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UCLA will have to battle Nebraska and the environment

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Savvy travelers should always check their itineraries with those who have been there.

Terry Donahue came here to face Nebraska in football four times, three as UCLA's head coach.

"None of them were good," he said.

Rick Neuheisel took the Memorial Stadium field as UCLA's starting quarterback in 1983 and left it as the backup.

"It was not a good day at the office," he said.

Wayne Cook, another Bruins' quarterback, experienced that deafening Cornhuskers crowd in 1994.

"It is a tough, tough memory," Cook said.

Few places ooze college football like Lincoln.

UCLA won there in 1948, long before the Cornhuskers began to grind opponents into submission. The Bruins have returned four times since and brought back bupkus.

What awaits the No. 16 Bruins (1-0) when they face No. 23 Nebraska (2-0) is an environment like nothing they have ever experienced.

"They drive from every village and hamlet in Nebraska to support their team," Donahue said. "If you're a college football fan, going to a game in Lincoln should be on your bucket list."

Bringing back a souvenir victory has been rare.

Nebraska has beaten the last four ranked teams who have come to town. Memorial Stadium will have its 328th consecutive sellout Saturday, and there won't be a lot of powder blue and gold in the stands.

"There is nothing but red," said Cook, whose 13th-ranked UCLA team was beaten, 49-21. "My aunt and uncle lived in Nebraska. They'd drive 200 miles to go to the game."

It is often pointed out that the 87,000-seat stadium holds enough people to be the third-largest city in the state on game day.

"They close the state down," said ex-UCLA running back James McAlister, whose 1973 Bruins team lost, 40-13, in Lincoln. "We have hockey, baseball, basketball, the beach. We got everything. They have one thing."

UCLA Coach Jim Mora knows what awaits.

"We have to remain poised and overcome adversity," Mora said. "That is what defines mental toughness. I'm excited to see where our kids are at."

That excitement is tempered by loss. UCLA coaches and players have been through an emotional week with the death of receiver Nick Pasquale, who was struck by a car in his hometown of San Clemente last Sunday.

There will be a moment of silence before the kickoff to honor Pasquale.

"Nebraska officials and [Coach] Bo Pelini have a ton of class," Mora said. But, added, "it is still a hostile environment."

One that comes with a welcome mat. "Nebraska fans are some of the most gracious in college football," Donahue said.

In 1998, Texas ended the Cornhuskers 47-game home winning streak behind 150 yards rushing by Ricky Williams. As he left the field, fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted "Heisman." Williams won the Heisman Trophy a month later.

After UCLA lost here in 1994, Cook said, "Nebraska fans were saying, 'Nice game' and 'Have a nice trip.' I wanted to yell at them, 'Tell me I stink, throw things at me.'"

The Cornhuskers won the fourth of their five national titles after beating UCLA that season.

"They appreciate good football," Donahue said. "If you play good football, they'll applaud you."

UCLA upset the top-ranked Cornhuskers in the Coliseum in 1972, ending their 32-game unbeaten streak. A year later, the Bruins opened in Lincoln.

"We got there and a few of us went for a walk to see the city," McAlister said. "We were wearing the wrong colors for that. People were telling us what Nebraska was going to do to us … and they did."

Nebraska, ranked fourth, gave the 10th-ranked Bruins a beating. "All I can remember are the rug burns on my arms from the turf," McAlister said.

That was the first victory for former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. His 100th victory came when one of his best teams crushed UCLA, 42-3, in 1983.

"I was well aware who was on the other side: Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar," said Neuheisel, who regained his starting job later that season and led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory. "You have to go in there and play clean football. We didn't."

Third-ranked UCLA went in there with quarterback Troy Aikman in 1987, but it was Nebraska's Steve Taylor who threw five touchdown passes in a 42-33 victory.

Despite those failures, Donahue says UCLA has reason for optimism this season.

"Those Nebraska teams we faced were premier teams with great defenses," Donahue said. "They are not the same."

Wyoming rolled up 602 yards, with the Cornhuskers barely holding on for a 37-34 victory in Nebraska's season opener two weeks ago. In its season opener, UCLA gained 647 yards in a 58-20 victory over Nevada.

The Cornhuskers know well what UCLA brings: the Bruins rolled up 653 yards in a 36-30 win over Nebraska at the Rose Bowl a year ago.

"We had the better team last year and we beat them," Donahue said.

But this year there's that change of venue to consider.

"I've never seen fans win a game," Donahue said. "But I've seen fans help a team win a game."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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