LINCOLN — The crowd crackled. The Tunnel Walk didn’t disappoint. At 7:13 Saturday night, Nebraska sent its kickoff return unit onto the field. Time for the Scott Frost era to begin.
And it did. For a single kick and a touchback. Then, as the Husker offense ran onto the field for true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez’s first snap, a Nebraska events official, Butch Hug, walked from the opposite corner of the field, waving his arms. Lightning in the skies to the south. It was 7:15.
Delay of game. Delay of fun. Frost — on ice.
For the first time in recorded school history, Nebraska canceled a game because of weather, as persistent thunderstorms pelted the city. NU announced the postponement at 9:55 — making for an official two-hour, 40-minute delay — and, within minutes, Fox was announcing on its sister network, FS1, that the NU-Akron game would be resumed at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on that channel.
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Minutes later, Fox pulled its announcement. At 10:28 p.m., Nebraska announced that it was canceling its game against the Zips — at least for now — and will open its 2018 season, and the Frost era with it, against Colorado. Any adjustments to the 2018 football schedule would be announced at a later date and fans are asked to hold on to their tickets.
Even broadcaster Tim Brando, set to call the game on Fox, was disappointed in the evening.
“There’s always a first it seems in our business,” he said on Twitter. “Since 1985 when I began calling games nationally this has never happened. I’ve dealt with suspended games and long delays but never a long wait and apparently on (and) off again reports. Very hollow feeling, and I’m sure I’m not alone.”
The next open date for both NU and Akron is Dec. 1 — the day of the Big Ten Championship. NU would prefer to qualify for that, and won’t know until at least late October if it didn’t have a shot of making it to Indianapolis. The conference title game for the Mid-American Conference is Nov. 30. Akron played in it last year.
Neither Frost, nor Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos, was available after the game. Moos didn’t answer a text from The World-Herald. The Huskers were scheduled to pay Akron $1.17 million for playing in Lincoln. Details on the payout are yet to be finalized.
The last time an NU game was canceled for any reason, according to the NU yearbook, was 1943, when a game with Pittsburgh was canceled due to World War II travel restrictions. The yearbook also lists a cancellation in 1898 for a game against Grinnell. The Huskers canceled their 2012 spring game due to thunderstorms. The longest known delay for a Husker home game, before Saturday night, was 19 minutes at the Utah State game — also a season-opener — in 1991.
Another game, South Dakota State at Iowa State, was canceled Saturday night because of weather.
The storms were a letdown from a celebrity-filled, energetic night. Several Husker notables — actress Gabrielle Union and her husband, Dwyane Wade, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh — were on hand for the game, and the Tunnel Walk presentation, which featured former Husker coach Tom Osborne and former Husker players Grant Wistrom and Joel Makovicka in speaking parts, with a camera closing in on coach Scott Frost as he said “red burns brighter.”
Frost emerged from the locker room and led the team onto the field, but dark skies to the south flashed with lightning, the result of a storm cell that popped up swiftly in the September heat.
Once lightning strikes or is seen within eight miles of the stadium, the event begins a 30-minute delay. With every strike, the clock reset. Nebraska’s brain trust of decision-making, according to an NU spokesman, is Hug and Owen Yardley, UNL chief of police. At a secure location, they examined the situation and communicated updates to the press box and the public address system. This weather center, located in the south part of Memorial Stadium, was off-limits to the media. NU and Akron officials were inside. One Akron official, who was in the room most of the night but spent a few minutes in the press box, said the radar had an eight-mile ring on it and white marks — for lightning strikes — dotted the radar all night.
Initially, with the storm cell passing to the east of the stadium, Husker fans stayed in their seats, enjoying the cooler weather and the light rains. Nine minutes after the delay began, Suh, returning to the program after a prolonged absence during the Mike Riley era, traversed the length of the field, the crowd yelling “SUH!”
The public-address system played rain-themed music, like Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls.” When Toto’s “Africa” played over the speakers, fans pulled out their cellphones, turned on their flashlights and started waving. The Notre Dame-Michigan game popped on HuskerVision. Four fans in corncob-themed ponchos — green bottoms, yellow hoods — huddled together near the top of East Stadium, the highest point of the stadium. That group stayed for hours, even as harder rain pelted the stadium and spectacular lightning bolts flashed across the sky.
Across the field, in West Stadium, fans initially poured into the concourse. They sat wherever they could, mostly on the floor. Five fans found an old cart, its wheels flat, and waited, some looking at their phones. Others sat on empty wooden pallets. Two seat cushions were stacked against a concrete wall where they wouldn’t get wet. In a larger part of the concourse, teenage vendors gathered in a virtual circle to sell soda, pizza and Runzas, each shouting their wares over one another.
“I’ve sold twice as many tonight,” said 14-year-old Runza salesman Hudson Opp.
Walking near the scene, in a “Make Nebraska Great Again — Frost ’18” T-shirt, was Garry Yen. He grew up in Nebraska and went to school there, but now lived in Dallas. He drove up Thursday for the game.
“This isn’t good,” Yen said. “But the trip was worth it.”
Yen said he’d stay as long as he had to.
Those concourses grew more packed just after 9 p.m., when storms rushed in, bringing strong winds and rain that poured sideways. NU announced that it was going to evacuate the stadium and send the 10,000 fans still left into the concourse or nearby buildings like the football practice facility or the Nebraska student union. Helen Heller, who’d had tickets for 67 years and never left early, headed out about 9 — 55 minutes before the postponement sent every NU fan for the exits.
“It’s disappointing because the momentum was there, everybody was excited,” Heller said.
Though few noticed, Nebraska officials actually cleared the field before warmups began, which set back the kickoff roughly eight minutes. On the kickoff, Akron booted the ball through the end zone.
So, technically, no Husker even got in the stat book.
World-Herald staff writer Chris Heady contributed to this report.