Two-time All-American Aaron Taylor remembers the terror of his first game.
It was 1994 at Missouri. And back then, he said, Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir wasn't afraid to throw freshmen onto the field. He did it often.
Late in the game, Taylor was told to get out there. Nervous, he approached the huddle.
Towering over him, senior lineman and co-captain Rob Zatechka leaned down.
“And he just goes, ‘Don’t blank it up,’” Taylor said. “I was nervous before then, and after that I was really nervous.”
That intimidation and brutal honesty was what Taylor and Zatechka talked about Thursday morning at the first Big Red Today Breakfast of the season.
Zatechka was a co-captain of the 1994 national title team. That was his senior year. He was a four-time Academic All-Big Eight lineman, and was the Big Eight Conference co-male athlete of the year in 1994. He played for four seasons in the NFL before heading to medical school.
The main message the two shared: The 1990s offensive line was bursting with unabashed confidence. And it was warranted, too, because in those days no one ruled the trenches like Nebraska.
“In the four years I stepped on the field, in the four seasons I played, I played with three different Outland Trophy winners, a Lombardi winner and a Butkus winner,” Zatechka said. “That was five different guys. You couldn’t walk in the locker room in that era without tripping over a trophy winner.”
The two linemen confirmed the long-held myth that the Huskers would tell opponents the play before actually running it.
Taylor raised his hand at the question.
“I would,” he said.
And he wasn’t alone. He named five or six other linemen who did the same. All game long.
“Will Shields once told a guy we were going to block for a run play but it was really a pass,” Taylor said. “And then he added, ‘So don’t get fooled.’”
The defense, Taylor said, was still fooled.
A lot of that confidence was built up in the infamous “pit,” Zatechka said.
Before group drills at practice, the offensive and defensive lines used to trudge to the end of the north stadium without coaches. And that’s when one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman would battle one-on-one.
“And it was such a battle, every day,” Taylor said. “And there was hatred for each other for 10 minutes. And there were fights. It was crazy stuff. And then as soon as you walk out for team drills, everyone was buddies again. And it was like that every single year.”
Zatechka was never worried about any of his guys losing to the Blackshirts. And that confidence rubbed off on everyone on the line.
The general philosophy of the Tom Osborne offense was to attack, Taylor said. The point wasn’t to protect a quarterback in the backfield. It was to attack the defensive front and dominate.
“I remember just walking into the (1997) game against Washington, we walked in the same tunnel, and I remember looking up and seeing these big guys and thinking, ‘You have no idea you’re about to get your (butt) kicked,’” Taylor said.
Nebraska won 27-14 and went on to a 13-0 season.
Part of the confidence came from relationships the line had with Tenopir, who passed away in the summer of 2016.
Zatechka called Tenopir his football dad. And remembers the one time he saw the coach lose his temper.
It was in 1994, after Nebraska’s 42-16 win over Texas Tech.
“We just destroyed them,” Zatechka said. The next Monday, during film, the line was laughing during footage at how awful Tech was, when Tenopir slammed the projector controller down and told them to knock it off.
Zatechka, a captain at the time, felt bad after the meeting, and went to talk to Tenopir about it.
“And he just told me, ‘Listen, you dominated those guys, and you’re going to continue to dominate guys, but I don’t want you to get complacent,’” Zatechka remembers.
The next game was a home matchup with No. 13 UCLA.
And in the third quarter, on a third-and-long, Nebraska ran an option keeper for the first down.
“We rushed for over 400 yards against these guys. And I remember on this third-and-long — we converted it — I remember watching (UCLA linebacker) Donnie Edwards, the guy literally broke down in tears and started bawling on the field, just out of frustration of absolutely, positively having zero ability to stop our offense,” Zatechka said. “There was nothing they could do to stop our running game that day.”