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October 21, 2006
Huskers' statement game slips away
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LINCOLN, Neb. – The Nebraska Cornhuskers had it all.
They had the weather. They had the lead. They had the momentum. They had the football.
And they had the first down that would clinch their first victory over a top-10 team in five years – a victory which would signal that, yes, the Cornhuskers were indeed regaining their elite status in college football.
Cheerleaders were cheering. Sideline security guards were slapping high-fives. The massive Red Sea – Nebraska's throng of crimson-clad die-hard fans – was roaring the way it did for Johnny Rodgers and Tommy Frazier and others who helped the Huskers win their five national championships.
But with a sudden jolt it all slipped away. A record Memorial Stadium crowd of 85,187 fell silent in the snow as if collectively hit in the kidneys. Or more accurately, kicked in them.
A pass that would have settled the issue and sealed a 20-19 come-from-behind Nebraska victory was fumbled away when Texas' Aaron Ross jarred the ball away from Terrence Nunn. Marcus Griffin recovered for the Longhorns with 2:17 remaining.
One minute and 54 seconds later, Texas' Ryan Bailey – a backup kicker who had never attempted a collegiate field goal – converted a 22-yarder that sent the No. 5 Longhorns to their 19th consecutive Big 12 Conference win.
It also sent Nebraska fans home stunned and disappointed.
"You have to tip your hat to Texas for making the plays at the end when they needed to make them," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. "We had an opportunity to close the game and misfortune occurred. Victory was more or less swept away on that third down play.
"We made a lot of errors, but nonetheless we were in it with the way we came back in the second half."
When Nebraska posted at least nine victories in 38 out of 40 years from 1962 to 2001, the Cornhuskers usually made the key plays at the end. Callahan knows that. That's why he won't settle for moral victories, not even against the defending Big 12 and national champion.
"We always felt like we were a pretty good ball team," defensive end Jay Moore said. "We thought we could win this game, we really did. We weren't just trying to measure ourselves. We honestly thought we could go out and win this game. For a while, we were there, we had it won. It's a tough deal, but we'll get better from it."
Texas again. It seems like it's always Texas.
It was the Longhorns that upset the Cornhuskers in the 1996 Big 12 championship game and dashed their national championship hopes.
It was Texas which ended Nebraska's 47-game home winning streak in 1998. And it was Texas that dealt the Cornhuskers their only loss in 1998.
But this loss might not be as painful. In fact, Nebraska fans - who endured a 7-7 finish in 2002 and a 5-6 debacle in 2004 - were so encouraged by the Cornhuskers' performance that they chanted "Go Big Red" as the Longhorns triumphantly left the field.
This loss didn't come with the frustration of a 28-10 defeat to Southern California or with the insecurity that accompanied a 39-32 overtime victory over Kansas.
No, this showed that Nebraska was equipped to go toe-to-toe with one of the nation's premier teams and pull out a victory with just one more key play – or just one fewer mistake.
Texas coach Mack Brown said the Huskers should feel encouraged.
"They're feeling sick and disappointed because they had a chance to win the game, obviously," Brown said. "But soon they will be able to back away and see the program is back on track and going in the right direction."
The No. 17 national ranking and 6-1 record the Huskers brought into the game showed that. Their performances reinforced it.
Skeptics will point out that Texas missed two field goals from inside 40 yards, had an extra point blocked and settled for field goals on three occasions when they had first down inside the Cornhuskers' 10-yard line. Had Texas capitalized on its opportunities, there would have been no suspense.
Yet, the Cornhuskers found a way to stay in contention until Brandon Jackson broke a couple of tackles and picked up a key downfield block from fullback Dane Todd to turn a shovel pass into a 49-yard touchdown. That score cut Texas' lead to 16-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
After Texas consumed more than eight minutes and marched for a field goal, the Cornhuskers retaliated with a four-play, 65-yard whirlwind drive. I-back Marlon Lucky's 25-yard touchdown pass to Nate Swift enabled the Huskers to take a 20-19 lead.
Nebraska did more than just rally in the fourth quarter, though. Quarterback Zac Taylor, who was constantly pressured and sacked four times in the first half, wasn't taken down in the second half.
The Cornhuskers also allowed only two field goals in the second half.
"We settled down with the pass protection," Callahan said. "And the defense did pretty well adjusting at the half. We just didn't make enough plays to win the game and overcome some errors in our game.
"It's frustrating, but there are a lot of things we'll take from the film that are positive that we can learn from."
Nebraska listed eight underclassmen as offensive starters and five as defensive starters, so the future looks good.
And that's not necessarily the distant future.
The Cornhuskers are still tied with Missouri for the lead in the Big 12 North Division, which they haven't won since 1999. With a strong finish, Nebraska could get a rematch with Texas on Dec. 2 in the Big 12 championship game.
Brown expects the Cornhuskers will be there.
"They will be excited about a chance to go play somebody in Kansas City," Brown said. "Hopefully, it might be us."
Another chance. At this point that's all Nebraska wants.