'Cats top 'Huskers in seesaw battle
SportsLine wire reports
SAN DIEGO -- This was the Holiday Bowl, so something dramatic was bound to happen. Arizona's Dennis Northcutt was counting on it.
Keith Smith threw for one fourth-quarter touchdown and scrambled to set up the game-winning, 1-yard plunge by Kelvin Eafon with 6:08 to go as the No. 5 Wildcats beat No. 14 Nebraska 23-20 Wednesday night.
Just when Nebraska and Arizona were settling into a defensive struggle, the Holiday Bowl reverted to its wild past. There were three lead changes in the final 15 minutes, some long passes and long runs, and finally, a big interception by All-American Chris McAlister.
McAlister capped a big game with a leaping interception of Eric Crouch's pass with 3:03 left. McAlister jumped in front of Shevin Wiggins at about the 8 and returned it 22 yards.
"He's made big plays all year," Crouch said. "He made the play on the ball."
NEBRASKA HAD ONE FINAL DESPERATION shot, but McAlister deflected Crouch's pass as time expired.
Arizona (12-1) padded its school-record victory total after being knocked out of the Rose Bowl when UCLA was upset by Miami Dec. 5.
This was more like the years when the Holiday Bowl made stars of Jim McMahon and Steve Young, when Barry Sanders ran wild, when crazy plays and flukey finishes made the bowl one of the nation's most exciting.
A Holiday Bowl-record crowd of 65,354 saw a rarity -- Nebraska's first four-loss season in 30 years. The Cornhuskers finished 9-4 under first-year coach Frank Solich, who replaced Hall of Famer Tom Osborne.
"We're not going to go back to Nebraska with our heads down," Solich said.
Smith, who with Ortege Jenkins forms Arizona's quarterback tandem, led the Wildcats 68 yards to the winning score. He had scrambles of 20 yards, 8 yards on a third-and-6 and then 7 yards to the Cornhuskers 1 to set up Eafon's TD.
TOMEY SAID THE WILDCATS scrapped two-thirds of their running plays at halftime, including the ineffective quarterback draw, and let Smith improvise, which he did on the winning drive.
"They played man-to-man coverage and blitzed a linebacker and that left a wide-open hole for me to run a couple of times," Smith said. "I was just taking what they gave me, and just got my legs into it a little bit."
Arizona went ahead 16-13 on Smith's 15-yard pass to Brad Brennan, who made a fingertip catch before tumbling into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Wildcats converted one fourth down and one third down on the 66-yard drive.
McAlister had a chance to really swing the momentum when he intercepted Crouch's pass deep in Nebraska territory, but split end Kenny Cheatham forced McAlister to fumble, and recovered it.
Nebraska went on to complete the eight-play, 88-yard drive thanks to two big catches by tight end Tracey Wistrom, including a 4-yard TD pass from Crouch with 10:55 left for a 20-16 lead. Wistrom, who had just two catches in the regular season, had a 33-yard catch three plays before the score.
THE CORNHUSKERS' OPTION GAME continued to struggle, and their 87 rushing yards was their second-lowest total of the season.
The Cornhuskers did get hot right before halftime, scoring 13 points in the final 4:58 of the second quarter to take a 13-9 lead. It was the first time all year that Arizona trailed at halftime.
The defense was already well on the way to holding Arizona to just nine yards in the second quarter when Chad Kelsay forced Ortege Jenkins to fumble, which Loran Kaiser recovered at the Arizona 34. That set up Kris Brown's 25-yard field goal.
Crouch threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Shevin Wiggins for a 10-9 lead. Nebraska got the ball right back when Billy Legate hit kick returner Dennis Northcutt head-on, forcing a fumble and recovering it at the Arizona 9. Brown kicked a 23-yard field goal as time expired.
WIGGINS ATONED FOR FUMBLING a punt in the game's opening minutes, which McAlister recovered to set up the first of Mark McDonald's three field goals.
Arizona had two touchdowns called back due to penalties and another scoring chance negated, all in the game's first 18 minutes. The biggest one came on special teams, when Dennis Northcutt caught Bill Lafleur's punt and handed off to McAlister, who was sprung by Derek Hall's block and raced 75 yards for an apparent touchdown. But Hall's hit on Brian Shaw was deemed an illegal block in the back and the play came back. TV replays seemed to indicate a legal block.
Arizona's Trung Canidate gained 101 yards on 22 carries.
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