NU wins classic between storied programs
BY KEN HAMBLETON Lincoln Journal Star
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Somehow, in overtime, with two Irish defenders on him, Tracey Wistrom managed to catch Eric Crouch's attention and a grab a 9-yard pass on third down Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
Crouch found the junior tight end over the middle and fired a bullet for a Husker first down. Two plays later, the NU quarterback ran 7 yards for the game-winning touchdown in No. 1 Nebraska's 27-24 victory against Notre Dame.
"I read his eyes and thought he was going out," Crouch said of the key pass. "Then I saw him hook in the middle and all I had to do was get the ball there. He has such great hands and is such a great athlete, I knew he'd get the first down. The rest we knew we could do with our blocking."
This pass and catch wasn't as flashy as the overtime pass, kick and catch that gave Nebraska a victory in Missouri in 1997. It wasn't as lucky as the missed 34-yard field goal attempt by Colorado's Jeremy Aldrich at the end of regulation in Boulder, Colo., last fall.
Much like the fall from No. 1 after the Missouri miracle in 1997, the heroics Saturday may not be enough to keep the Huskers on top of the polls.
Only six voters need to switch Nebraska and Florida State atop the polls for the Seminoles to take over No. 1. Two Associated Press voters at the game said they would drop Nebraska for the narrow escape against Notre Dame, ranked No. 23.
Nebraska head coach Frank Solich defended his team.
"I don't think an average team could come in here, come back and pull it out," he said. "I feel comfortable, and I know where they are ranked in my mind."
Asked if his team was going to improve because of the "test," Solich joked, "Personally, I'd like to go through the season without any tests."
Trailing 24-21 after Notre Dame kicked a field goal in overtime, the Huskers faced third down-and-9 at the Notre Dame 24-yard line. Wistrom lined up in the "71-2 spread-option," ran to the middle of the field near the 10-yard line, looked to go outside, but stayed in the middle and "hooked."
"I could see that Eric could see there was a linebacker between us and I didn't think I could get the ball," Wistrom said. "Then, the opening broke in front of me, he fired the ball in there, and I knew I had to get a couple of yards for the first down."
Crouch, who scored three touchdowns, ran for 80 yards and passed for 103 more, said the third-down pass in overtime was the play of the game.
"That was the biggest play of the game because everybody was dragging," Crouch said. "It was hot, humid, Notre Dame had gotten all the momentum and we hadn't been moving the ball in the fourth quarter."
Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie said the pass surprised him.
"The most critical play of the game was the third-and-9 when Nebraska completed the pass to the tight end," he said. "I thought they were going with a quarterback draw or to the fullback. But the bottom line is that we didn't win and that's all that matters."
If the third-down pass was the biggest play, the sack by Nebraska defensive tackle Jeremy Slechta on third down in overtime - forcing the Irish to kick a field goal - was the second-biggest.
"I knew we'd be in a world of trouble if I broke down on my assignment on that play," Slechta said. "We were bringing everybody blitzing on that play, and if I don't keep my lane, he might be gone and in the end zone."
But Slechta slammed Notre Dame quarterback Arnaz Battle for a 7-yard loss at the Nebraska 11-yard line, and Irish kicker Nick Setta kicked a 29-yard field goal to put Notre Dame ahead 24-21 on its first and only try in overtime.
The fact Nebraska had to win in overtime was surprising to Solich and his team.
"We were in pretty good control, and if we score one more in there, well, this is a very different game," said Solich, who is 2-0 in overtime games. "But we had what looked to me like two complete collapses on kick coverage and the game was tied."
Notre Dame (1-1) battled Nebraska well and trailed the Huskers 14-7 at halftime. Nebraska was showing its power by running for 162 yards and had 218 yards of total offense in the first two quarters.
The Huskers ran through Notre Dame on a 59-yard, four-play drive that Dan Alexander finished with a 28-yard touchdown run to go ahead 21-7 with 8:47 left in the third quarter.
But lightning struck in the form of Julius Jones, who eluded even the touch of all Husker defenders but kicker Dan Hadenfeldt while racing 100 yards for a score.
Nebraska's next drive ended when a pass from Crouch to Judd Davies bounced off the fullback's hands and into the arms of Notre Dame's Shane Walton. The Husker defense held but so did Notre Dame, and Nebraska punted from its 37-yard line.
Joey Getherall, who was the full-time Irish kick returner last year, stepped to his right, then broke to the left, eluded Nebraska's punt team and punter Hadenfeldt, and sprinted untouched 83 yards to tie the game with 12:48 left.
Nebraska's offense almost disappeared in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame's defense held the Huskers to 16 yards on their last 15 plays of regulation. Crouch said that the lack of success with the running game actually helped in overtime.
"They figured we'd be running something different for that touchdown in overtime because they had stopped us so well, but that's just what we scored on - option keeper," he said.
Solich said he might have been too conservative in the fourth quarter.
"We were running power and option and maybe could have thrown more, but we thought something would break open and it never did," he said. "Maybe we played it too safe, but they had all the momentum from those kick returns and college football is very big on momentum."
Davies thought the same thing in the fourth quarter when he called for Battle to try a pass on fourth-and-1 at the Nebraska 30 with 6:48 left. Battle, who ran for 107 yards, had completed just 3 of 13 passes, and one of those was to Nebraska's Joe Walker, before the fourth-down attempt.
On it's next possession, Notre Dame had to punt with 3:12 left in regulation after two holding calls negated 13 yards in gains.
"We played a heck of a defensive game," Nebraska linebacker Carlos Polk said. "This was a big step up for the defense. Their quarterback made some yards, but they were on broken plays and they really didn't add up to anything on the scoreboard. Our secondary forced those broken plays by covering everybody all game long."
Notre Dame completed three passes for 40 yards, including a 25-yarder to Jabari Holloway in the third quarter.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl agreed with Polk.
"The secondary rose up and really came through, especially on third down," he said. Notre Dame converted just three of 12 third downs.
"The defense answered the gut check in the overtime when we had to keep Notre Dame out of the end zone," Bohl said. "They handled the pressure and allowed us to send everything and the kitchen sink on that last play in overtime. That's a risk you don't take if you don't have confidence."
Crouch said he has more confidence than ever in his teammates.
"The Colorado game was a blowout and we won in overtime last year," he said. "This was getting like a blowout and we won in overtime. We went through the same huge momentum shift today as we did a year ago. That says a lot about a team in how they respond to the drastic changes in a game. How you react is the key. I thought we reacted well. We won."
The Huskers could have made it easier on themselves but had long first-quarter drives stall on fourth down at the Notre Dame 20 and 29 before Crouch ended a three-play scoring drive with a 62-yard option keeper around the right end with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska scored the next time it had the ball. A 65-yard, 15-play drive - with just one pass - ended on a grinding Crouch run on fourth down from the Notre Dame 1.
"It was a good start and a very good finish," Crouch said. "It looked like there was a big fight for tickets and a lot of Nebraska fans won. It looked like it was going to be a fight to the finish on the field, and we won that. Everybody should be happy."
Reach Ken Hambleton at 473-7436 or firstname.lastname@example.org