' ' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Cornhuskers For Film

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Digression: Cornhuskers For Film

In 1996 the Nebraska Cornhuskers entered the Big 12 Championship Game ranked #3 in the nation and needing the win to earn a shot at playing for a national championship in the Sugar Bowl. All that stood in their way was a decent, unheralded Texas squad best known for its quarterback having the name of an infamous soul singer. The game was expected to be a proverbial cakewalk, Vegas oddsmakers installing Texas as 21 point underdogs. No one outside the Lone Star State thought the Longhorns had a real chance. Instead upstart Texas outplayed my beloved Cornhuskers and, on the strength of the legendary play "Roll Left", won by the still-gives-me-nightmares score of 37-27.

I know all this because I watched it happen in a back room of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Waukee, Iowa immediately after my friend Jeni's wedding with my friends Jacob and Ashley and a lovely young girl named Kara who I was kind of courting and, thus, who Ashley had dragged with her to the wedding and who was openly rooting for Texas, despite not being able to name any of the Longhorns' players, as a means to flirt which was totally awesome because it was all that kept me from both taking the Lord's name in vain in His own house and punching out a stained glass window.

It is now 13 years later. Texas enters the Big 12 Championship Game undefeated and needing the win to earn a shot at playing for the national championship in Pasadena, CA in January. All that stands in their way is a decent, unheralded Nebraska squad best known for a star defensive player whose first name no one outside of Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, and one basement apartment in Chicago can pronounce. The game is expected to be a proverbial cakewalk, Vegas oddsmakers installing Nebraska as 14 point underdogs. No one outside the state of Nebraska thinks the Cornhuskers have a real chance.


In the wake of the worst game I had ever seen Nebraska play back in late October I never dreamed they would have turned into what they have - that is, Big 12 North Champions. But I forgot the one thing head coach Bo Pelini noted in the wake of the game that clinched their title: "There is a lot of character in that locker room." Is there ever. Character and resiliency. Despite possessing perhaps the most talented defensive player in the game (and a potential #1 pick in the NFL draft) this is not a team endowed with extreme skill. Which makes me love them more. They have a lot in common with my favorite Nebraska squad of all time, the "Refuse To Lose" bunch of '93. That team had one star defensive player and character up the holy wazoo. Few teams have the temperament to fight back from an 8 turnover nightmare but that is precisely what my beloved Cornhuskers did in 2009. Congratulations to every dang one 'em. I'm so effin' proud. It has brightened my fall in ways I cannot sufficiently describe on this blog.

So in honor of my beloved team is it time to compare a few of our players to the movie characters they most represent. It might be ridiculous to think Nebraska can actually win this Saturday but color me a Bo-liever, baby. Texas has broken our hearts so many times I've lost count. I think it's time to break theirs.

Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle – Bryan Mills, “Taken”. He has a very particular set of skills; skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you. In his review of the film Roger Ebert described Bryan Mills thusly: "...a one-man rescue squad, a master of every skill, a laser-eyed, sharpshooting, pursuit-driving, pocket-picking, impersonating, knife-fighting, torturing, karate-fighting killing machine who can cleverly turn over a petrol tank with one pass in his car and strategically ignite it with another." Yup. That's Suh, all right. A one-man defensive resistance (if need be, though the rest of our defenders can more than hold their own), a master of every skill, a quarterback pressuring & sacking & hurrying, fumble causing & recovering, pass deflecting & intercepting, touchdown scoring, 3.2 grade point average having, running down running backs who weigh 100 lbs less than he does from behind machine who just happens to double as an Outland & Lombardi & Nagurski & Bednarik & Camp Award and should be (if the college football gods are just and don't just swoon over Tim Tebow and his perfectly coiffed hair) Heisman Trophy finalist.

Jared Crick, Defensive Tackle - Inigo Montoya, "The Princess Bride". With the studly Suh the constant victim of double teams it means Crick, playing opposite him, is the best defensive player in the country's sidekick, though don't presume he isn't devoid of talent. Anyone who gets 5 sacks in a game (like he did against Baylor) can play. Which is what makes him just like Inigo Montoya. Sure, Inigo was the sidekick to Wesley but Inigo could hold his own with a sword and even had a way cool catchphrase. Still, there had to be times when Crick saw Suh make plays like this and said, bewildered, "Who are you?"

Roy Helu Jr., Running Back - John McClane, "Die Hard". John McClane faced down a skyscraper of terrorists all on his lonesome and often that has mirrored the plight of Helu Jr. The Nebraska offense of 2009 has not exactly been a Scoring Explosion - more like a Scoring Percolation. Most of the percolating has been via Roy The Magnificent. The offensive line in front of him has been a revolving door due to injuries and poor play and often Helu Jr. has, entirely of his own valition, turned runs that should have been minus yards into zero yards and zero yards into three yards and three yards into six yards and so on. Look no further than his dash against Kansas, late in the 4th quarter, up by one TD, trying to clinch the win, when he took a toss to the right, the line letting Kansas players through like a sieve, ran backwards to go forwards, just making the corner on the edge of the sideline, accelerting upfield and then, ignoring his own stats and a chance for a TD, sidled back to the middle of the field to stay inbounds and run crucial clock. What a play. And like John McClane ran around the whole movie with no shoes, getting his hoofs shredded, Helu Jr. has played most of the season with a nagging shoulder injury. 2009 Offensive MVP.

(I guess this makes Helu's running mate, freshman Rex Burkhead, who against our arch enemy Colorado suddenly turned into Ahman Green circa 1997, Sergeant Al Powell.)

Niles Paul, Wide Receiver - Egan Spengler, "Ghostbusters". Starting all the way back on the first of the year in the Gator Bowl Niles Paul was muffing critical punts and then he muffed more critical punts this year against Missouri and then made the game-changing, back-breaking fumble against Texas Tech (which he made no attempt to recover) and then he made the still dumbfounding No One Touched Me! fumble against Iowa State when he was about to score the touchdown that would have won the game and so, frankly, it was the most discontent I had been with a Nebraska player since the calamitous days of defensive back Erwin Swiney. But then, suddenly, in the Kansas game he made two long receptions setting up a touchdown and field goal, respectively, and a huge kickoff return in the second half to set up another score and then against Kanas State, sealing the Big 12 North, he had two more long receptions setting up two more scores, and then, best of all, he returned the punt for a TD against our arch enemy Colorado.

Remember when Harold Ramis, as Egan, says they have a very good chance of "actually catching a ghost" and then Bill Murray, as Peter Venkman, reveals the candy bar and says "I'm gonna take back some of the things I've said about you - you've earned it" and then hands the candy bar to Ramis? Consider this me handing Niles Paul a candy bar. "I'm gonna take back some of the things I've said about you. You've earned it."

Zac Lee, Quarterback - Greg Focker, "Meet The Parents". Ben Stiller's Greg Focker was a genial, good hearted guy who found himself coming home to meet his girlfriend's father (Robert DeNiro), a man who felt you cannot truly trust another human being. Greg was unfairly accused of being a pothead, of not passing the MCATs, of alternately not taking a water volleyball game seriously enough and then taking it too seriously. He couldn't win no matter what he did. That said, poor Greg brought some of it on himself. He lost the Burns family's cat and then tried to pass of an impostor cat as the real one. He chewed out the airline stewardess.

Zac Lee is a genial, good hearted guy (he's also a tough of son of a gun considering offensive coordinator Shawn Watson continually has him run the option even though he is as cut out for the option as I am for withstanding interrogation - please, Shawn, do not have him run the option against Texas! I'll send you a fruit basket if you don't have him the run the option against Texas!). A lot of crap has been heaped on him this season - and I, to be fair, have done my fair share of heaping - but not all of it has been warranted. He's made plays (those three big time touchdown throws against Missouri) and against Oklahoma when he could not afford, at any point, to make a mistake, he didn't. That said, he still holds the ball too long too often, isn't decisive when no one's open, and he still makes some utterly exasperating passes (that interception against Kansas State) that are the equivalent of Greg Focker flooding the Burns' backyard with sewage.

But Zac Lee is the starting quarterback of the Big 12 North Champions. He is upstanding and classy. Flaws and all, he belongs in the Burns Family Circle Of Trust.

Matt O'Hanlon Safety - Jack Dundee, "The Best Of Times". In one of the finer football movies Robin Williams (inconceivably restrained) plays Jack Dundee an ex wide receiver for the Taft High School Football team who in the big game against their arch rival Bakersfield dropped a pass from star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) when he was wide open that would have won the game. He has never lived it down. And now, 13 years later, through an improbable series of events, he convinces the players from each team to replay the game and, as chance would have it, the replay comes down to a pass from Hightower to Dundee that this time Dundee catches and takes into the end zone to win the game.

You might dismiss this as Hollywood poppycock. Except earlier this year in a game against Virginia Tech that Nebraska had quite literally dominated for 58-and-half minutes, the Hokies in the shadow of their own goalpoasts and Nebraska holding a 5 point lead, Matt O'Hanlon broke the cardinal rule of late game defense, allowed a receiver to get behind him who caught it and ran it down to the three yard line where they would, of course, score two plays later to win as Husker Nation collectively heaved its lunch into the nearest receptacle. But several weeks later against Oklahoma, in the game that turned the season, O'Hanlon made 12 tackles and intercepted 3 passes, including the one that sewed up the win, and was named National Defensive Player Of The Week. That, boys and girls, is Hollywood Redemption come to life.

Alex Henery, Kicker/Punter - Jerome Watkins, "Summer School". Kickers demand obscure references. "Summer School", if you don't recall, is from the 80's wherein Mark Harmon's dallying teacher has to teach a summer class for delinquet students. At the beginning of the very first class an imposing student, Jerome Watkins, advises he needs to go to the bathroom, leaves, disappears for the six weeks of class, returns the final day for the Big Test, telling the teacher, when asked where he was, "My zipper got stuck", to get the best score on the Big Test in the whole class. That is totally Alex Henery. He is so unassuming you sometimes forget he is over there, stowed away on the sideline, and then suddenly he appears and converts a 57 yard field goal or boots a 62 yard punt that flips the field and pins the opposition deep in their territory. He is the only kicker in the game as imposing as Jerome Watkins.

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