Nebraska was a national championship contender. That went without saying in 1997, though after a pair of non-conference victories at home to open the season, Grant Wistrom, the Huskers’ All-America rush end, said: “Maybe we’re not as good as we thought we would be.”
Wistrom, a co-captain and three-year starter, had opted to return for his senior season rather than declare for the NFL Draft, even though he was projected as a first-round pick.
Nebraska had opened with a 59-14 victory against Akron, but had trailed Dante Culpepper-led Central Florida 17-14 at halftime before a 17-0 third quarter allowed the Huskers to take control of what would be a 38-24 victory. Late in the first half, senior quarterback Scott Frost had been booed when he went back on the field, replacing sophomore Frankie London, who had played a predetermined series and directed an eight-play, 65-yard drive to Nebraska’s second touchdown.
Coach Tom Osborne had claimed the booing was probably directed at him. But “I know what’s going on in the stadium,” Frost said during the week following the game.
The Huskers went on the road for their third game at Washington, ranked No. 2 nationally by the Associated Press. Nebraska, ranked No. 7, was a touchdown underdog.
The Huskers hadn’t defeated a higher-ranked opponent on the road since 1985, when they went to Stillwater, Oklahoma, ranked No. 9 and upset No. 5 Oklahoma State 34-24.
Washington, which had outscored BYU and San Diego State by a combined 80-23, led the nation in rushing defense. Two games, against passing teams, weren’t a good sample. Nevertheless, it appeared the Huskies’ defense might be geared to stop what Nebraska did best.
Any such assumption proved to be false. Washington stacked the line of scrimmage, but left center Josh Heskew uncovered, which Nebraska exploited with inside run after inside run.
The Huskers, motivated by memories of a 19-0 loss at Arizona State the previous season (to end a 26-game winning streak), had a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter, and despite a seeming letdown, added a pair of Kris Brown field goals in the fourth quarter for a 27-14 victory.
Nebraska rushed for 384 yards, led by I-back Ahman Green and fullback Joel Makovicka, each of whom ran for 129 yards – Makovicka on only 12 carries. Frost rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns and completed 8-of-15 passes for 88 yards.
The Huskers kept the ball away from Washington’s West Coast Offense, running 81 plays to the Huskies’ 58 and finishing with a 9-minute advantage in time of possession.
Brock Huard, Washington’s starting quarterback, left the game with an ankle sprain in the second quarter and watched the second half from the sideline, in street clothes. He was replaced by freshman Marques Tuiasosopo, who was sacked three times – Huard was sacked once.
The Huskies finished with 43 yards net rushing, and 299 yards passing.
Nebraska climbed to No. 3 in the rankings. Three weeks later, the Huskers were No. 1, only to drop back to No. 3 three weeks after that, following the memorable 45-38 overtime victory at Missouri.
Prior to the Washington game, Aaron Taylor, the Huskers’ All-America offensive guard (he had played center in 1996), said it would be won up-front, “with the offensive and defensive lines.”
That characterized Osborne’s teams, the last of which will be honored on Saturday night at the Wisconsin game. It was a decorated group, led by Wistrom and Taylor, both two-time All-Americans and three-time, first-team all-conference honorees. Wistrom, twice Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time Academic All-American, won the Lombardi Award, Taylor the Outland.
Defensive tackle Jason Peter, who also returned for his senior season rather than declare for the NFL Draft, earned All-America recognition and first-team All-Big 12 honors for a second time.
Taylor and Peter were co-captains along with Wistrom, as was tight end Vershan Jackson.
Green, offensive tackle Eric Anderson and cornerback Ralph Brown were first-team All-Big 12. Frost was a second-team selection, as well as a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Award.
Those who had booed Frost during the Central Florida game were “eating their words,” Wistrom said following the Washington game.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.