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Huskers turn defensive in victory
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Huskers turn defensive in victory

By BLAIR KERKHOFF - The Kansas City Star
Date: 09/18/99 22:54

LINCOLN, Neb. -- By taking a defensive posture, fourth-ranked Nebraska avoided a huge upset.

The Cornhuskers held off Southern Mississippi 20-13 Saturday in a game that had nervous Nebraska fans pulling for a fast clock down the stretch.

No rear-view mirror view of the opponent this weekend for the Huskers, 3-0, who had outscored Iowa and California by a combined 87-7 in their first two games.

This time, the longest running and catching plays for the Cornhuskers were provided by linebacker Julius Jackson, who returned a fumble 16 yards for Nebraska's first score and an interception 28 yards for the game-winner.

"I think they need to move me to offense," Jackson said.

The Cornhuskers endured a season's worth of offensive shake-ups -- running back DeAngelo Evans quit, and there was a quarterback shuffle -- in the last week. Southern Mississippi's defense was better than anything Nebraska had seen this season, but the Cornhuskers also tried to doom themselves.

Even as the final seconds ticked down, a dysfunctional offense couldn't get a kneel-down right. Nothing like the disaster at Baylor last weekend, but quarterback Eric Crouch had to recover a hurried exchanged that rolled on the carpet at the Huskers' 4 with less than a minute remaining.

With an offense that produced a mere 185 total yards, eight first downs and 2.9 yards per rushing play and committed five turnovers, Nebraska turned the day over to a defense that was up to the task.

The Cornhuskers forced six turnovers and allowed only two short-field touchdowns. Cornerback Keyou Craver's interception, his second of the game, on the Nebraska 2 with 1:21 remaining sealed the impression that, at least early on, the Cornhuskers will go as far as the defense takes them.

"You can't win championships without great defense," said Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride. "I told our guys, `I think I could line you guys up anywhere and you'd win.' "

Crouch, who was chosen the starting quarterback in the last week but generated little offense, was especially grateful.

"I went around to the defensive guys after the game to thank them and tell them next week (at Missouri) we'll try to make it easier on them," Crouch said.

Nebraska's five turnovers were bad enough. Throw in a clip on a kickoff return that brought back a touchdown and a dropped pass in the end zone by a wide-open Bobby Newcombe, the former starting quarterback playing his first game at wingback in two seasons, and the day could have been a disaster for a team with designs on the national championship.

"Someone said, `Coach, you knocked them out of the top 10,' " said Southern Mississippi coach Jeff Bower. "I say give us a little credit."

Give the Eagles more than a little credit. Southern Miss held Nebraska to fewer total yards than Division I-AA Northwestern State gained (336) last weekend. Most of the afternoon, the defense outmuscled Nebraska's offensive line and never let the Cornhuskers turn the corner on the option.

Nebraska harassed quarterback Jeff Kelly all day, sacked him five times, and he hung tough with 268 passing yards.

"They hassle you and get in your face," Kelly said. "They got the best of me sometimes."

But Kelly fired two touchdown passes, the second a 5-yarder to Sherrod Gideon in the third quarter that gave the Eagles a 13-12 lead. The way Nebraska was moving -- with no play longer than 14 yards for 31/2 quarters -- Southern Miss could sense an upset.

The feeling ended on the Eagles' next possession, Craver tipped Kelly's pass, and the ball fell into Jackson's arms at the 28. Touchdown. The assist on Jackson's first score went to rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who forced the fumble.

"We felt like we had to win the game," Jackson said. "It was like a dream game for any defensive player."

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