San Antonio-Nebraska showed championship form Saturday in stuffing its Texas hex.
|Julius Jackson holds up the spoils of victory following NU's 22-6 win over Texas in the Big 12 championship game.
The Huskers snapped a string of three straight losses to the Longhorns with a dominating performance that produced a 22-6 victory, a second Big 12 Conference title in three years and its 43rd league championship overall. In avenging its only loss of the season, third-ranked Nebraska improved to 11-1 and made its final arguments for getting a shot to play for a national championship.
Whether that materializes or not Sunday when the final Bowl Championship Series standings are released, the Huskers say they can live with the outcome now that they have shucked a burnt orange monkey from their backs.
"I know I didn't want to leave here without beating Texas," Nebraska senior rover back Mike Brown said. "We finally got them, and I can die now."
Nebraska Coach Frank Solich quickly chimed in, "Don't do that on us."
Solich definitely wants his All-American around when the Huskers play their next game. Nebraska accepted an invitation after the game to play in the Jan. 2 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, where the Huskers most likely will face either Florida, Alabama or Tennessee.
Of course, that would change if the Huskers find themselves in the top two when the BCS computer spits out its final standings today. Nebraska went into Saturday's game third in the BCS standings behind unbeatens Florida State and Virginia Tech. It's unlikely that Saturday's margin of victory, misleading as it was, will be enough for the Huskers to close the 11/2-point gap that separated them from No. 2 Virginia Tech.
If Florida State and Virginia Tech hold their spots, they will play in the Jan. 4 Nokia Sugar Bowl for the national title. Solich and most of his players said after Saturday's game that they can accept that, knowing their stumble six weeks ago at Texas left them with an obstacle that was too much to overcome.
"We'd love to be playing in that game," said Husker linebacker Brian Shaw, referring to the Sugar Bowl. "But we got beat, and we know how the system works. The system works, from the standpoint that the two undefeated teams are going to be playing in that game."
But will the best two teams be playing in New Orleans?
"No comment," Shaw said, smiling. "I'm not touching that one."
One Husker who would was quarterback Eric Crouch, who scored both of Nebraska's touchdowns Saturday.
"It's nothing that we can control," Crouch said. "But I believe we deserve to be in that game. There wasn't a team on our schedule that we didn't beat. It's like Coach Solich said, our schedule is a lot tougher than Virginia Tech's. The teams we played against this year were a lot tougher than what they played."
Saturday's win, which came before a title game record crowd of 65,035 at the Alamodome, was Nebraska's fourth of the season over a ranked opponent. Virginia Tech also played four teams that were rated at the time of the game, but only one, Boston College, is still in the Top 25.
Still, any concern about the BCS was secondary after Saturday's win over No. 12 Texas, the only team in the Big 12 that Nebraska had not beaten in the four-year history of the league. The Longhorns had won all three previous league meetings, dumping Nebraska in the 1996 title game, snapping the Huskers' 47-game home winning streak last season and denying the Huskers an unbeaten regular season with their 24-20 win on Oct. 23.
Avenging those losses were nice, but winning a championship was extra special to a group of Nebraska seniors that have been a part of a couple of national titles and three conference crowns.
"It means the world to me to be going out on top," Husker linebacker Tony Ortiz said. "I don't think it means any more that this one came against Texas. But winning this game and going 11-1, I couldn't ask for anything more."
What did sweeten the victory was that the Huskers might have taught Texas quarterback Major Applewhite that, unlike calculus, Nebraska's defense packs a punch. After directing the Longhorns to their win six weeks ago, Applewhite said that Nebraska's defense was predictable and uncomplicated in its scheme and philosophy.
"They're Nebraska, and they're good," Applewhite said at the time, "but they're not very complicated. It's not going to be calculus.
Saturday, the Huskers confounded Applewhite and the Texas offense with a variety of blitzes that limited the Longhorns to 170 yards on 71 plays. The output was Texas' lowest since 1991, and Nebraska held the Longhorns without an offensive touchdown- they scored on a return of fourth-quarter fumble - for the first time since 1985.
The Huskers also sacked Applewhite seven times and hurried him countless times into throws that sailed out of bounds beyond the reach of the intended receivers. The sophomore finished 15 of 42 for 164 yards-the first time in 22 games that he had failed to throw for more than 200 yards.
"Nebraska did a great job of bringing pressure," Applewhite said. "They believed in their philosophy of bringing four, five and sometimes six players."
Six weeks ago, Nebraska's only sack of Applewhite was when the quarterback slipped down once when he dropped back to pass. The Huskers also failed to force any turnovers in that game. Saturday, they intercepted Applewhite three times and forced a fumble.
"We didn't do a whole lot different than the last time we played them," Ortiz said. "We just had a little more fire today. Maybe we tried a few more blitzes, but overall, we just had a little more fire in the camp.
"We took what he said after the first game to heart. Telling us that we're easy to read is an insult to our defensive staff, our defensive coordinator and to us, as players. They still played well, to their credit, but there was a lot of things they just couldn't do today."
Like run the football. Nebraska limited Texas to 6 net yards rushing on 29 attempts. Hodges Mitchell, who had 83 yards six weeks ago against the Huskers, finished with 17. Victor Ike led the Longhorns with 21, 20 of which came on one third-quarter run.
"When you can't run or throw the ball and become one-dimensional," Texas wide receiver Kwame Cavil said, "it is very hard to win a game."
So dominating was the Huskers' defensive performance that Texas' offense ran just nine plays in Nebraska territory, none closer than 22 yards from the NU goal line.
"They played as well as I have ever seen them play," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "Their defense lined up and played extremely well, which made us unable to run the ball. We just weren't able to make any plays on offense."
Although it got no assistance from its offense, Texas' defense hung tough. But it, too, could not come up with enough big plays to slow Crouch and Nebraska, which finished with 289 yards, 234 on the ground.
While Nebraska's first 47 yards produced no points, the Huskers managed to set a tone by driving the ball out of trouble on their opening possession. Joe Walker put Nebraska in a tough spot when he took the opening kickoff 6 yards deep in the end zone and managed to return it just 11 yards.
The Huskers picked up three first downs, moving into Texas territory, before being forced to punt.
"That might have been our most important possession of the game," Husker offensive tackle Adam Julch said. "It was big in our minds that we showed we could drive the ball on them. We started off in bad field position but we drove the ball on them.
"It showed us we could get it done."
Nebraska scored on its second possession, getting a 42-yard field goal from Josh Brown. Crouch hiked the lead to 10-0 with 2:56 left in the first quarter with a 31-yard scoring run on a fourth-and-one play.
Crouch faked a handoff to fullback Willie Miller and started down the line on a option. He cut the play sharply into the Texas defensive middle, then broke outside and outraced two defenders to the end zone.
"When I see an opening, I take the opening," said Crouch, who finished with 72 yards rushing on 23 carries. "The offensive line did a great job of executing on that play, and I just took advantage of it."
The Huskers tacked on five points in the second quarter, with Brown kicking a 21-yard field goal four plays after Ortiz's interception of an Applewhite pass at the Texas 16-yard line. Nebraska added a safety when Applewhite had the ball snapped over his head while in shotgun formation from the Longhorns' 15-yard line.
Nebraska's lead grew to 22 points on its opening possession of the second half. Correll Buckhalter, pressed into service when starting I-back Dan Alexander suffered a split hand that required stitches, ripped through a crease in the Texas defense on the Huskers' third play of the third quarter.
By the time Texas cornerback Ahmad Brooks caught Buckhalter, the junior had gained 55 yards to the Texas 3-yard line. Crouch scored two plays later, cutting another option inside for a 4-yard touchdown run.
Buckhalter, playing in spite of a toe injury, finished with 136 yards on 20 carries. The Huskers also a couple of key receptions from tight end Jon Bowling, playing because starter Tracey Wistrom was out with a knee injury.
"Right now, we're a banged up football team," Solich said. "Dan Alexander split his hand open, Correll had the toe injury, Willie Miller has a shoulder injury, Carlos Polk hurt his ankle and had to come out. The list goes on and on.
"I'm especially pleased with the players who played in those guys' place. They responded with great effort."
Nebraska's effort was such that its three turnovers-the same number it had in the loss six weeks ago- did little to hurt the Huskers other than to cost them a shutout. Brooks scored the Longhorns' touchdown when he scooped up a fumble by Dahrran Diedrick and returned it 20 yards for the score with 13:26 to play.
That, and a three-and-out on Nebraska's next offensive series, pumped some life into the Texas fans who had little to cheer about. But Nebraska's defense again stepped up, ending two of the Longhorns' final four possessions with turnovers and forcing punts on the other two.
"I don't know if we've played a better game defensively, but we played a complete game," said Brown, whose six tackles included one of the Huskers' sacks. "We pretty much dominated them from the first quarter to the fourth quarter.
"We had a mission today. We knew we had to dominate them, get the victory and get the monkey off our backs."