Huskers show stuff
Texas guarterback Major Applewhite (11) shakes hands with Nebraska's Loran Kaiser (91) after the Big 12 Championship game in San Antonio, Saturday, Dec. 4.
Photo by Eric Gay/AP
By Mark Wangrin
Posted: Dec. 4, 1999
SAN ANTONIO -- Maybe the silence should have been a tip-off. Maybe the Nebraska Cornhuskers didn't fill the airwaves and broadsheets with trash talk this week because they were preoccupied.
``That's why I believe they kept quiet this game,'' University of Texas free safety Greg Brown said after the Cornhuskers chose a less vocal, but no less certain way of delivering their message Saturday. ``They were a lot more focused."
The medium was the message, and the message was clear. Nebraska used an angry, swarming defense to reassert its concept of Big 12 order. The Alamodome was their woodshed and the Blackshirts their switch. The Cornhuskers shut down the Longhorns' offense as few football teams have done -- ever -- in a 22-6 win before a Big 12 championship game-record crowd of 65,035.
The most prolific offense in Longhorn history was held without a touchdown, the first time that's happened to Texas since 1985, when defensive end Kip Cooper returned a fumble for the Horns' only points in a 14-7 loss to Oklahoma. Nebraska held the Horns to only 9 yards rushing on 29 carries (including sacks), the fewest ever in school history (the old record was 14 against Baylor in 1976).
``We didn't play well,'' said quarterback Major Applewhite. ``Period. End of discussion."
Texas, riding a three-game winning streak over Nebraska, stocked its sideline with a good share of lucky charms -- Roger Clemens of the World Series champion New York Yankees and James Brown, triggerman on the fourth-and-inches play that sewed up a 37-27 win over Nebraska in the first Big 12 title game in St. Louis four years ago -- but it was no go on the mojo. While Nebraska heads to the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, the Longhorns limp into the Jan. 1 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas with a two-game losing streak.
Texas' offense didn't have a first down in the first quarter. The Horns didn't break into positive yards to stay until their third series, when they were an anemic plus-6. They never got within 22 yards of the Nebraska end zone. They turned the ball over four times.
If not for a stalwart performance by the Texas defense, which held Nebraksa to 289 yards total offense -- 140 fewer than it allowed in the first meeting -- and forced three turnovers, the score would have been worse. The Horns would have suffered their first shutout since a 16-0 loss at Baylor in 1980, a string of 225 games, had cornerback Ahmad Brooks not returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown with 13 minutes, 26 seconds left.
``The whole game we kept saying, `We're not out of it, we're not out of it,' '' safety Greg Brown said. ``We kept saying that if we score on defense, we win the game. When we scored, I said, `This is it.' ''
Texas' offense wasn't up to the challenge.
Nebraska took a 15-0 halftime lead on two Josh Brown field goals, a 31-yard Eric Crouch option keeper touchdown on fourth and one and a safety when UT center Matt Anderson was wide right on a shotgun snap on third and 15.
When Crouch added a 4-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to finish off a five-play, 66-yard drive, the Longhorns were reduced to avoiding embarrassment.
Nebraska, which took an emotional hit this week with the news that no Cornhuskers rout, no matter how grand, could bump Virginia Tech out of the national title game, found other motivation. Instead, the Huskers took the Nov. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, rolled it up and swatted the Longhorns across the snout with it. In a story on the Longhorns' 24-20 win over Nebraska, Applewhite was quoted as saying the Cornhuskers' defense was simple. ``It's not going to be calculus,'' he said. Nebraska took that as an insult.
``That turned me on,'' said Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, who quoted Applewhite in his pregame speech.
``Major said our defense was easy to read,'' Nebraska linebacker Carlos Polk said on the field after the game, his mint Big 12 Championship hat perched on his head. ``We came out today to make him illiterate.''
The plan? Rush so hard you're pulling some Gs.
``I wanted to see the skin peel off their eyeballs,'' McBride said of his rushers. ``There was a time I thought everyone was blitzing."
``Outside, inside, through the back, under . . . all kinds of ways,'' said Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown. ``The first half they didn't know where we were blitzing from."
Looked like it. Certainly felt like it to Applewhite, who was sacked seven times for 44 yards in losses, the most this season. Even when he had time, which was mostly in the second half as the Huskers eased off the pressure, he completed only 15 of 42 passes for only 164 yards and three interceptions. Stark numbers, but not enough to change his view of Huskers' complexity.
``They are (easy to read). They still are,'' he said. ``We just didn't protect well. Coach McBride's system is not based on disguise. It's based on getting better athletes playing better.''
Texas has lost back-to-back games for the first time since the UCLA-Kansas State road killings last season and must bounce back against No. 24 Arkansas (7-4) in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 or risk losing all momentum in what had been a promising season.
``It's going to be nice to be in the Cotton Bowl, because we're not used to losing two in a row,'' said Greg Brown. ``I'd hate to be the next team to play."
That is still 27 days away, and with some time off before regrouping for bowl practice, the Horns will have some time to chew on that feeling.
``It's something we'll have to fight through,'' said a stone-faced Hodges Mitchell, who missed almost the entire second half with an ankle injury and gained just 17 yards rushing.
As he limped away, his travel bag slung over his right shoulder and his right ankle immobilized in a blue plastic brace, he lost his lunch, literally, and sandwich, fruit and cookie hit the floor, thanks to a porous paper bag that couldn't protect its contents. The bottom had fallen out. Again.