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Sept. 21, 2001, 11:15AM

Rice overwhelmed by No. 4 Nebraska

Crouch accounts for five scores in 48-3 rout

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Deep down Rice may have known that the postponement of its game with Nebraska was simply a delaying of the inevitable, and the inevitable could be ugly.

It is unlikely if the Owls knew how ugly, ugly could be. But amidst the unpleasantness of the game, there was a certain beauty in the experience that the Owls will always cherish.

Associated Press
Nebraska's Wilson Thomas beats Rice's Raymorris Barnes to score on a 42-yard pass from Eric Crouch in the first half.
After a Saturday of silence -- the shutdown of Division-I college football in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks on the East Coast -- Rice returned to the field five days later than scheduled to only to run into an eager Nebraska squad anxious to find a diversion from the recent tragic events.

With its stingy defense and virtually unstoppable offense, Nebraska's diversion turned into a three-hour party, as the Cornhuskers rolled to a 48-3 win Thursday night before a celebratory crowd of 77,344 at Memorial Stadium.

While the evening was not nearly as enjoyable for the Owls, in many ways, simply getting back on the field was more important to the teams and fans than the final score.

One other game was played Thursday night, and most of the rest of the country's teams return to action on Saturday.

"The feeling was amazing -- before the game and afterward," Rice quarterback Kyle Herm said. "Everybody was on one team. It was good to show unity as Americans. We're all on one side. It was beautiful."

The teams acknowledged that fact by sharing a group prayer following the game and then in an unprecedented show of unity, players exchanged helmet decals, with Rice players giving up their wings for the red "N" of Nebraska.

After an emotional pre-game ceremony in which the two teams entered the field to silence and shared tears with fans while singing the national anthem, one wondered how the game would be played from an emotion standpoint.

But the overflow crowd helped set the tone by reaching a fever pitch from the opening kickoff and forcing Rice into a couple of illegal procedure penalties and two near safeties on its first possession.

"It's hard to simulate the noise because we don't have that big of a crowd," Rice coach Ken Hatfield said. "That was a factor. There wasn't any doubt about it."

The Cornhuskers took over from there.

The Owls' only hope on the road against the Cornhuskers would be a letdown by the nation's No. 4 ranked team, but with senior quarterback Eric Crouch leading the way, Nebraska was nearly flawless.

Nebraska (4-0) wasted no time in establishing its dominance, as none of its seven touchdown drives lasted as long as four minutes.

Crouch completed 9-of-11 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 97 yards on 12 carries and another two scores before leaving the game early in the third quarter with Nebraska leading 42-0.

"He was very accurate, at least tonight," Rice safety Jason Hebert said. "I didn't expect him to be that on, but he was. It seemed like every pass he threw was right on the money."

Rice (2-1) did have the best rushing day of any Nebraska opponent this season, gaining 196 yards on 47 carries. Robbie Beck led the way with 67 yards on four carries. The Huskers' top-ranked run defense had allowed only 74 yards in three games.

The Owls' biggest problem offensively was when it needed to complete a pass, it could not. Herm completed just 3-of-12 passes for 61 yards, while freshman backup Greg Henderson, who played the second and fourth quarters, was 5-for-13 for 108 yards and two interceptions.

The Owls averted a shutout with Brandon Skeen's 25-yard field goal with 7:49 left in the game. Henderson hit to Gilbert Okoronkwo for a 30-yard gain to the Nebraska 11 to set up the score.

Henderson also led a late trek inside the Huskers' five, but was picked off by Carl Scholting with 1:09 to play, ending the threat.

This was not a good night for Rice to struggle offensively.

There was little the Owls could do against the Cornhuskers' offense, which posted perfect first and third quarters, scoring touchdowns all three times it had the football in each period.

The first-quarter drives could be described as works of art, except they barely lasted long enough to describe.

Here's the shortest version:

Three plays, 39 yards, 1:14; four plays, 71 yards, 34 seconds; four plays, 74 yards, 1:19.

Nebraska 21, Rice 0. ... Game over.

"I was proud that we continued to fight throughout the whole ballgame, which is the biggest thing," Hatfield said. "I wanted our team to continue to fight and try to execute.

"It's hard to play so many perfect plays, and that's what you have to do (against Nebraska). You have to play a lot of perfect plays in a row."

Near perfection is what Rice witnessed firsthand.

"Nebraska has the best execution of any football I have ever played against, and I've been here five years," Hebert said. "They are so well-coached. They just never missed a beat. It was impressive."


Tribute to America

Nebraska opened Thursday's pre-game festivities with a video of former coach Tom Osborne speaking on the strength and togetherness of America.

Osborne, now a U.S. congressman, asked the crowd to remember the United States is a nation of immigrants.

"There is no room for discrimination in our nation, state or university," Osborne said.

After the school choir sang God Bless America, there was a video presentation showing rescue workers in New York and Washington, spliced with excerpts of President Bush's speech given the night of the attacks and with Ray Charles' rendition of America the Beautiful playing in the background.

The crowd recognized three Nebraskans who are listed among the missing in the World Trade Center disaster with a moment of silence.

Then, the two teams entered the stadium simultaneously to complete silence before joining in to sing the national anthem.

Injured DBs

Rice safety Greg Gatlin did not make the trip because of a hamstring injury. Sophomore John White took his place in the starting lineup.

Despite a 12-day break between games, Nebraska entered the contest with 11 players out due to injury.

Most notable among them were two Texans, starting safety Willie Amos of Sweetwater, and starting rover Lannie Hopkins of Rowlett.

Odds and ends

Nebraska has six Texans on its roster, but not one is from Houston. Not surprisingly, Rice doesn't have any Nebraska natives on its roster. Only 15 Owls did not attend high school in Texas. ... The game marked the first time Rice coach Ken Hatfield has gone against Nebraska. In his 23 years of coaching, he has faced 67 teams. ...

This was Rice's first meeting with the Cornhuskers, and the Owls entered the game 0-5 against teams from the Big 12 since the conference was formed in 1996. ... This was the second time Rice had to postpone a game due to a national tragedy. The Owls were scheduled to play Texas Christian on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. The game was moved to Dec. 7, and Rice won 33-7. ...

Nebraska saluted members of its 1970 and '71 national championship teams. ... The win was Nebraska's 17th straight at home. Its last loss at Memorial Stadium was to Texas on Halloween in 1998.


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