LINCOLN, Neb. -- Before the magic ended, it was like the place never changed.
The molar-grinding traffic on 13th Street, ABC trucks humming behind the West stands, a championship contender scraping their cleats on the block ‘N’ at midfield before kickoff, an all-eyes-on-red buzz on the nation’s brain.
For the first time in six years, nearly 85,000 eager souls zipped to the chin in scarlet and cream made the trek to Memorial Stadium with the assurance that Nebraska football mattered once more. It was like the sun had set over Lincoln in November 2001 and all the dark times -- a 62-36 loss to Colorado, the meltdown against Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl, Frank Solich’s firing two seasons later and the rocky transition from a Power-I option offense to Bill Callahan’s West Coast system -- slinked into history’s black hole.
Before superior talent slithered in from the West Coast and snapped this place from its 1990s-like trance, Nebraska became the center of the college football universe again.
And it was good.
But nostalgia doesn’t outclass undermanned opposition, turn, twist and toss its way to a dominating victory the way consensus No. 1 USC did, 49-31, Saturday night at a site where memories of five national titles represent the only semblance of a sure thing.
Make no mistake about it, Nebraska remains in flux. The program has many miles to travel before it matures into the consistent national-title contender it so desperately wants to become. Many days here will pass before athletic-department officials tack another year in red-block numbers to the right of “1997” on the national championship marquee that stretches below the pressbox.
If USC’s visit represented a measuring stick of how far Nebraska’s rebuilding project has to go before the Huskers can begin to talk BCS titles rather than bygone days, consider the effort still in need of growth.
But just how long will the hungry masses wait? USC is what Nebraska was a decade ago: Feared. Fast. A coaching staff that represents the class of the country.
With their team trailing 42-10 early in the fourth quarter, Nebraska fans, many of whom paid $250 to pocket tickets on the bustling streets of downtown Lincoln, began to cheer not touchdowns but defensive stops against USC’s juggernaut offense.
Oh, how times have changed.
Early last week, Callahan called the USC contest a “big game because it’s our next game.” He was careful not to place extra importance on the first visit of a No. 1 team to Memorial Stadium since 1978 (a 17-14 Nebraska victory against Oklahoma).
Maybe for good reason.
Perhaps because Nebraska isn’t ready to dream of downing the best just yet. Perhaps that’s because the magic that once filled this place is just that – a reminder that the past will never be again.