There wasn't one screaming baby. Not one layover. A straight shot from Los Angeles to Lincoln. A secure landing.
It was one of the worst airplane trips David Santos ever took.
“It was just the longest flight,” the linebacker remembers.
He was talking about the ride home after the UCLA game two years ago, a game Nebraska lost 36-30. The Huskers gave up 653 yards, then walked to a bus overcome with eerie silence, which took them to an airplane overcome with eerie silence, which took them back to a state that is anything but when the home team doesn’t play up to expectations.
When the airplane landed, it was about 4 a.m.
Santos shakes his head. Yeah, he doesn't want to take that kind of trip again.
* * *
That schedule magnet on the refrigerator is not telling you a lie. Yes, @Fresno State. At 9:30 p.m. (CST). It’s believed to be the latest local kickoff time for a Husker game on the mainland. (Nebraska’s 1992 matchup against Kansas State, which was played in Tokyo, started at 10 p.m.)
Indeed, Nebraska’s first road test of 2014 carries several layers of fascination: A game in a 41,000-seat stadium, against a team that has won 13 straight in that stadium, a game that won’t end until Sunday back home, a game that will be played on a day when temperatures in Fresno are being projected as high as 104, a game that comes a week after the Huskers needed Ameer Abdullah’s individual brilliance to stave off FCS foe McNeese State 31-24.
Never mind that Fresno State has face-planted the first two weeks on the road, losing to USC 52-13 and to Utah 59-27. The Huskers expect a team that will play with energy and hunger in its own yard.
BEWARE OF DOG. And they are.
“Your first road test of the year, you kind of see the maturity level of the team, how we approach a business trip, because that’s what it is,” said senior left guard Jake Cotton.
Cotton loves playing in front of the home fans, but there are certain benefits that come when a team tests itself in unfamiliar territory.
“I’ve always kind of liked the fact that you live in that bubble more so when you’re on the road,” he said. “Distractions are minimized. Everybody is living in that bubble.”
Adds Santos: “You kind of feel more with your brothers when you’re on the road against a whole crowd.”
Bubbles can be good.
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The Huskers were arguably a better road team than home team last year. In Lincoln, NU went just 5-3, and without a Hail Mary, it would have been .500. Away from home, NU was 4-1, with the forgettable loss to Minnesota, but also with wins at Purdue, Michigan, Penn State, and in the Gator Bowl against Georgia.
Under Bo Pelini, the Huskers are 19-9 in true road games. And while they’re only 9-6 in the last 15 such contests, they’re also 6-1 in the most recent trips.
“We are on a mission,” said sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong. “It’s not fun and games when we go away.”
But the Bulldogs will be on their own mission, playing with their backs against the wall after two ugly showings on the road.
Fresno State has hosted big boys before and almost tripped them up. Ole Miss beat the Bulldogs by just 10 points in 2011, Wisconsin won by just three in 2008, and Oregon survived a scare there in 2006.
The Bulldogs have a far different look now, both in personnel and coaches, than those years. But those instances are leading examples of how the program and town rally around opportunities like the one Saturday night.
As longtime Fresno State season-ticket holder James Barsotti told the Journal Star this summer: “I think there’s this mentality that we’re the little guy and we really want to beat the big guy, and the community really comes up and puts everything into it for those games.”
Opponents realize that as they walk into Bulldog Stadium. The visitors trek through a parking lot and down a ramp into the stadium. Fresno State fans are known to do some barking as a team walks by. And the band makes sure to play loud enough to punish the eardrums.
“It’s going to be a pretty crazy environment out there and they’ll be pretty hyped up,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said.
Despite a single ticket selling for $130, fans were still eating them up during the offseason — although it’s not clear how many of those tickets were being scooped up by Nebraska fans, who have a strong base in California.
Just another part of the fun of Saturday’s game: Trying to figure out how much of the red actually belongs to fans of the home team.
All this is of little matter to a senior such as safety Corey Cooper. Whether the game's in Fresno or Lincoln, at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., the Huskers have to play better.
“Football is football,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing home or away. The only difference is the traveling.”
Yes, win or lose, there's always that flight home.
Supposedly, it’s the same distance no matter the outcome. But take it from those with experience with these things: The trip is always way shorter when you win.