Boulder, Colo.- Nebraska pulled off a great escape Friday to avoid what could have been an even greater embarrassment.
|NU's Eric Crouch sneaks into the end zone from the 1-yard line during overtime to give the Huskers a 33-30 win.
The Huskers blew a 24-point lead in the final quarter against Colorado, which saw its chances for a win in regulation sail wide right on Jeremy Aldrich's missed field goal on the final play. Aldrich came back to kick one in overtime before Nebraska ended its 33-30 win on Eric Crouch's quarterback sneak from the half-yard line.
Crouch's touchdown, which silenced all but the Huskers' fans in the sellout crowd of 52,946 at Folsom Field, sends third-ranked and 10-1 Nebraska into next week's Big 12 Conference championship game. The Huskers will head to San Antonio knowing they easily could be watching that game on television after self-destructing in the final quarter against the Buffaloes.
"I don't know if you can call this luck or fate or what," Crouch said. "All I know is that we tried our hardest there at the end and got it done."
For Colorado, call Friday's outcome heartbreaking.
"I credit our kids for hanging in instead of quitting," Colorado Coach Gary Barnett said. "They made a heck of a run at it. That's about as close as you can get without winning."
|CU's Jeremy Aldrich is wide right on this 34-yard game-winning field goal attempt on the last play of regulation.
The Buffaloes trailed 27-3 entering the final quarter before quarterback Mike Moschetti engineered an inspired rally that saw the Buffaloes score three touchdowns in a span of 5 minutes and 48 seconds. The final one, on a 21-yard pass to Javon Green, pulled Colorado into a 27-27 tie with 2:59 remaining.
And Moschetti wasn't through. After a weird exchange of fumbles-Colorado lost the ball at its 16-yard line with 1:49 to play only to see the Huskers give it right back on the next play when I-back Dan Alexander dropped a pitch-Moschetti moved the Buffaloes into position for a potential game-winning kick by Aldrich.
Moschetti completed a 27-yard pass to Cortlen Johnson to start the drive, getting the Buffaloes to their 42-yard line. After throwing incomplete, Moschetti then hooked up with John Minardi for a 36-yard gain to the Nebraska 22-yard line. The Buffaloes used two rushes to get 6 yards and leave Aldrich with a dead-on 34-yard attempt.
Colorado let the clock run down to one second before calling timeout. Nebraska called one, too, in an attempt to ice Aldrich. And perhaps say a few prayers.
"I'm thinking that God's going to be on our side," Nebraska offensive guard Russ Hochstein said. "And I was remembering what's happened other times this year, when we blocked field goals by Texas A&M and Kansas State. I was hoping for a big surge and getting someone over the top to block it.
"We didn't block it, but here comes God and He intervened for us."
While many would doubt divine intervention had anything to do with the final play, Aldrich did leave his kick slightly wide to the right, forcing Nebraska to play overtime for only the second time in school history.
The first came two years ago against Missouri, when Nebraska tied the game on the final play of regulation on Matt Davison's diving catch of a ball that had been kicked into the end zone. Nebraska then pulled out a 45-38 win, which helped keep it on course for a share of a national championship.
Friday's outcome might have the opposite effect this season. The Huskers came into Friday's game needing an impressive showing to give them a chance to close ground on Virginia Tech in the Bowl Championship Series standings. For three quarters, Nebraska was up to the task.
How badly the fourth-quarter collapse will affect the Huskers in the BCS won't be known until Monday's release of the next-to-last standings. But with Virginia Tech posting a 38-14 victory over Nos. 20 and 22 Boston College, Friday's showing definitely won't help the Huskers' cause.
"There's no talk about the national championship in there," said Nebraska rover back Mike Brown, referring to the Huskers' locker room. "We're just concentrating on playing for a Big 12 championship and getting ready for Texas."
But reading between the lines of comments made by the players, the Huskers realize their chances of making it to the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl to play top-ranked Florida State took a turn for the worst.
"This is disappointing, and a lot of guys were down in the locker room," he said. "I guess you could say that a 'W' is a win. But I think we all know this game shouldn't have come down to that."
Nebraska Coach Frank Solich also refused to speculate on what a three-point win over an unranked and now 6-5 Colorado team means to the Huskers' big-picture hopes.
"I have no idea, and I haven't really given it any thought," Solich said. "I will say that this team has won a bunch of games. They've won some of them very convincingly against a very strong schedule. If you look at the schedule this team has had to go against coming down the stretch-Texas A&M, Kansas State and Colorado-it's hard to battle your way through three of those kind of games.
"To the credit of this football team, it did that. And I believe there are very few teams out there who could have come down this stretch and got it done like we got it done."
Whether Solich was lobbying or not for Nebraska's cause, one thing is certain: No one would have been asking him about the Huskers' national championship hopes had they not gotten it done in overtime.
Nebraska won the toss and chose to play defense, giving the Buffaloes first crack from the 25-yard line. The Buffaloes, who had rolled up 284 yards in the fourth quarter on 37 offensive plays and finished with a 504-400 edge in total yardage, kept the ball on the ground for three straight plays. Johnson picked up 7 yards on first down, then got 2 more on second down.
Colorado tried to bust fullback David Andrews up the middle, but he fumbled as he hit the pile. He recovered the loose ball, but got no gain out of the play, leaving the Buffaloes facing fourth-and-one from the 16-yard line.
"The problem with being on offense first is that you've got to go away with points," Barnett said. "We went third and one and didn't make it. That's the disadvantage of the overtime system in college football.
"The guy that goes second can take chances. The guys that go first can't. We had to get points and hopefully hold them to three points and come out and do our stuff again."
Colorado settled for Aldrich's 33-yard field goal- his sixth successful kick in his last seven attempts.
Nebraska opened its overtime possession with a 4-yard pass from Crouch to Davison. The Huskers then gave the ball to Alexander, who picked up 3 yards, and came back with fullback Willie Miller, who picked up 6 yards to the Colorado 12-yard line.
On the next play, Alexander got the final 11 yards of his career-high 180-yard total, busting several tackles before strong safety Michael Lewis wrestled him to the ground at the half-yard line.
For Alexander, the two runs in overtime provided some redemption to the pitch he dropped late in the fourth quarter. The fumble, Alexander's second of the game, kept the Huskers from possibly winning the game in regulation.
"When they had lined up for that last field goal (in regulation), it looked bleak," Alexander said. "And I was really down on myself. I felt I had really ruined an opportunity for us to win the game with that last fumble.
"It was satisfying to have those runs in overtime. I had a great game at the beginning but then things kind of tailed off. I started doubting myself. I just wanted one last chance to make something happen. I just wanted one more little burst of energy to make things right."
Crouch scored on the next play, following center Dominic Raiola and left guard James Sherman into the end zone. After a few seconds of delay, the officials signaled touchdown to touch off a subdued celebration among the Husker players.
"We knew what we had to do in the overtime period," Raiola said. "We didn't get things done in the second half but we got it done in overtime."
The Huskers were 15 minutes away from getting it done after dominating the Buffaloes for the first three quarters. Nebraska needed to run only five offensive plays in building a 14-0 lead three minutes into the game.
Alexander ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run on Nebraska's first play from scrimmage after Colorado had gambled and opened the game with an onside kick. The 245-pound junior carried Colorado safety Rashidi Barnes with him the final 15 yards.
The Huskers made it 14-0 when Alexander's 1-yard run capped a four-play, 60-yard drive on their next possession. Josh Brown and Aldrich traded field goals before Alexander struck again, ripping through the middle of Colorado's defense and then outrunning three Buffalo defenders, including speedster Ben Kelly, to the end zone on an 80-yard scoring run.
In addition to holding a 24-3 lead at halftime, Nebraska held a 312-117 advantage in total yardage. Alexander had 151 yards, on eight carries, at the break, while Crouch had 107 of his 123 yards in the first two quarters.
Brown's second field goal of the game, from 37 yards, gave Nebraska a 27-3 lead with 2:31 left in the third quarter. Aldrich opened the wild fourth period with a 49-yard field goal on the second play of the quarter before Moschetti went to work.
The sometimes erratic senior, who leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency, had completed just 9 of 24 passes for 150 yards in the first three quarter. In the final 15 minutes, Moschetti completed 12 of 17 throws for 188 yards, including touchdown passes of 14 yards to Minardi with 8:47 to play, 3 yards to Daniel Graham with 3:51 remaining and 21 yards to Green with 2:59 left.
"Moschetti was right on the money that entire quarter," Mike Brown said. "When he gets hot, there's not a lot you can do about it. You have to give them, and him, a lot of credit."
After Moschetti's scoring pass to Graham, the Buffaloes got the ball right back when Brown fumbled the onside kick.
"I could have ended it right there if I field that kick," Brown said. "But I let it bounce right off me. I should have had it and I didn't."
After Damen Wheeler recovered Brown's fumble- one of five Nebraska lost in the game -Moschetti needed just four plays to get Colorado the tying score, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
Nebraska emerged as the winner, running its Big 12 record to 7-1 and denying Kansas State a chance to play Texas in Saturday's championship game. The Huskers covet another shot at the Longhorns, who handed them their only defeat with a 24-20 loss in Austin on Oct. 23.
"Whatever happens with the BCS, so be it," Nebraska linebacker Tony Ortiz said. "Our focus is for Texas, on the Big 12 championship game. Anything else is out of our hands."