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Dec. 30, 2003, 2:34PM

Nebraska comes out passing to trip Michigan St.

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

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SAN ANTONIO -- The day before the Alamo Bowl, Nebraska interim coach Bo Pelini said he would have no input on the offensive play-calling against Michigan State. He said he would leave that to offensive coordinator Barney Cotton.

But faced with what amounted to a one-game audition for the full-time coaching job to replace the fired Frank Solich, Pelini, the Huskers' defensive coordinator this year, might have given Cotton some suggestions about opening things up a bit.

The normally run-oriented, stodgy Nebraska offense came out passing against Michigan State, then used a balanced offense to defeat the Spartans 17-3 Monday night before 56,229 at the Alamodome.

In the first half, when Nebraska jumped ahead 17-3, quarterback Jamaal Lord completed 7-of-13 passes for 140 yards, all of them during a 14-point second quarter.

In four games this season, the 22nd-ranked Huskers (10-3) threw fewer than 13 passes. Nine times they had fewer passing yards than they did in the first 30 minutes against the Spartans. Lord finished 8-of-17 with a career-best 160 yards in his final game as a Cornhusker.

Nebraska's passing average during the regular season under Solich was 105 yards, which ranked No. 115 of 117 NCAA Division I-A teams. Monday's showing wasn't exactly Air Pelini, but the Huskers at least were willing to put the ball up at times.

But whether it was picking on a pass defense that was last in the Big Ten and No. 104 in the nation or showing Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson that he is willing to move into the 21st century, Pelini likely didn't hurt his stock as a candidate for the full-time job.

Nebraska didn't abandon its bread-and-butter running game, grinding out 229 rushing yards. Cory Ross had 138 yards on 37 carries, which set an all-time Nebraska record for carries in a game. Lord rushed only 10 times for 79 yards, with 66 coming on one play.

In addition, the Blackshirt defense shackled Michigan State all night, allowing three points and 174 total yards to a team that averaged 30 points and 383.5 yards per game. Nebraska tied the school record for fewest points allowed in a bowl game. The Huskers gave up three points to Texas in the 1974 Cotton Bowl.

Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker was under pressure much of the game and finished 21-of-39 with three interceptions for 156 yards. Smoker was sacked five times.

Pelini might not have helped himself, however, when he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 7:06 left in the game. Pelini got in the face of the linesman Bill Scott after the officials ignored an apparent fumble by Michigan State.

He refused to let up, and Scott threw the flag for a 15-yard penalty. Instead of a fourth-and-one at the Nebraska 48, the Spartans had a first down. Nebraska cornerback Pat Ricketts bailed out Pelini when he intercepted a pass at the Huskers 22 to snuff out the drive.

After Nebraska sacked Smoker twice in the opening series of the game, the Huskers' first play from scrimmage was a deep pass attempt to slotback Matt Herian. The pass was broken up by strong safety Jason Harmon, but the dye for Nebraska's plan was cast.

Nebraska kept the ball on the ground the rest of that drive, which ended when David Dyches kicked a 29-yard field goal. Tailback Cory Ross gained 34 yards on seven carries during the 11-play drive.

Michigan State answered with a 47-yard field goal by Dave Rayner on its next drive as Smoker completed 5-of-6 passes for 43 yards. It was the only productive drive of the game for Michigan State (8-5).

Smoker was intercepted by Nebraska's Daniel Bullocks early in the second quarter, setting up the Huskers at their own 36. Lord hurried the Nebraska offense onto the field and unloaded a bomb to Isaiah Fluellen, who had clearly beaten Michigan State cornerback Darren Barnett.

The 58-yard pass play to the Michigan State six-yard line was the second longest of the season for Nebraska. Ross went in from the two-yard line, and Nebraska led 10-3 with 13:17 left in the half.

Lord set up the next TD with his legs. On first-and-10 from the Nebraska 20, Lord faked an inside handoff to Ross and then took off on a 66-yard dash down the right sideline to the Michigan State 14. Ross went in from the seven-yard line to make it 17-3 with 3:20 remaining in the half.

Alamo Bowl summary

Smoker's future

Michigan State senior quarterback Jeff Smoker passed for 3,239 yards and 21 touchdowns this season after missing the final three games last year due to drug and alcohol problems.

Spartans coach John L. Smith believes Smoker has the size (6-3, 224) and arm strength to play in the NFL, but he knows the quarterback will have to stay on the straight and narrow once he leaves the controlled environment at Michigan State.

"I still think he has other tests in his life, without a doubt," said Smith. "We've not provided a loose rein, but that loose rein is going to come up, so that's going to be a test for Jeff."

Smaller crowd

Monday's crowd of 56,229 was the second straight Alamo Bowl to drew fewer than 60,000 fans in the 65,000-seat Alamodome. Before last year, when Wisconsin-Colorado drew 50,690, the Alamo Bowl had drawn 60,000-plus four straight years.

Part of the reason for the smaller crowd Monday was that Michigan State sold only about 5,100 tickets of its allotment of 10,800. Nebraska sold more than 8,000 tickets.

Odds and ends

Kicker David Dyches, a freshman from Westfield High School, kicked a 29-yard field goal in the first quarter to tie the Nebraska freshman record with 14 field goals. ... Nebraska's defense set a school record with 33 interceptions after picking off three passes Monday. Nebraska forced 47 turnovers this season, leading to 145 points.

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