tennessee, winning 41-17.
The second meeting came on Jan. 2, 2000 in the Fiesta Bowl. The two teams met as the last two national champions and the Huskers were victorious again 31-21.
As Nebraska and Tennessee prepare for only their third meeting in the 2016 Music City Bowl, former Vols offensive lineman Fred Weary remembered what it was like going against the Huskers when both programs were elite.
“We knew it was going to be one of those type games, we knew it was going to be a physical game,” Weary told Saturday Down South.
“1997 was Peyton’s last game, everybody thought we had a chance, a lot was riding on that game with national championship implications for them and for us – if it fell right.
“Nebraska was power football. We did what they did – run the football. In 1999 we thought the best game-plan was to run the ball and keep our defense off the field. Nebraska was real good at extending drives.”
The January 1998 Orange Bowl was a defensive bout during the first quarter, but then momentum swung into Nebraska’s favor when freshman Jamal Lewis fumbled as the Vols were heading closer in Nebraska territory with the game’s first points in sight.
“In ’97, we were into it,” Weary said. “A big turning point in the game was when Jamal Lewis broke a run and safety Ralph Brown came up and rocked him. That play took a lot out of us. We were driving and Jamal was hit and it was all Nebraska after that. Jamal was hurt and fumbled, it was a big turning point in the game.”
Brown’s play was an example of how Nebraska played under Hall-of-Fame head coach Tom Osborne and his assistant – and later Huskers head coach – Frank Solich.
“Nebraska was built, tough and a discipline group of guys,” former Tennessee defensive lineman Ed Butler told Saturday Down South. “They played through the whistle and gave you all you wanted and more. They were very well coached.”
Former Vols Linebacker Eric Westmoreland also faced Nebraska twice.
“In the stretch of the 1990s, Nebraska was a powerhouse team in college football. You knew back then between us and Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska – these teams were going to be in the top 5, top 7 and close to a national championship each year.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game. They had Ahman Green, Dan Alexander, we knew it was going to be tough. We worked on cut drills constantly in preparation.”
Westmoreland was hurt in his freshman season of 1997 and redshirted, missing the first game against Nebraska. During that time, he saw the talent that Phillip Fulmer recruited and detained to the scout team. Many of those players were on the field against Nebraska the second time.
“Some of the guys that were stars on our later teams were our scout team,” Westmoreland said. “Donte Stallworth, John Henderson, a lot of the guys that were eventual first-round picks and household names were scout team players early on in their careers.”
After seeing what Nebraska brought to the table in 1997, Westmoreland knew that the similarities would be there with a future Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Eric Crouch running the Huskers’ offense, much like Scott Frost did in the 1998 Orange Bowl.
“The biggest thing was that we knew they loved to run the ball. They did different things out of the I-formation – power, option, counter-type plays. We just felt like if we could get him (Crouch) behind the chains and make him throw, then we could win the game.
“We wound up getting a couple of players hurt on our defensive line, so we couldn’t quite get the running game contained like we wanted to. Crouch was very electric and ran their offense with precision. If you gave him a big pass play, he would hit it. They were a run-oriented offense, but if you gave them the big play deep down field, they would take it.”
Despite the two losses to Nebraska, history shows that both programs fielded two high-caliber teams with mutual respect during that time, closing out the 1990s.
“I don’t believe anyone on both teams went into those games thinking it was going to be a pushover,” Weary said. “We just couldn’t get the job done.”