Onside kick one of many baffling calls
September 21, 1997
John McGrath; News Tribune columnist
There was a little bit more than a minute left on the Husky Stadium scoreboard Saturday when Washington coach Jim Lambright decided a punt at his team's 35-yard line was preferable to a fourth-and-10 pass.
Because Nebraska owned a comfortable 13-point lead, Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost figured to kill the clock wherever his team had the ball. This rendered a punt pointless ... and perfectly fitting, for it enabled the Husky braintrust to show it was as willing to make the wrong call on the day's last offensive drive as it was on the first.
Make no mistake. Washington got beaten by a better, quicker, stronger, hungrier football team Saturday. And yet, the Huskies still could've won, were it not for some of the dimmest hunches against the odds since Pete Rose was placing bets from the Cincinnati Reds' dugout.
"I think we have the better coaching staff," Nebraska defensive end Grant Wistrom said after the Cornhuskers' 27-14 victory. "And it showed today."
It showed on the feeble onside kick Washington attempted in the third quarter, just moments after freshman quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo - showing a poise that might best be called heroic - electrified the crowd with his second touchdown pass of the afternoon.
With 74,023 fans on their feet, with almost 18 minutes remaining to play, with logic screaming otherwise, the Huskies' Randy Jones put a gentle soft-shoe tap on the ball, popping it up. An onside kick, of course, can't be retrieved by the kicking team unless it goes 10 yards. This went 7. The Cornhuskers took over in Washington territory; 12 plays later, they kicked a field goal.
The idea behind the onside kick?
"It was a chance," Lambright said, "to regain momentum."
Regain momentum? The Huskies, who'd been down 21-0, had crept to seven points at 21-14. They had turned a regionally televised embarrassment into what was becoming a legendary comeback.
Given the din of the crowd, and the mayhem dozens of guys in purple jerseys can cause when they jump up and down and hug each other on the sideline, it evidently was difficult for Jim Lambright to identify momentum shifts.
If the coach was in a fog about which team had the momentum before the onside kick, he had no such trouble after the Huskers took over at the Huskies' 47. Precisely three seconds after Washington made it interesting, Nebraska went to work on a physically spent, emotionally taxed defense.
"I was (mad)" linebacker Lester Towns said of the ill-fated kick. "I mean, it was too early in the game. I'm not trying to tell the coaches how to coach, but it was just frustrating to come out and the defense didn't really have a chance to stop them."
Towns wasn't the only perplexed Washington player.
"I was kind of questioning why we did that onside kick," said wide receiver Jerome Pathon. "There was still a lot of time left on the board. But the coaches made that decision to try and increase that momentum ...
"It was a critical call. Whether it cost us, I can't say. I'll leave that one for you guys."
The onside kick was the game's most boneheaded move, but it's not as though it didn't have some competition.
Remember the Huskies' opening drive? Using every page of their playbook, they advanced the ball to the Nebraska 16-yard line. On third-and-2, Brock Huard gave the ball to Rashaan Shehee up the gut. Blah. No gain. That set up a fourth-and-2 and, for a fraction of a second, the spectacular possibility of Washington frazzling the visitors then and there.
Ah, but Lambright was in no such disposition. He ordered Huard to bark a long count with the idea of drawing Nebraska offside. It's an old gambit, one that usually works best against a team whose coach hasn't taken his teams to bowl games 24 times in 24 years.
The Huskers didn't bite, which forced Huard to avoid a delay-of-game flag by calling a timeout. The timeout gave Jones - a sophomore who never had attempted a college field goal before 1997 - a few extra minutes to contemplate how his kick would look to tens of millions of fans tuning in on TV.
Jones, believe it or not, missed.
"We had them right where we wanted them on our first drive," said Huskies tight end Cam Cleeland. "We could have set the tone right away with even three points. It wouldn't have mattered - just get something on the board. But for our team to come out empty like that just gave us a kind of fear that we can't squander anything against these guys."
It also gave Washington fans a kind of fear that the coaches were in for a long day.
Let's not kid ourselves; the better team won Saturday. Against two opponents from the Western Athletic Conference, the Huskies had surrendered a grand total of minus-5 yards rushing. Nebraska rolled up 75 yards on its first possession, and finished the game with 384 on the ground. Tom Osborne has coached 160 games in which the Huskers have rushed for more than 300 yards, and Nebraska has won 155 of them.
But Washington still had a pulse, still had a dream, still believed in the magic of electricity. And then Jim Lambright asked Randy Jones to kick the ball soft and short, so that the Huskies could regain the momentum.
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