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Nebraska ignites early en route to thumping Rice
By BOB SCHALLER
For the Star-Herald
LINCOLN — On a day when the thundering noise of “Go Big Red, Go Big Red!” was replaced with “USA!, USA!” fourth-ranked Nebraska pounded Rice 48-3 in front of 77,344 proud Americans on Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
“Standing there, I got chills as the national anthem was playing,” said Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch. “Looking around I saw a lot of tears. It was an emotional setting. It was appropriate.”
The Huskers took another step forward, moving to 4-0.
“The thing we’re looking at is going with the theme of improving every week,” said head coach Frank Solich, “and basically that has been the case. The intensity level was very good as far as our team was concerned.”
The Huskers did suffer four penalties for 46 yards, including several personal fouls.
“Probably the thing that is mostly dissatisfying are the foolish penalties,” Solich said. “That has not improved. We continue to pile those up. We’ll address that.”
The game had been scheduled for last Saturday. But because of the tragedies in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania last week, it was postponed.
Boosted by mop-up-time yardage, Rice had 365 yards of total offense, with 196 rushing and 169 passing.
Nebraska had 497 yards, including 292 rushing and 205 passing, even though reserves played much of the second half for the Huskers.
“Our team speed at times showed,” Solich said, “and we played a physical football game.”
Eric Crouch rushed for 97 yards on 12 carries and completed 9-of-11 passes for 165 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Eric, I thought, had a great day running and throwing the football,” Solich said.    
Wilson Thomas and Tracey Wistrom had four catches apiece.
“Wilson once again showed his catching and blocking abilities,” Solich said.
Dahrran Diedrick had 74 yards, but had only 13 carries. He was relieved in the third quarter by Thunder Collins, who had 43 yards on six carries.
Rice did get on the board with a field goal with 7:49 left in the game after a 13-play, 71-yard drive, but the game was long decided and the Huskers were playing second-, third- and even fourth-team units at that point.
Proving their own muscle, the Husker subs extending an already-blowout to a 48-0 game when Thunder Collins took a pitch from backup quarterback Jammal Lord on fourth and one, running 17 yards for a touchdown. The subs had an impressive drive, which ended with 3:06 left in the third quarter, marching 66 yards on 10 plays on a drive that lasted 3:47. At that point in the game, Nebraska had 449 yards of total offense, compared to only 167 for the Owls.
The Huskers marched down the field on their first drive after the Blackshirts pushed Rich into a quick panic and punt.
Nebraska took over at the Rice 40-yard line after a 28-yard punt with 13:26 left in the opening quarter.
After a pair of Dahrran Diedrick rushes and facing third down and 8, quarterback Crouch hit Tracey Wistrom for a 37-yard touchdown. The three-play, 39-yard drive lasted just 1:14 and put Nebraska ahead 7-0 with 12:12 left in the opening period following the extra point by Sandro DeAngelis.
The Blackshirts allowed one first down but again quickly cooked Rice, forcing a punt, which set the Huskers up at their own 29 after DeJuan Groce’s 18-yard return. Groce had four punt returns for 58 yards.
“DeJuan Groce has really developed into a fine punt returner,” Solich said.
On the first play, Crouch threw a backward pass to true freshman Mike Stuntz, a recruited quarterback playing receiver. The ball bounced, and Stuntz turned the miscue into a 25-yard gain as Rice thought it had been an incomplete pass, though the ball was clearly thrown backward. Crouch rushed for 16 yards and then for 27, setting the Huskers up with first down and 10 at the Rice 3. Fullback Judd Davies pounded the ball in from there, putting Nebraska’s margin at 14-0 with 8:34 left in the opening quarter after the four-play, 71-yard drive.
The Blackshirts again forced a punt, and the Huskers were back at their own 26-yard line.
But the Huskers needed just four plays once again, this time covering 74 yards in just 79 seconds. Crouch completed a 21-yard pass to John Gibson. Thunder Collins then ran twice for a total of 11 yards, setting up first down at the Rice 42. Crouch then went deep, throwing a touchdown pass to Thomas, who stretched out and landed in the end zone with the 42-yard touchdown reception, pushing Nebraska’s lead to 21-0 with 2:35 left in the opening quarter.
The Huskers toned it down in the second quarter. Still, the Huskers’ only score of the second period came on their longest drive — at least in terms of plays. Starting at the Rice 40-yard line after Erwin Swiney’s interception, the Huskers got an 8-yard rush from Davies. The key play of the drive came on Crouch’s 18-yard pass to Wistrom, which ironically at the time gave Crouch exactly 6,000 yards of total offense in his career. Crouch ran the final 6 yards on second and goal, finishing the six-play, 40-yard drive that lasted only 2:32 and put Nebraska ahead 28-0. That was how it stood at halftime.
Crouch, also in the first half, became the Big 12’s all-time leading rushing quarterback, breaking former Missouri quarterback Corby Jones’ record of 2,536 yards. Crouch had six rushes for 69 yards midway through the second quarter to break the mark.
Down four touchdowns at halftime, Rice had just seven first downs through two quarters, while Nebraska had 13. Rice did outrush the Huskers in the first half, with 136 yards on 24 carries, though 67 of that came on one play, a clever misdirection trap run by fullback Robbie Beck. And Beck had only those 67 yards on four carries in the first half. Rice passed for only 25 yards, as Kyle Herm completed just 2-of-8 first-half passes.
Nebraska ran for 129 yards in the first half, paced by Crouch’s 70 yards on 10 carries while Diedrick was limited to just 14 yards on six carries. Crouch was an effective 8-of-10 passing for 154 yards in the first half. Thomas had three first-half catches for 64 yards while Wistrom, who became the 11th receiver ever at Nebraska to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, had three for 56 and Gibson caught two for 34.
The Huskers cranked it up again in the third quarter. Diedrick got on track with a 22-yard run to the Rice 29-yard line. On third down and 6 from the Owls’ 25, Crouch went the distance with a scoring run, capping the six-play, 65-yard drive that lasted a mere 2:46 and put Nebraska’s lead at 35-0 early in the third quarter.
On third down and 5 from the 11, Crouch hit Wistrom with a touchdown pass — Crouch’s third touchdown pass of the game — over the middle to stretch the lead to 42-0 with 8:43 left in the third quarter. That drive was 5 plays and 35 yards, lasting 2:12, again set up by an outstanding punt return by Groce.
Crouch had at least three touchdown passes in a game twice before last night — three in 1998 against Kansas State, and five against Iowa in 2000.