Colorado Buffaloes senior linebacker Jeff Smart can still hear the deafening cheers — cheers Smart hasn’t since muted in his mind.
Smart was on the field last November in Lincoln, Neb., when then-sophomore Nebraska Cornhuskers kicker Alex Henery’s school-record 57-yard field goal crept over the crossbar to give Nebraska a 33-31 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Nearly 90,000 scarlet-clad fans erupted in delight as the Buffs, who were less than two minutes — and a couple of feet — away from stunning the Huskers on the road and becoming bowl-eligible, exited Memorial Stadium.
“It was tough,” Smart said. “The kid made a great kick. There’s not much you can do about that.”
While there won’t be a bowl game on the line for CU (3-8, 2-5 Big 12 Conference) at 1:30 p.m. Friday on ABC, Smart said a victory over Big Red at Folsom Field would do much to alleviate last year’s heart-breaking loss.
“It’s a big-time rivalry,” said Smart, one of 17 CU seniors who will play their final collegiate game. “It’s a big opportunity for us to go out on a good note.”
Smart recorded a game-high 12 tackles against NU (8-3, 5-2) when the two teams last met.
A former walk-on and Boulder High School graduate, Smart said he has learned the value of hard work and dedication during his tenure at CU. The 23-year-old team captain has logged 285 career tackles in a Buffs uniform, which places him 18th on CU’s all-time tackles leader board and 12 behind Kanavis McGhee and current Buffs linebackers coach Brian Cabral.
“Everything he’s done, he’s earned it,” Cabral said. “He’s a very opportunistic player. He makes the most of everything that he has. He makes the most of everything that he does.”
Smart said he was unaware of his position right behind Cabral.
“It would’ve been nice to play last game,” Smart said.
Smart was sidelined against the Oklahoma State Cowboys last Thursday because of a pinched nerve he suffered in his neck the previous week against the Iowa State Cyclones.
Smart will strap on the pads against the Huskers, however, and if he can duplicate the performance he turned in last season against NU, he will hang up the cleats in a deadlock with Cabral and McGhee.
“I’ll have a chance,” Smart said.
Cabral, who said Smart brings “intelligence, toughness and work ethic” to the team, said it will be impossible to replace a player of Smart’s caliber.
“You just hope someone comes along and gets close,” Cabral said.
If history is of any importance, Smart should have his fair share of opportunities to put his pads on the Huskers — one in particular.
NU junior running back Roy Helu Jr. has proven he can break into defensive backfields and rip off chunks of yardage.
Helu is second in the Big 12 averaging 5.5 yards per carry and his 1,057 rushing yards is fourth in the conference. Helu’s 14-yard touchdown scamper early in the third quarter Saturday against the Kansas State Wildcats helped propel NU to the Big 12 North division title.
“It’s going to be a physical offense,” Smart said of the Huskers. “They run the ball really well.”
Compounding the matter could be CU’s defensive front, which is heavily inexperienced and full of youth.
“The defensive line are all freshmen, basically, other than (junior) Marquez Herrod,” Buffs head coach Dan Hawkins said.
On the other side of the ball, netting positive yardage against NU’s “Blackshirts” will be no easy task. Mention the name Ndamukong Suh to Hawkins and watch him fill with angst.
Suh, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior defensive tackle, gives opposing offenses headaches — literally — and is as disruptive as they come. Suh’s 6.5 sacks tie him for seventh in the conference. He is also eighth in tackles for loss at 12.5.
“He’s certainly as good as any player in the country,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think you stop him. I think you try to slow him down as best you can and hope you can maneuver around him because he’s a good player.”
CU sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Miller will match up against Suh and have the daunting task of trying to slow down the freight train.
“It’ll be a good matchup,” Hawkins said. “I think it’ll be a great experience for [Miller] and a good growth experience for him.”
Although Henery’s long kick last year certainly made it difficult for the Buffs to mount a comeback, it was Suh who secured the win for NU.
On the Buffs’ ensuing possession, Suh intercepted then-sophomore CU quarterback Cody Hawkins’ batted pass and rumbled 30 yards into the end zone — plowing over Hawkins along the way — for the 40-31 win.
“I’d hate to have to run into him,” Buffs sophomore running back Rodney Stewart said.
But Stewart had a simple solution: “We just have to block him.”
CU sophomore quarterback Tyler Hansen said the task might not be so simple.
“He’s a beast,” Hansen said. “I’m not going to lie. That guy’s good.”
Although he is an out-of-stater from La Puente, Calif., Buffs senior cornerback Cha’pelle Brown said he understands the significance of the Buffs-Huskers rivalry.
“The day we step on campus, we understand we can’t wear red,” Brown said. “We know what the rivalry’s all about.”
Outside of 2005 when he redshirted, Smart is 1-2 against Big Red. One more win against his rival would be a fond farewell, he said.
“You never want to leave a program on a loss,” Smart said, “especially with the year we’ve had.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex K.W. Schultz at Alexander.firstname.lastname@example.org.