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Nebraska survives Irish upset bid
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Nebraska survives Irish upset bid

By BLAIR KERKHOFF - The Kansas City Star
Date: 09/09/00 22:15

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Many happy returns for Notre Dame nearly awoke the echoes of Irish glory and cost top-ranked Nebraska its dream of a perfect season.

But the Cornhuskers found a way to avoid kicking to Notre Dame -- by forcing overtime, when there are no returns -- and defeated the Irish in a 27-24 thriller.

The unexpectedly close outcome may cost Nebraska in the polls, but that didn't seem to matter to the Cornhuskers, who felt grateful just to escape with a victory when the momentum clearly was with Notre Dame most of the fourth quarter.

"It shows a lot about our team, because a lot of teams would have folded in the situation we were in," Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch said. "You have to go undefeated to win a national championship anyway and we still are."

The Huskers are despite losing a 21-7 second-half lead when Julius Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and, nine minutes later, Joey Getherall went 83 untouched yards on a punt return for another score.

Remarkably, the Irish, who were outgained by more than 2-1 at that point, had pulled even with 12 minutes, 48 seconds remaining and Nebraska was about to become another chapter in Notre Dame lore. The 23rd-ranked Irish had defeated three of the past four top-ranked teams it faced.

In overtime, Nebraska made sure it wouldn't become another victim because of two game-breaking plays, the first on defense, then on offense.

The Huskers won the coin toss and gave Notre Dame the ball. The Irish moved from the 25 to the 4, where on fourth down, quarterback Arnaz Battle, largely ineffective Saturday except on broken plays, was flushed out of the pocket. Waiting for him was Nebraska defensive end Jeremy Slechta. The sack forced the Irish to settle for a field goal.

"I bounced out as I saw the play develop, and I was the only one out there," Slechta said. "I just broke down and tried to get enough of him."

A field goal appeared to be the Cornhuskers' fate when their first two plays produced 1 yard. But on third down, Crouch found tight end Tracey Wistrom open in the middle and a catch and lunge produced 9 yards and a first down.

"The biggest play of the game, I thought," Crouch said.

Interesting observation coming from a guy who rushed for three touchdowns, including the game-winner from 8 yards two plays later. Crouch went left, beat Notre Dame defenders to the pylon and was mobbed by teammates in front of the Irish student cheering section.

It wasn't as stylish as his 62-yarder that opened the scoring, or as bullish as his 1-yard slam on fourth down in the second quarter. But it got the job done.

"I like our chances with the ball in Eric's hands and blocks out in front of him," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said.

Based on the negative fan reaction, Notre Dame's chances for victory ended before overtime. The Irish forced a Nebraska punt and got the ball on their 30 with 1:07 and three timeouts remaining. But instead of mounting an attack, Notre Dame coach Bob Davie was content to have Battle keep it for two plays and take the game to the extra period.

Fans booed, and one Irish player, Getherall, slapped his helmet with both hands in a "I can't believe we're doing this" gesture. But Davie said he had his reason, and his name was Battle, who was starting the third game of his career.

"We have a young quarterback, there's one minute left, the ball's on our 30," Davie said. "That's why we run draws and shuffle passes there."

Battle completed only three of 15 passes, and Nebraska's defense had played well all afternoon. But as the Davie criticism mounts in the face of eight losses in the previous 14 games over two seasons, playing the percentages was the safe but unpopular choice Saturday. Davie believed the Irish could carry the momentum into overtime.

"After we returned the kickoff, there wasn't a player on our team who didn't think we were going to win the game," Davie said. "You always talk about getting the momentum, and we did that. We just couldn't hang on."

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