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A Bumper Crop of Fans

Nebraska supporters are expected to swarm Coliseum to see 19th-ranked Cornhuskers match up against No. 4 USC

September 13, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

In the hours before kickoff, as Notre Dame Stadium rustled to life, something felt terribly wrong.

No other field in college football can lay claim to a richer sense of tradition, adorned with touches of blue and gold, yet the gathering crowd looked out of place. A murmur began running through the stands: Where is all this red coming from?

Nebraska fans.

The Fighting Irish were playing the top-ranked Cornhuskers that afternoon in the fall of 2000. Though the scarlet-clad visitors had received only a few thousand tickets, about 30,000 had come to South Bend, Ind., and, somehow, procured seats.

By game time, they accounted for roughly a third of the stadium crowd, chanting: "Husker home game."

"It was a sight to behold," said Byron Boslau, a longtime Nebraska booster.

Boslau had suspected something unusual might transpire that day, if only because the week before, everyone back in Lincoln had talked about making the trip.

Six years later, with the 19th-ranked Cornhuskers set to play No. 4 USC at the Coliseum on Saturday evening, there is a similar buzz.

At least 7,900 people associated with the school or living in Nebraska have bought tickets to the game, some of them apparently going so far as to purchase season tickets. In addition, ticket brokers report brisk sales, and Cornhuskers alumni groups are predicting a repeat of the Notre Dame showing.

Around Lincoln, USC has been the hot topic this summer.

"Every time you talk to somebody, the first question out of their mouth is, 'Are you going to the game?' " said Boslau, an insurance company president. "I think a lot of people are going out there."

The prospect of a red tide washing over the Coliseum might seem unlikely. After all, the hostile takeover at South Bend -- a 27-24 overtime victory for Nebraska that ranks among the low points in Notre Dame history -- occurred under far different circumstances.

With Bob Davie as coach, the Irish were suffering one mediocre season after another. Disgruntled season-ticket holders were seduced by invaders offering $500 or more a seat.

USC, on the other hand, is on a four-year high and consistently sells out. There has even been concern over not having enough seats for students.

Asked about a potential invasion of Nebraska fans, USC center Ryan Kalil said: "I can't see it happening. The Coliseum has been such a strong point for us, especially lately."

But in a stadium of 92,000 seats, there is room for error. And season-ticket holders who sell their seats aren't necessarily betraying the home team. They might have four seats and need only two, said Annie Libenson, a sports buyer for VIP Tickets in Los Angeles, which has experienced heavy interest in the game.

Nebraska received an allotment of 4,000 seats and USC officials said that people with Nebraska ZIP Codes bought 3,400 individual game tickets and 300 season tickets. Other fans appear poised to descend from all directions.

The state's population is less than 2 million, so many of the university graduates move away for jobs. Thriving clusters of alumni have sprung up in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Perhaps not coincidentally, online ticket broker StubHub.com reported "substantial" sales of USC-Nebraska tickets -- at an average of $195 each -- in those states. An executive declined to provide an exact number of sales but said it was in the thousands as of last week.

The Californians for Nebraska club has purchased about 1,000 tickets, past president Kent Wiedel said. The group's website has received 4,000 or so e-mails, asking about additional tickets and tailgate parties at the Coliseum.

Alumni groups in Northern California and Arizona "have large quantities of folks coming in," Wiedel said. "I would be very surprised if Nebraska fans don't show up in the tens of thousands."

Many of them might arrive without tickets, said Tim Butler, whose Georgians for Nebraska club is bringing about 50.

"They're going on the hopes they'll find tickets," he said. "A lot of folks will try to get them on EBay."

Los Angeles brokers say they have been doing good business on the game -- with USC fans buying too -- and an Omaha broker has been selling tickets since January.

"This is, by far, one of the biggest road games Nebraska has ever had," said Chad Carr, president of Ticket Express. "It's a huge, huge deal."

The game matters so much because the Cornhuskers are impatient to recapture the prominence they once enjoyed. Fans say a victory Saturday, or even a close score, would announce Nebraska's return to the national elite.

"People think it's a good measuring stick," said Lane Grindle, a nightly host on the school's official radio network. "This has been a game that every fan has circled since it was announced."

For weeks, the faithful have posted daily comments and predictions on websites such as bighuskerfan.com and huskerboard.com. They have discussed "Ten Reasons to Dislike USC" ("1. Two letters -- O.J.") and "Ten Reasons to Like USC" ("1-10. The cheerleaders").

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