LAWRENCE -- Kansas' belief almost turned to disbelief Saturday night.
Exhorted by KU coach Terry Allen all week to just "believe" they could at last beat Nebraska, the Jayhawks threw a scare into the eighth-ranked Huskers before losing for the 31st consecutive year, 24-17.
"I wish," said KU wide receiver Michael Chandler, "you could get points for being close."
The Huskers didn't put up the winning points until wide receiver Bobby Newcombe, who in the third quarter had burned KU for an 86-yard punt return for touchdown, caught a 49-yard scoring pass to break a 17-17 tie with about 3 1/2 minutes
"Our guys believed all right," said Allen.
Certainly after leading 9-0 at halftime. It was hard to believe this was the same KU team that was booed off its home field a month ago while trailing San Diego State 31-0 at intermission.
"I'd like to start the season over again," said KU quarterback Dylen Smith.
Instead, this loss officially eliminates the 3-6 Jayhawks from a chance for a bowl game.
"I'd like to do everything over," said Smith.
Including the last series, when the Jayhawks got the ball back at their 29 with 53 seconds remaining and no timeouts.
Smith, who was at his creative best much of the night while throwing for two touchdowns, couldn't get the clock stopped. He found himself running on third down to the 38 as time expired instead of throwing away the ball.
"That's a junior-college quarterback who has to go through those things before we get better," said Allen. "But there was a lot to like about this one -- except the final score."
While this isn't the dominating Nebraska team of yesteryear that so often has crushed the Jayhawks, KU startled the Huskers by pushing them to the wire. Maybe even a since of panic at the thought of losing back-to-back games for the first
time since 1985.
"We were down a little at halftime," said Newcombe. "After losing to Texas last week and then this, we were a little shaken."
Largely because of KU's defense that set up a blocked punt for a safety and had the Huskers on the ropes most of the night.
"It's hard to fathom that was the same defense we saw early in the year," said Allen.
An old nemesis, however, came back to bite the Jayhawks. NU quarterback Eric Crouch found a crack in KU's zone coverage and went deep to Newcombe, who made the grab at the 10 on the way to the 49-yard scoring play and the 24-17
Newcombe was open because free safety Carl Nesmith left him open. The irony there is KU's defense has improved dramatically the last two weeks when Nesmith was inserted in the starting lineup.
"Carl makes some tremendous hits," said Allen, "but sometimes he doesn't stay home."
Apparently it was a matter of choosing the wrong side of the field. The Huskers flooded the zone with four wideouts -- two on each side.
"I had to make a choice," said Nesmith, who was a wide receiver and kick returner for Butler County Community College the last two seasons. "Go right or go left."
He chose his right. Crouch threw to Nesmith's left.
"It wasn't a blown coverage or anything," said Nesmith. "It was just a good play for the defense we were in. That's the weakness of that zone.
"But I wasn't upset or anything. We still had plenty of time and I thought we could do something. I wasn't that impressed with Nebraska."
Allen had used Nebraska's vulnerability and KU's shutout victory over Missouri last week to try and convince his troops this was the year the Jayhawks could snap Nebraska's stranglehold.
Indeed, KU had the Huskers choking most of the night after bolting to a 9-0 lead in the first half.
The Huskers appeared to have regained their footing in this game with Newcombe's 86-yard punt return for a touchdown for a 10-9 lead with about two minutes left in the third period.
NU came right back with a 53-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, finishing with Crouch scoring on an eight-yard option run for a 17-9 lead.
But the Jayhawks weren't ready to give up the fight.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, KU wide receiver Chandler just managed to keep his feet inbounds as he caught a pass from Smith, then raced 77 yards down the sidelines for the touchdown.
"I kept running thinking I was probably looking like an idiot if I had stepped out of bounds," said Chandler. "I stayed on the tight rope without falling off."
Chandler then snagged a pass from Smith for the two-point conversion, tying the game at 17.
NU had a chance to quickly break the tie, but Josh Brown missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt with about nine minutes left.
Nebraska grabbed its first points on Brown's 31-yard field goal early in the third quarter. But even then the Huskers stubbed their toes.
After getting inside KU's 10, the Huskers were called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that led to them having to settle for three points instead of a touchdown.
In leading 9-0 at halftime, the Jayhawks had already scored only one less point on Nebraska than they had combined in the previous four games.
It was the first time KU had led the Huskers at intermission since being up 20-17 in 1991. And it was the first KU lead on Nebraska at any time in the game since 1993, when the Jayhawks lost at home, 21-20.
But KU didn't just slough its way to Saturday's early lead. The Jayhawks were plenty convincing in piling up 12 first downs to NU's three in the first half while allowing the Huskers' only 69 yards in total offense.
All this against a Nebraska team that came into the night having outscored its opponents 138-13 in the first half.
"One Nebraska player told me after a play, 'Hey, we need to pick it up,' " said KU defensive end Dion Rayford. "I told him, 'Yeah, we've got you. We believe.' "
Meanwhile, with Smith hitting all five of his pass attempts, KU drove 79 yards for a touchdown in the second period. Smith finished it off with a 22-yard strike to wide-open tight end David Hurst for the 9-0 lead.
KU's offense was so consistent that its only turnover was an interception thrown by tailback Henri Childs.
But it was the Jayhawks' defense that repeatedly came up with the big plays.
Those included back-to-back sacks in the first quarter that set up a safety when Matt Jordan blocked a Nebraska punt out of the back of the end zone.
Actually, it all began when Brandon Wier downed a KU punt at the Huskers' 3. Marcus Rogers and Chaz Murphy then sacked Crouch on consecutive plays to leave the Huskers at fourth-and-11 inside their one.
Jordan crashed through to block Dan Hadenrfeldt's punt for KU's fourth blocked kick of the season.
It was the same sort of play KU had in mind a couple of weeks ago at Texas A&M. But a controversial roughing-the-kicker penalty was called on KU, giving the Aggies a first down on the play.
The closest Nebraska came to scoring in the first half was when Brown missed a 41-yard field goal with about a minute left before intermission.