Tempe, Ariz. - Nebraska returned to what it knows best Sunday night to turn aside Tennessee's upset bid in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
|Mike Brown, left, and Coach Frank Solich hold the Fiesta Bowl trophy Sunday night.
In doing so, the Huskers might have given the nation an offensive preview of what to expect next season. Nebraska turned to a ball-control, power running game to pull out its 31-21 victory before 71,526 at Sun Devil Stadium.
Nebraska, which will return nine of 11 starters on offense next season, ground down the Volunteers by running the football on 29 of its final 32 plays. That offensive approach produced scoring drives of 96 and 99 yards after Tennessee had pulled within three points early in the third quarter, and a 13-play possession that ate up the final seven minutes and 25 seconds.
"Tennessee probably forced us into running the ball by putting it inside the five twice," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "Once we started running, we found out that we could keep running it. That's what we ended up doing. It worked very well."
Nebraska finished with 321 yards rushing against the nation's seventh-best rushing defense. It closed a string of performances that saw the Huskers top the 300-yard mark in rushing yardage in four of their last five games. Not a bad finish for a team that struggled to mount a consistent rushing attack last season as well as early this year.
And with quarterback Eric Crouch, I-backs Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter and fullback Willie Miller set to return next season, Nebraska shapes up as a team that will look to run first and ask questions later in 2000.
"That is what Nebraska is known for, what Nebraska has been all about over the years," Solich said. "That's what we want to be know for. We want to be multiple, but we also want to be able to run the football and get something done when we do it."
Sunday's win closed out a 12-1 season for the Huskers. It also brought an end to the distinguished coaching career of Charlie McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator for the past 18 seasons and a member of the Husker staff for the past 23.
The 60-year-old McBride announced his retirement after the game.
"My first win came here on this field when I was at Arizona State, and my last win was here, too. It meant so much to me," said McBride, his voice choking with emotion. "I love this football team, and I also love my family very much. It's time for them, so I'm going to pull the plug."
McBride, bothered in recent years by back and knee problems, had been non-committal about his future plans in the days leading up to the Sunday's game against the fifth- and sixth-ranked Volunteers, who closed out a 9-3 season.
"I didn't want to do anything to take away from this football team," McBride said. "They deserved this big win. As far as I'm concerned, they are No. 1. There's no question about it. I don't have any hesitation in my mind. Anyone who wants to step up against them, we can win."
Although the national championship will be awarded to the winner of Tuesday's Nokia Sugar Bowl game between Virginia Tech and Florida State, Nebraska made a strong final argument to be included on any short list of the best teams of the 1999 season.
The Huskers did it by delivering a gut-punch to the Volunteers with three long drives in the second half that took the bite out of Tennessee's upset bid. Nebraska mounted scoring drives of 96 and 99 yards after the Volunteers had closed to within three points early in the third quarter, then hung onto the ball for the final seven minutes and 25 seconds to close out the game.
"Certainly to control the ball like that," Solich said, "I thought was vitally important."
It also allowed the Huskers to quiet the Volunteers, who had talked repeatedly in the days leading up to the game that they thought they had developed physically since Nebraska delivered a smashing performance against them in the 1998 Orange Bowl. The Huskers had run for 409 yards in that victory, a 42-17 win that earned Nebraska a share of the national championship.
The Huskers finished with 321 yards rushing Sunday against a Tennessee defense that had ranked seventh nationally in stopping the run. Nebraska I-back Dan Alexander became only the second back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Volunteers, finishing with 108 yards on 21 carries.
Fullback Willie Miller added a career-high 87 yards, while quarterback Eric Crouch had 64 yards and Correll Buckhalter 59. Crouch also passed for 148 yards, completing 9 of 15 throws, to help the Huskers to a 469-311 advantage in total yardage.
"I think the way we play football, we're not going to talk about how physical we are," said Crouch, the game's most valuable offensive player. "We know how physical we are. We're going to come out on the field and show it come game day. There was a lot of talk about us not being a very physical team. I think we went out there and proved we were the most physical team today."
And they proved it in convincing fashion, especially after the Volunteers had cut Nebraska's 17-0 lead to 17-14 early in the third quarter. The Huskers responded with their two most productive back-to-back drives of the season, reeling off marches of 96 yards on nine plays and 99 yards on 10 plays.
Those two possessions, Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said, underscored Nebraska's ability to dominate.
"We got another good lesson tonight," Fulmer said. "Obviously, they're something special."
Crouch closed out the first drive by throwing a 13-yard scoring pass to tight end Aaron Golliday, the Huskers' first touchdown throw in 19 quarters dating back to the Oct. 30 game against Kansas. Crouch also had completed a clutch third-down pass to Jon Bowling earlier in the drive, with Miller following that reception with a career-high 47-yard run.
On the Huskers' next possession, Nebraska runs of 27 and 11 yards from Buckhalter, 15 yards from Alexander, 13 yards from Crouch and 13 yards from Miller chewed through Tennessee's defense. Buckhalter got the score, bulling in from the 2-yard line, to push Nebraska's lead to 31-14 with 12:01 to play.
The Volunteers refused to quit, getting a 44-yard scoring pass on a trick play from wide receiver Cedrick Wilson to Donte' Stallworth. Wilson had taken a lateral from quarterback Tee Martin, then unloaded a bomb to Stallworth, who had a 5-yard cushion on the nearest defender.
Tennessee unsuccessfully attempted an onside kick, and Nebraska closed out its fifth bowl victory in its last six postseason appearances by running 13 straight plays to from its 30 to the Tennessee 13-yard line as time expired.
"I think it says a lot about the physical play we brought to the table today," Crouch said.
Meanwhile, Tennessee gained just 44 yards rushing on 26 attempts against Nebraska's defense. The Volunteers did pass for 267, with Martin completing 19 of 34 attempts for 223 yards. The Huskers twice intercepted Martin and sacked him three times.
Nebraska also limited the Volunteers to 3 of 12 third-down conversions, while Nebraska converted 7 of its 15 third-down attempts.
Still, the effort wasn't good enough to totally satisfy the Husker defensive players.
"We just made way too many mental mistakes," said rover back Mike Brown, the game's most outstanding defensive player. "It wasn't that we weren't giving great effort. We were playing lights out for four quarters, but we didn't play the type of football we're capable of playing.
"I know in my heart that we're still the best defense in the nation, no matter who we play."
In winning, the Huskers completed the seventh 12-win season in school history and picked up their 108th win of the decade - the NCAA considers January bowl games as part of the previous season. The victory also allowed the Huskers to even their all-time bowl record to 19-19.
Big plays by Crouch and Bobby Newcombe helped Nebraska build a two-touchdown lead in the opening quarter, and the Husker defense kept Martin under control until the final moments of the half.
Martin prevented the Volunteers from heading into halftime down 17-0 when he drove Tennessee 65 yards in eight plays. Martin completed passes of 16, 5, 10, 11 and 15 yards before drilling a 9-yard scoring strike to Stallworth with 18 seconds left in the half.
Stallworth also had two other catches on the drive, Tennessee's most successful offensive possession of the first half. Only one other Volunteer possession lasted more than five plays, and Nebraska intercepted Martin twice and sacked him once.
Crouch got the Huskers started when he moved Nebraska 43 yards on its first possession, with Alexander getting the touchdown on a 7-yard run with 11:34 left in the first quarter. Alexander's run came one play after Crouch had sprinted 30 yards to the Tennessee 7-yard line on an option.
In the days leading up to the game, Tennessee's coaches and players had talked repeatedly about their respect for Newcombe's big-play potential. "He's about as good as I've seen," said Fulmer, commenting on the Nebraska wingback's ability as a punt returner. "He's special."
Newcombe showed the Volunteers just how special he can be when he fielded David Leaverton's second punt of the game at the Nebraska 40-yard line, ripped through a tiny opening in the Volunteers' coverage and raced upfield.
He scored untouched, with Ralph Brown's block at the 10 clearing the final Volunteer in Newcombe's path, to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead with 3:31 remaining. Newcombe also returned a punt for a touchdown against Kansas, and now has three for his career.
Nebraska, which held a 182-165 edge in total yardage at halftime, increased its lead to 17 points when it drove 52 yards in five plays to set up Josh Brown's 31-yard field goal with 1:37 left in the half.
Crouch's 46-yard pass to Matt Davison opened the drive, but it stalled when Buckhalter was stopped for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-three play from the Tennessee 13-yard line. Brown then came in and connected on his 15th field goal of the season, rattling the kick off the right upright and through the goal posts.
Martin pumped some life into Tennessee by directing the touchdown drive in the closing moments of the first half. The Volunteers got a big break to open the third quarter when Alexander, fighting for extra yardage after taking a pitch from Crouch, fumbled on the opening play from scrimmage of the second half.
Four plays later, Travis Henry pulled Tennessee within three points with a 4-yard scoring run to complete a 25-yard drive that included a pass interference penalty on Ralph Brown. The penalty on the first play of the drive gave the Volunteers a first-down at the Nebraska 18-yard line.
Martin's 12-yard pass to Eric Parker gave the Volunteers a first and goal at the 6-yard line, and Henry, dragging Nebraska middle linebacker Carlos Polk with him, scored two plays later to pull the Volunteers with 17-14 with 13:03 to play.
Nebraska regained some momentum with its 96-yard touchdown drive midway through the third quarter. The nine-play possession included Miller's 47-yard run, a clutch third-down catch by Bowling and Golliday's first career touchdown.
Leaverton's 38-yard punt had pinned the Huskers deep in their territory but four straight runs by Alexander gained 22 yards and gave Nebraska some room to operate. Still, the Huskers were in danger of having to turn the ball back to the Volunteers, facing third-and 13 at the 23-yard line.
Crouch then found Bowling for a 17-yard gain. Miller followed with a 47-yard run up the Volunteers' gut, and Crouch followed with a 13-yard pass to a wide-open Golliday in the back of the end zone. His catch hiked the Huskers' lead to 24-14 with 4:44 remaining in the third quarter.
As impressive as the drive was, the Huskers topped it on their next possession. Taking over at its 1-yard line, Nebraska chewed through the Tennessee defense with 10 straight runs. Buckhalter closed out the drive with his 2-yard scoring run to expand the lead to 31-14 with 12:01 play.