Lawrence, Kan.- Nebraska's season still had a pulse after Saturday night's game against Kansas because Bobby Newcombe displayed the heart of a champion.
Newcombe helped rescue the eighth- and ninth-ranked Huskers from what would have been an ultimate upset, scoring second-half touchdowns on an 86-yard punt return and a 49-yard pass from Eric Crouch in Nebraska's 24-17 Big 12 Conference victory over the Jayhawks.
|Nebraska's Bobby Newcombe scores the game-winning touchdown with 3:24 left as Kansas defender Kareem High can't catch him.
"Great players make great plays," Husker rover back Mike Brown said. "Bobby Newcombe was all over the field tonight, and that's why we wanted him out there."
Newcombe wasn't the only hero in Nebraska's comeback from a lethargic first-half performance that left the Huskers trailing 9-0 to a team it had beaten 30 consecutive times. Crouch, split end Matt Davison and I-back Correll Buckhalter chipped in with big plays of their own, while the defense, with one dramatic exception, buckled down.
"Our players responded when they had to get it done," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "They were put in not-so-easy situations a fair share of the game -some of it because of the play of Kansas, some of it because of mistakes that we made.
"But they were able to fight through it all, which shows tremendous character and a great will to win."
In the final analysis, though, the night belonged to Newcombe. The junior wingback had a career-day catching the ball, recording four receptions for 89 yards. The 49-yard touchdown from Crouch came with 3:24 to play and produced Nebraska's final margin of victory before an estimated 45,000 at Memorial Stadium.
Newcombe also gave Nebraska its first lead, breaking off the 86-yard punt return late in the third quarter. He also had a 19-yard return, and finished the game with 200 all-purpose yards.
"He put on an outstanding individual performance," Solich said. "I don't think anyone walked out of that stadium-whether he was from Nebraska or whether he was from Kansas-who could not appreciate the great athletic skill that Bobby Newcombe displayed today and what he got done to produce big plays."
In doing so, Newcombe rescued a Nebraska season that was teetering on the brink when Kansas stunned the Huskers in the first half. If the 32-point underdog Jayhawks would have hung onto their advantage, Nebraska's Big 12 championship hopes would have suffered the same fate as the national championship aspirations that were quashed a week ago with a 24-20 loss to Texas.
But Nebraska stormed back, improving to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big 12's North Division, one game behind sixth-ranked Kansas State. The teams will meet Nov. 13 in Lincoln, but the importance of that matchup would have been diminished had the Huskers not mounted their second-half rally.
"Kansas showed up in the first half and we didn't," Nebraska linebacker Tony Ortiz said. "Sure, it concerns me that Kansas did some of the things that it did against us. But we showed up when it counted, and we got out of here with a win."
Nebraska's defense contributed to the rally by holding Kansas to 149 yards in the final two quarters, with 77 coming on a pass from Dylen Smith to Mike Chandler that produced a 17-17 tie with 11:44 to play. Buckhalter, held to 35 yards in the first half, rushed for 81 yards in the final two quarters to finish with 116.
Crouch, getting better protection from his offensive line in the second half, threw for 159 of his 193 yards after intermission. Crouch also scored on an 8-yard run that put Nebraska ahead 17-9 with 12:09 remaining.
The lead lasted all of 25 seconds. Kansas, taking over after the kickoff on its 23-yard line, stunned the Huskers with the 77-yard pass from Smith to Chandler. Nebraska defensive backs Keyuo Craver and Clint Finley missed tackles, and Chandler sprinted down the sideline to score. He then caught a two-point conversion pass from Smith, who threw for a career-best 217 yards, to forge a 17-17 tie with 11:44 remaining.
Nebraska countered by driving from its 29-yard line to the Kansas 26, but came away without points as kicker Josh Brown missed his second field-goal attempt of the game. Brown's 43-yard attempt was wide left, while he missed a 41-yard attempt in the third quarter by leaving the kick wide right.
A sack of Smith- one of five recorded by the Nebraska defense-by rush ends Aaron Wills and Kyle Vanden Bosch stymied Kansas on its next possession, and the Jayhawks were forced to punt the ball back to Nebraska.
Taking over at its 26-yard line with 5:53 remaining, Nebraska sent Buckhalter into the middle on three straight rushes that produced gains of 15, 7 and 2 yards. Crouch was stopped for no gain on a third-down sneak, leaving the Huskers facing fourth-and-one at midfield.
This time, Crouch got the first down with a 1-yard gain on a sneak. He then hooked up with Newcombe for the game-winning score, with the Nebraska receiver catching the ball at about the 15-yard line. Newcombe slipped behind Davison's block on Kansas defensive back Andrew Davison, then scooted into the end zone with his second touchdown of the game.
"Early in the first half, my guy was trying to jam me to the outside," Newcombe said. "I knew I couldn't get outside on him, so I made a move to the inside, then got outside. Eric put the ball right in the right place."
Brown's conversion kick gave Nebraska a 24-17 lead with 3:24 to play. The Husker defense then held Kansas on its final two possessions, leaving several Kansas players on their knees and pounding the artificial turf in frustration at game's end.
"I thought we'd pull it out," Kansas defensive end Dion Johnson said. "We came here with the intent to beat them and we feel like we had that chance. That's why this hurts."
Said Kansas Coach Terry Allen: "We gave a great effort tonight. The punt returns cost us the game in the second half. Other than that, we did a good job."
During the week, Solich had talked about how he had hoped to get greater production from Nebraska's return men. Newcombe and Joe Walker made their coach's wish their command, as they combined for 199 yards on eight punt returns.
Newcombe gave Nebraska its first lead when he caught a 48-yard punt from Kansas punter Joey Pelfanio at the Nebraska 14-yard line. Newcombe hesitated momentarily, then exploded into the middle of the Jayhawks' punt coverage.
After breaking free at about the Nebraska 30-yard line, Newcombe angled toward the far sideline and outraced Kansas' Kareem High. Nebraska's Ralph Brown wiped out the last obstacle in Newcombe's path, leveling Pelfanio and allowing his teammate to coast into the end zone.
When Newcombe arrived there, he was serenaded by many of the 20,000 Husker fans in attendance with chants of "Bobby, Bobby, Bobby."
"That definitely lit a big fire under me," Newcombe said. "It was one reason I had a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on that last pass there."
Brown's conversion put Nebraska ahead 10-9 with 2:14 to play. The Huskers then moved 53 yards after Walker's 21-yard return, to the touchdown that gave them the 17-9 lead with 12:09 to play. Crouch capped the seven-play score with an 8-yard run on a third-down-and-three play.
"I never felt like the lead was safe," Solich said. "The momentum was swaying back and forth so quickly. Their quarterback did a tremendous job, and everyone else on their football team was giving it their all. There's no question we got Kansas' best shot."
The Jayhawks' effort was good enough to leave them with a 9-0 lead at halftime. Kansas scored its first points against Nebraska since 1996 when Matt Jordan blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety with 5:02 left in the first quarter. Smith added to the lead, throwing a 22-yard scoring pass to David Hurst to complete a seven-play, 79-yard drive early in the second quarter.
By halftime, Kansas had gained 184 of its 333 total yards. The Jayhawks had limited Nebraska, which wound up with 366 yards, to 69 on 28 first-half plays.
"We knew our backs were to the wall and that it wasn't going to be easy," Solich said. "We knew we had to get something established in the running game, which we hadn't done in the first half. We also knew we had to keep throwing it to produce some big plays."
The mood at halftime, Husker defensive tackle Loran Kaiser said, lacked any sense of panic.
"There wasn't a lot of yelling or screaming," Kaiser said. "We knew we had made it hard on ourselves. We knew the heat was on us, and that we were going to have to play better if we wanted to get the job done."
Nebraska got an instant lift to open the second half when Crouch hit Davison with a 63-yard pass. Dan Alexander's fumble two plays later, recovered by Kansas linebacker Andrew LeClair at the Jayhawks' 1-yard line, kept the Huskers off the board.
Nebraska managed to cut Kansas' lead on its next possession when Brown kicked a 31-yard field goal with 10:23 remaining in the third quarter. The Huskers then turned to Newcombe for the big plays that ultimately snapped Kansas' upset bid.
"I just took the opportunities that came my way," Newcombe said, "got some great blocks and made the most of them."
Audio of NU Coach Frank Solich
Solich on Bobby Newcombe
Solich on how Huskers anticipated tough game
Newcombe discusses second half
Eric Crouch, on NU bouncing back from loss