In good hands
BY STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — One could almost hear the angry cries of Husker Nation as Texas A&M made its second-half charge.
Once again, Nebraska wasn’t putting away an opponent, wasn’t landing the knockout blow. Husker fans were no doubt steaming on their sofas, as they had been two weeks ago, for instance, as NU failed to put away Oklahoma State.
Turns out, Nebraska can finish off an opponent after all. The Huskers can in fact close a deal. They did so Saturday as a long afternoon of momentum swings faded into darkness. Yes, indeed, they finally put away a foe.
Never mind that Nebraska waited until the final play to close out 24th-ranked Texas A&M, with Husker defensive end Adam Carriker wrapping quarterback Stephen McGee in a massive bear hug and flinging him to the Kyle Field grass to cap NU’s wild 28-27 victory.
“It’s a great win for our program, for our state,” said Nebraska coach Bill Callahan, whose Huskers clinched the program’s first Big 12 North championship since 1999 and a berth in the Dec. 2 conference title game.
Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson called winning the North Division “a step we needed to take.
“We hoped it’d be this year,” he said. “But you can’t jump over all of the hurdles at once. You have to go through the process of getting to where you want to go.”
If you’re a Nebraska fan, that process involves a roller coaster of emotions and ample patience. At least that was the case Saturday, as the Huskers somehow escaped Kyle Field with a record of 8-3 overall and 5-2 in the league.
Nebraska led 21-10 at halftime and seemed to be in control. Slowly, however, Texas A&M regained momentum. More than anything, the Aggies punished the Huskers with big gains on third-down plays.
Nebraska coaches — all coaches — preach the importance of “finishing.” And here was NU, failing repeatedly to finish off Texas A&M on key third-down situations. Indeed, here was Big Red failing to complete its stated goal of winning the North. Or so it seemed.
“It’s been our whole goal since the day after the Alamo Bowl,” said Nebraska defensive lineman Barry Cryer, referring to the Huskers’ 32-28 win against Michigan last December.
Nebraska would’ve gotten another opportunity to clinch the North on Nov. 24 when it played Colorado in Lincoln. And it appeared the Huskers would have to wait until then to do it, especially after linebacker Mark Dodge picked off Zac Taylor’s pass with 2:50 remaining Saturday.
At that point, Texas A&M led 27-21. The Aggies seemed ready to put away the Huskers with 1:57 remaining as Layne Neumann lined up for a 42-yard field-goal try. But Barry Turner blocked the kick, and NU suddenly had life.
“Boy, special teams is a big part of the game,” Callahan said. “That block meant everything.“
Yes, Turner’s block meant Nebraska still had life. Perhaps more important, the Huskers had Taylor, the steady senior who so often seems to hold things together when all seems lost.
“When it’s all on the line, in who else’s hands would you want the ball?” Callahan asked.
After Nebraska took over at its 25-yard line, Taylor led the decisive touchdown drive, completing 5 of 11 passes for 67 yards. A few completions went to a couple rather unlikely players — sophomore Todd Peterson and Dan Erickson, who had one career reception before his 16-yard catch on the big drive.
After Marques Thornton’s roughing-the-passer penalty handed Nebraska first down-and-goal at the A&M 9, Taylor addressed his favorite target, Maurice Purify, in the huddle. The ball’s coming your way on a fade route, the quarterback told the 6-foot-4, 210-pound wideout.
Taylor lofted a pass into the end zone, where Purify was isolated in one-on-one coverage by 5-10, 185-pound freshman cornerback Jordan Peterson.
No contest. Purify leaped and pulled down the pigskin as if he were pulling down a rebound.
“Big play Mo! Big play Mo!” Nebraska I-back Cody Glenn chanted as he walked off the field. Purify, meanwhile, was being interviewed by television reporters as a pocket of Big Red fans celebrated in a corner of the massive stadium.
“Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?” Callahan asked reporters.
He said such last-moment comebacks were what championship teams were all about.
Yes, finally, Nebraska had closed the deal. Had finished off an opponent. And just in the nick of time.
“I wish you could see the faces in the locker room,” Callahan said.