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Keith Whitmire's Big 12 column

Irish prove Huskers are vulnerable


By Keith Whitmire / The Dallas Morning News

The eerie silence outside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday said it all.

After all the hype and hoopla surrounding Nebraska vs. Notre Dame, neither Domers nor Huskers felt like rekindling their pre-game chants of "Let's Go Irish" and "Huskers Home Game."

This was the Superman vs. Captain Marvel of the college football world. Two historic titans whose universes came together for a brief period. It was a terrific game, an overtime thriller that ended with top-ranked Nebraska winning, 27-24. Yet there was little celebration afterward.

The hot, humid weather had something to do with it, but so did the performance of the teams. Notre Dame fans were too proud to celebrate a close loss. There are no moral victories when you're Notre Dame.

Nebraska fans were just as quiet. Their seemingly invulnerable Superteam had just escaped a minefield of Irish-green kryptonite. Notre Dame, a 131/2-point underdog, gave Nebraska much more of a game than anyone expected. And they gave the rest of the Big 12 some hope.

Nebraska could have been beaten Saturday, and there are better teams than Notre Dame in the Big 12.

This wasn't your father's Fighting Irish; this was a Notre Dame team struggling to reclaim its heritage as a college football power. Notre Dame managed to take Nebraska to overtime with the unsure arm of quarterback Arnaz Battle, whose first four passes hit Huskers hands, the last resulting in an interception.

Notre Dame finished with just 40 yards passing. Can you imagine if Notre Dame had a quarterback who could throw like Oklahoma's Josh Heupel? Or either one of Texas' two quarterbacks?

Of course, the only reason Notre Dame was in the ballgame was because of a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns. Somewhere in the fortress of Manhattan, Kan., Kansas State return man David Allen must have seen that and worked even harder to rehab his injured ankle.

And Nebraska's offense, with its mountain-movers up front, managed to get into the end zone just once in the second half. Only a couple of times did Nebraska's offensive line sweep aside the Irish defense with the authority the Huskers showed in last season's Fiesta Bowl win over Tennessee.

Nebraska's final regulation touchdown was the kind we had come to expect, with the offensive line pushing the Irish to one sideline so that stocky I-back Dan Alexander could rumble in from 28 yards.

But after that, the Irish seemed to figure out how to slow down Nebraska's offense. Nebraska kept pounding away with its trademark power football, but sorely lacked the flash necessary to make all those up-the-middle plays pay off.

Quarterback Eric Crouch can make tacklers miss, but all of the Huskers' running backs are boulders like Alexander (6-0, 245) with plenty of muscle but not much elusiveness. The one player with real breakaway potential, wingback Bobby Newcombe, was barely heard from Saturday.

Newcombe, the former quarterback, touched the ball just five times: two rushes, one catch and two punt returns. If Nebraska is going to make it to the Orange Bowl this year, the Huskers will have to find a way to get the ball into Newcombe's hands.

There were whispers of concern about the defense after Nebraska's opening win over San Jose State. Against Notre Dame, Nebraska's defense was up to the task. It was the special teams that broke down and the offense that faltered in the second half.

The rest of the Big 12 has to think, "Hey, we've got a shot." Kansas State, with its superb special teams, certainly could have beaten the Huskers on Saturday. Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M have quarterbacks who are much better passing threats than Notre Dame's Battle, who was 3-for-15.

Although Husker fans turned South Bend into Lincoln, Indiana, on Saturday, Nebraska's two biggest Big 12 contests, Oklahoma and Kansas State, are both on the road.

Nebraska still has the talent to finish undefeated, but as Notre Dame has already proven, it may not be an easy road.

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(c) 2000 The Dallas Morning News