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Published Friday, September 21, 2001

Huskers air out Rice's defense
Crouch completes 9 of 11 passes for 165 yards as NU's passing game comes to life


Last modified at 12:31 a.m. on Friday, September 21, 2001
  

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  By Kevin Schuster
sportsdesk@theindependent.com

LINCOLN -- There's one thing Nebraska didn't need to do during its opening three games this season.

Throw the football effectively.

That showed on the stat sheet. The Huskers entered Thursday's non-conference finale against Rice ranked 101st nationally in passing offense. Nebraska averaged just 122 yards during victories over TCU, Troy State and Notre Dame.

Well, so much for the theory Nebraska can only move the ball via the ground. Or this popular one: Senior quarterback Eric Crouch's surgically-repaired right shoulder is still bothering him.

Crouch completed 9 of 11 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns, plus rushed for a team-high 97 yards and two scores, to spearhead fourth-ranked Nebraska's convincing 48-3 triumph over the Owls at Memorial Stadium.

"All week we worked on passing the ball," said Nebraska junior split end Wilson Thomas, who had four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. "We wanted to display that."

Crouch's passing display helped Nebraska (4-0) find the end zone on six of eight drives he directed.

The senior from Omaha found Tracey Wistrom, who had four catches for 67 yards, on a 37-yard score 2 minutes, 48 seconds into the game to give the Huskers a 7-0 lead.

"We've been pretty efficient throwing the ball when we need to," Wistrom said. "We just didn't have to do it that much. We let some teams know we can throw the ball when we need to."

After the quick score, Crouch was just getting warmed up against the nation's 24th-ranked defense.

Crouch's initial three completions totaled 100 yards. Thomas padded those numbers with a diving 42-yard touchdown reception on a sideline fly pattern to push Nebraska's lead to 21-0 with 2:35 left in the opening quarter.

"When I was coming down the field, the ball was high in the air. When I came down with it, I thought I was out of bounds," Thomas said. "Eric put it in a great place."

Nebraska racked up 497 yards. But this time, there was balance. The Huskers had 292 rushing and 205 receiving yards.

"We really shoot to get 300 rushing," Wistrom said. "I don't know how long it's been since we got 300 rushing and 200 receiving. Overall, it was a pretty effective effort running and passing the ball."

It was another effective effort by Wistrom. The senior tight end caught at least three passes for the fourth straight game.

Wistrom also became the 11th Husker to top the 1,000-yard career receiving mark. He has 1,039 yards on 51 catches. Wistrom is second among Husker tight ends in receiving yards (six behind Junior Miller) and third in receptions.

Wistrom caught an 11-yard dart from Crouch that split defenders on Nebraska's second possession after halftime for a 42-0 advantage.

"Eric put it where it had to be," Wistrom said. "I was defended pretty well. I was able to catch it and dive into the end zone. I didn't have much room to spare."

Rice (2-1) didn't have any room to spare if it hoped to end Nebraska's 16-game home winning streak. The Owls allowed an average of 263.5 yards in their opening two games.

Of course, that was against Houston and Duke.

"Defensively, I thought we fought all we could," Rice coach Ken Hatfield said. "Overall, it was the big play that made the difference. It wasn't necessarily long, long drives. There were big plays in every one."

For once, those big plays came through the air.

"With the passing game going the way it was, it prevented them from loading up nine to 10 guys in the box," Thomas said. "We wanted to execute. We didn't want to give the defense the chance to make plays."



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