Huskers come alive in curtain call

Quarterback understudies get job done

BY KEN HAMBLETON
Lincoln Journal Star

These kind of dramatics are usually reserved for matchups of unbeaten teams, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa against National League pitching or blockbuster movies — not for defending national champion Nebraska against Alabama-Birmingham Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska needed plenty of theatrics to post a 38-7 victory against the Blazers before 75,921 fans who sweated in the heat and struggled to understand the lack of a predicted blowout.

Most expected that Nebraska's tunnel walk before the game would be more than enough to beat a team in its third year of NCAA Division I-A football. Alabama-Birmingham has just 10 wins and 13 losses in Division I-A football, while Nebraska has averaged 10 wins a season the last six years.

But style points have no place in football, especially with a team missing six starters, new Nebraska head coach Frank Solich said.

"You don't just step on the field and count a win," he said. "There are a lot of people that do, but most of them aren't in coaching and most of them aren't playing.

"I'm pleased with those two wins just the way they came. I'm satisfied."

Asked about the victories, Solich smiled and said, "I imagine a lot of people look at it (style points), but the bottom line for coaches is getting the job done. Lot of times you can look stylish and not get the job done.

"I'm for getting it done. I don't think we looked bad by any stretch of the imagination."

Actually, Nebraska came up with the big plays at crucial times Saturday.

The Huskers needed:

--A fourth-down-and-1 touchdown pass from freshman Eric Crouch to Sheldon Jackson.

--An 11-yard touchdown run by Crouch with nine seconds left in the first half.

--A major defensive stand in the third quarter.

--¤A record-setting field goal by Kris Brown.

--Even emergency intravenous injections of sodium chloride for Crouch, who left the field with full-body cramps with five minutes left in the third quarter

--A strong showing from seldom-used and often-injured senior QB Monte Christo.

--A major adjustment to stopping Alabama-Birmingham's troublesome option offense.

"Last week, we were maybe concerned about the pass," said Solich. Louisiana Tech set Nebraska opponent and NCAA passing records in a 56-27 loss to NU.

"This week, it's the option. Just so they don't get everything going on us. In this day and age, you're going to face talented players on both sides of the ball. I think the two teams we've played are good football teams."

Nebraska had to search for some extra talent for its 44th consecutive home victory and 16th consecutive win.

Redshirt freshman Crouch started the game in place of rookie quarterback Bobby Newcombe, who is out with a knee injury. After a tentative start, Husker senior Shevin Wiggins returned a punt 35 yards to the UAB 33-yard line. Six plays later, including a 17-yard screen pass from Crouch to Joel Makovicka, the senior fullback broke through the middle of the line on a 3-yard touchdown blast.

Nebraska's defense quickly chased the Blazers' offense, and Crouch sparked a 13-play, 71-yard scoring drive that survived fourth-and-1 at the UAB 15-yard line. Crouch faked a handoff to I-back Correll Buckhalter into the line, rolled to his left and lofted a soft, perfect pass to tight end Jackson in the back of the end zone.

"I was shocked by the call because we're a running team and we always run in that situation," said Jackson. "I'm sure that's why it was a perfect call in that situation."

Actually, just to make sure of the play call, Crouch called time out and was informed that it was a pass and not a run.

"I had the play messed up and I didn't want any confusion and realized my mistake," said Crouch, who was the Journal Star Player of the Year at Millard North High School in 1996.

UAB wasn't impressed. The Blazers bounced back with a stunning 16-play, 80-yard drive that included the best of wishbone option football from the Oklahoma teams of the early 1980s. Blazer quarterback Daniel Dixon completed four passes for 29 yards and ran six times for 15 yards and recovered two of his own fumbles to spark the drive that ended with a 2-yard dive by Ortavious Miles that closed the score to 14-7.

"They showed something we didn't expect and it wasn't until halftime that we caught on to the adjustments our coaches were trying to make," said Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown. "The option is just that dangerous. We face it every day in practice and, one mistake, and a guy is gone."

Crouch rallied his team on a 12-play, 70-yard drive, highlighted by a 16-yard sideline pass to Kenny Cheatham, three third-down conversions and a 19-yard run by Dan Alexander.

Nebraska was out of timeouts, but Crouch took the snap from center in a shotgun formation and ran straight through the middle of the line for an 11-yard touchdown with nine seconds left in the half.

"That's a gutsy call with nine seconds left," said UAB Coach Watson Brown. "To run an option instead of kicking a field goal. I thought that was a great call. I'm not sure I would have done that. I'd probably have slung it in the end zone."

Nebraska's defense, stung for almost six football fields of passing last week, stopped UAB on its first drive of the second half, as Nebraska's Erwin Swiney and teammate Steve Warren caught up to Dixon twice.

The Huskers didn't find much success, either, and midway through the third quarter, Crouch was slammed to the turf and didn't get up. "I was kicked and had a cramp in my right calf, my left hip and my right shoulder — kind of an all-around body cramp," he said.

As Crouch headed for the locker room and emergency liquid injections, senior Christo, who hadn't played in a game in doubt since the 1994 Shrine Bowl high school all-star game, took over.

He ran into a teammate and lost a fumble on his second play.

UAB then appeared on its way to another score with back-to-back options runs for 30 yards, two Nebraska penalties for another 22 yards and a short run to the Husker 11-yard line.

Husker senior rush end Chad Kelsay then started the avalanche stopping the Blazers. He dumped Dixon on a 4-yard loss. UAB had two consecutive false-start penalties and an offensive-pass interference penalty that moved the ball back to the Nebraska 40. After a 2-yard gain, an illegal-procedure penalty moved the ball back to the 43 and UAB was forced to punt.

"That was the defensive stand we've been needing for two games," said Kelsay. "We came up big and they got a little flustered. They shot themselves in the foot and we took away a sure touchdown or field goal and eventually got the ball back."

Christo rallied the offense on a 14-play, 77-yard scoring drive that ended with Brown kicking a 27-yard field goal and taking the all-time Nebraska scoring record away from 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.

Crouch broke free on a 59-yard touchdown run on a keeper around the left side and Christo hit freshman tight end Tracey Wistrom on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the final six minutes of the game.

"I think we'll be fine," said Solich. "There is a lot to work on. I said that last week. We improved in some places and we need to improve in other places.

"Maybe we'll get some of the people back that we're missing and we'll be better."

Web posted September 6, 1998


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