LINCOLN, Neb. — John Junker, executive director of the Fiesta Bowl, quit pretending he cared midway through the third quarter of Nebraska's 27th consecutive victory against Kansas State. By then, the No. 2-ranked Cornhuskers were well on their way to a 49-25 win and Junker was setting personal bests in the shuttle run.
Back and forth he went Saturday, from the private box set aside for bowl scouts, to a small room where a TV kept track of the USC-Notre Dame game. Kansas State won't be thrilled, but Junker actually ran for more yards than the late, great Wildcats, who traveled to Lincoln with an undefeated record and No. 8 ranking, but didn't leave here that way.
By beating the Wildcats, Nebraska (7-0) not only guaranteed itself of an amazing 34th consecutive winning season, but it remained a leading contender for Junker's Fiesta Bowl, which gets first crack at a national championship game. That's why Junker was secretly rooting for the Cornhuskers in his private suite and then wearing a path in the press box linoleum as he dashed to the TV for a Notre Dame update.
"Well, as an Arizona State grad and Coach [Lou] Holtz being a good friend. . ." said Junker, making a lame attempt to explain why he did everything but hum the Irish fight song.
You can't blame him. A Nebraska victory, along with a USC loss, means Junker's dream of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup still lives. It also means the Rose Bowl, which isn't a member of the bowl alliance, won't have two unbeaten teams, now that everyone in the Pacific 10 Conference has at least one loss.
Thanks to the Cornhuskers, the Fiesta is looking at a Nebraska vs. Florida State or Florida matchup. And if it happens, Junker, as well as the 76,722 fans who filled Memorial Stadium, can say he was there the day the Cornhuskers exposed the difference between a top 10 team by default and a top 10 team that belongs.
Nebraska was up, 35-6, by halftime and up, 42-6, by the time Junker started practicing for his postgame handshake with Cornhusker Coach Tom Osborne. Kansas State (6-1) scored 19 fourth-quarter points, but who's fooling who? As soon the Wildcats moved to within 17, Osborne re-inserted his first team offense and Nebraska immediately added another touchdown.
"Another blocked punt, an onside kick and a long pass and we're fighting for the game," said Osborne, inventing a crisis that didn't exist.
Truth is, Kansas State's season had all the substance of cotton candy. The Wildcats entered the game with the nation's No. 1 scoring defense (7.5-point average) and gave up 24 of Nebraska's 49 points. They were first in total defense (199.8-yard average) and gave up 338 yards. They were second in pass efficiency defense (84.7-yard average) and yet, four of quarterback Tommie Frazier's 10 completions went for touchdowns.
The Wildcats wanted to prove their ranking and record was no fluke, but instead they committed 14 penalties, gave up nine sacks and rushed for a net minus-19 yards.
Kansas State starting quarterback Matt Miller got the worst of it. He was sacked seven times and was mercifully pulled with five seconds left in the third quarter. He didn't argue.
"He was taking a long time getting up," said Nebraska linebacker Jared Tomich, who had two sacks. "[We said], 'How you doin'?' but he didn't respond too much."
Semi-consciousness can do that.
Afterward, it was hard to tell what was more red: Nebraska's jerseys or Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder's face. Snyder is now 0-7 against the Cornhuskers and part of a long tradition of Wildcat defeats that stretches to 1969.
"Our players were emotionally charged to play this ballgame and, I think, too emotionally charged and that's my fault," he said. "I think I've put them in a position where maybe they're destined to fail."
Actually, Nebraska had more to do with the destined-to-fail stuff than Snyder's ability to pull heartstrings.
On the Cornhuskers' first punt return of the day, reserve linebacker Mike Rucker circled back and knocked would-be tackler Joe Gordon from Lincoln to Omaha. Gordon's helmet is still airborne.
Meanwhile, Mike Fullman was sprinting 79 yards for Nebraska's first score.
"Probably the best hit I've had since high school and Bantam League combined," Rucker said.
Kansas State scored on the next possession, missed the extra point and then watched as Nebraska went on a 35-0 run.
The Cornhuskers move on to Boulder, where they'll play once-beaten Colorado and Kansas State moves down the polls, where the Wildcats belong.
But first, Tomich wants to watch the scoreboard shows, root against the only unbeaten team left in the Rose Bowl mix--Ohio State--and root for Michigan, which might have the best chance of beating the Buckeyes.
"Actually," he said, "I've been a big Michigan fan for a long time."
Guess what? So is Junker these days.