The call surprised Notre Dame coach Bob Davie.
After all, it was Nebraska, and in overtime, trailing 24-21 with a third-and-9 from the Notre Dame 24, the Nebraska thing to do would be to run a little play-action to set up a quarterback draw. With Nebraska in a timeout, that's what Davie told his team. Watch out for the quarterback draw, guys, it's a very Nebraska thing to do.
Nebraska coach Frank Solich chose to do something that was not a very Nebraska thing to do. Solich's Nebraskan instincts told him the best way to get 9 yards is to put your helmet down and run till you stop. That's just how Nebraska football is.
But Solich decided to go against his instinct. He decided to let quarterback Eric Crouch pass.
On the play, tight end Tracey Wistrom was the primary receiver, coming underneath through the middle of the field, about 6 yards deep. Beyond Wistrom, wideout Matt Davison was running a square-in. Solich thought Wistrom was getting jammed and Crouch would have to look for Davison. As Crouch dropped back, Davie was waiting for him to tuck and run. Solich was waiting for him to throw for Davison.
Crouch had other ideas. He saw Wistrom's eyes, saw that Wistrom would get free and break outside. Crouch zipped a pass to Wistrom, who caught it, turned upfield and was tackled at the 15.
A 9-yard gain.
An 8-yard run by tailback Dan Alexander and a 7-yard touchdown run by Crouch gave the Huskers a 27-24 win, but after the game, it was the third-down pass that lingered.
It was so un-Nebraska.
"Offensively, we try to do that," Crouch says. "We come option, option, option. I am sure they thought we would run an option again. Any time we do throw it, it surprises everyone."
Surprise, surprise: The Huskers can throw the ball. Turns out they simply choose not to. Nebraska actually spends hours each week working on the passing game, setting up spread formations, letting Crouch drop back, make reads and throw the ball like a normal quarterback.
Problem is, a normal quarterback does not have 4.47 speed in the 40-yard dash. A normal quarterback does not lower his head and bull forward like a fullback when being tackled. A normal quarterback slides.
Problem is, Eric Crouch is not a normal quarterback.
But Crouch does not have to be a normal quarterback for the Huskers to be successful. He is much better off sticking with the Nebraska thing to do.
Few understand the Nebraska thing to do better than Crouch, who grew up in Omaha, a Cornhusker all the way. Playing quarterback for Nebraska seems to have been Crouch's destiny because Nebraska has not used a normal quarterback in 20 years, and Crouch is so marvelously abnormal.
It was Crouch's arm that set up Nebraska's winning touchdown against the Irish, just like a normal quarterback, but it is his legs that are most vital to Nebraska's season.
There is a photo, the subject of much controversy, on the wall of Fred Petito's office at Millard North High School in Omaha. The picture is five years old.
It shows Mustangs quarterback Eric Crouch in a game against Millard South, rounding the right side of the line with back Tyler Cotten running alongside, no defenders within 10 yards of Cotten.
It was an option play -- Millard North runs almost exclusively from an option-based wingbone set -- and Crouch did not pitch. To this day, he maintains Cotten was too far behind him to take the pitch. Cotten disagrees. The photo was taken at an odd angle and is inconclusive.
"He should have pitched, trust me," Cotten says.
This is where Eric Crouch comes to stay humble, here in the middle-class, strip-mall environs of northwestern Omaha. When Crouch goes home, he sneaks into the back door of the Millard North gym and has a seat in Petito's office. Here, the Nebraska quarterback, one of the state's most famous people, becomes regular.
"When he is around, we give him a lot of grief," Petito says. "Hey, that's the price of fame."
Crouch gets grief for his failure to pitch to Cotten. He gets grief for the first time he walked into the Millard North gym, a skinny and quiet kid with a Florida Marlins hat pulled hard over his eyes. He gets grief for his early popularity among his high school teammates -- he was one of the few who had a driver's license at age 15.
Most of all, though, he gets grief for his role in the musical review "Surprise" at the Omaha Jewish Community Center, in which Crouch sang a solo called "10th Street Bridge."
A singing quarterback?
"I go home a lot, I get homesick," Crouch says. "It reminds me that there are more important things out there, people who care about you no matter how the games go. It keeps things in perspective."
The humiliation Crouch gets in Petito's office, though, is also a sign of respect. Crouch is an easy person to get along with, laid-back and honest, and he has not changed much since high school, off the field and on. After spending his first year and a half at Millard North as a cornerback, Crouch became the team's quarterback during his sophomore year, running the option.
In his junior year, Crouch ran for 1,960 yards and threw for 785, and it was clear he would be a perfect fit as the Cornhuskers quarterback. He was a Parade All-American as a senior despite missing three games with an ankle injury.
That ankle injury, in fact, was the source of some of the only trash-talking Crouch has ever done. In a game against Omaha North, a defender grabbed Crouch by the ankle and twisted to bring him down. Crouch knew it was a cheap shot, and when he got up after the tackle, he glared at the defender.
"You don't want to do that," he said.
"He has that glare," Petito says. "He does not talk to the other team, never. That's not his style. But he can give you that glare, and that's it."
Petito's office is also a place of solace for Crouch. At the beginning of last season, Crouch lost the starting quarterback job to Bobby Newcombe, and Crouch did not take the news well.
Before Nebraska's third game last season, Newcombe volunteered to move to wingback, and Crouch became the Nebraska starter.
But when Crouch had first learned of the decision to make him a backup, he was angry. He drove back to Omaha, wondering what he should do, whether playing football was really what he wanted, whether he should just quit and do something else that did not come with such hassles. Solich went to Omaha to explain to Crouch that he still would have a place in the offense, that he still belonged with the Huskers.
When Solich found Crouch, he was in Petito's office.
With first-and-10 from its 38 in the first quarter of a scoreless game against the Irish last Saturday, running an option around the right side was a very Nebraska thing to do. But this was a very Eric Crouch thing to do: Tight end Aaron Golliday lined up on the wrong side of the field, so Crouch walked over, tapped Golliday on the butt and moved him to the opposite side. When Crouch got under center, he noticed the Notre Dame defense did not adjust properly to Golliday's move.
When Crouch took the snap, he faked a fullback handoff, ran to the spot where Golliday had been, hit the seam and cut upfield. He ran through a tackle attempt by Irish linebacker Rocky Boiman and then went untouched, 62 yards, into the end zone for the first of his three rushing touchdowns.
"We were misaligned," Davie says. "He traded the tight end, and the call was a belly option, and we were not in position. Give credit to the quarterback, he noticed that."
This is the kind of thing Nebraska's not-so-normal quarterback can do, take a busted defense and turn it into a touchdown. Nebraska has two great tailbacks, Alexander and Correll Buckhalter, but it is Crouch who can break a defense.
"To defend them, you have got to stop the quarterback," Davie says. "No question, you have got to make him pitch it and make them beat you with their other backs. When No. 7 is on the field, there is always the threat of him taking it to the house on you."
Crouch likes to pass, but as Davie points out, it is his running ability and his ability to slip through defenses like mercury that make him dangerous. Having entered this season as the starting quarterback, without the controversy of last year, has allowed Crouch to be much more confident in his approach to games. He can afford to make mistakes without being afraid of getting pulled. He can afford to put the ball in the air and -- as Petito will tell you, as Solich will tell you -- he has the ability to do so.
But he won't. Not at Nebraska.
In the third quarter against the Irish, after Nebraska had taken a 21-7 lead on a 28-yard touchdown run by Alexander, Notre Dame's Julius Jones returned the kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The Huskers drove to the Notre Dame 35 on their next possession, but Crouch was intercepted when he threw a wobbly pass to fullback Judd Davies in the flat.
That placed momentum in Notre Dame's favor, and Nebraska attempted only four more passes in regulation, though the Irish shut down the Huskers' option game.
With Notre Dame's defense so effective against the run, it would have made sense to let Crouch throw. But that would not be a Nebraska thing to do, and one thing that was obvious in Saturday's win is that this season the Huskers, for the most part, will stick with a traditional Nebraska game plan.
"There was a stretch where we were moving the ball against them, and that came and went," Solich says. "Maybe we need to mix it up more.
"But Eric is an excellent runner, and we have powerful tailbacks, and just because you stop us on one, two, or three option plays, we're going to come back with another because we only need to break one. It has nothing to do with not believing in Eric Crouch's passing. But you cannot have a power option game and be a passing team. There are only so many plays in a game."
Of course, for Crouch, most of those plays will be on the ground, just like back at Millard North. But this is normal for Nebraska, and a tepid passing game is no reason the Huskers can't win a national championship.
Crouch finished with 1,269 yards passing last season despite not starting the first two games. In 1994, Nebraska won a championship with Brook Berringer leading the team with 1,295 yards passing. In 1995, it was another championship, with Tommie Frazier passing for 1,362. In 1997, Scott Frost led the team to a championship with 1,237 yards passing.
Expect Crouch to have similar passing numbers. And, maybe, a national championship.
"I would like to pass more, sure," he says. "I am a quarterback. But I know what this offense is about, and I know this is the offense for me. I work on passing all the time, but I know that's not our style.
"If we start passing, we won't win."
Sean Deveney is a staff writer for The Sporting News.