Sunday, October 26, 2008
By John Werner
Tribune-Herald staff writer
LINCOLN, Neb. — During previous Big 12 trips to Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, Baylor limped away thoroughly hammered and humiliated.
On Saturday, the Bears experienced a much different set of emotions.
Regret and heartbreak top the list.
With a chance to upset the Cornhuskers, the Bears couldn’t deliver when it counted most in the second half as they dropped a 32-20 decision before a packed house of 85,104 relieved fans.
“It’s heartbreaking, but that’s something you’ve got to deal with,” Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin said. “We know we’ve got a good team, and that’s why we came in here knowing we could win at Memorial Stadium.”
In three previous Big 12 games in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers pummeled the Bears by a combined score of 167-27. The closest the Bears came to the Cornhuskers in those three games was in a 59-27 loss in 2004.
But on this picturesque autumn afternoon, the Bears (3-5, 1-3) were on the verge of taking a 10-point lead over the Cornhuskers (5-3, 2-2) midway through the third quarter.
Leading 20-17, Griffin hit Kendall Wright with a 44-yard pass down the left sideline to Nebraska’s 7. The Bears picked up six yards on the next two downs, setting up third-and-goal at the 1.
Griffin ran an option play to the left, but was stuffed for a one-yard loss by Zach Potter and Larry Asante. Baylor kicker Ben Parks missed a 19-yard field goal when the ball clanged off the left upright.
“That was a huge momentum swing,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “I needed to do a better job of selecting plays, and we needed to get points out of the deal. On the third-down play, Robert saw a little crease and thought he could get in there, but they just did a good job routing to him.”
The Bears got nothing out of the drive, and Nebraska responded by moving 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Joe Ganz hit six passes for 61 yards and finished it off with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Nate Swift to grab a 24-20 lead with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
It was the theme of the day: Baylor couldn’t get Nebraska off the field. The Cornhuskers converted 11 of 17 third downs and kept the ball for nearly 39 minutes while amassing 497 yards. In contrast, the Bears failed to convert a third down in 10 attempts.
“With so many third-down conversions, they wore our defense down,” Baylor cornerback Antareis Bryan said. “It was our job as a defense to get the ball back, and we didn’t do it. There was nothing they did that we didn’t expect. We just needed to do a better job of making plays.”
Even after the Cornhuskers grabbed the lead, the Bears showed some life as they moved 49 yards to Nebraska’s 31 before Asante sacked Griffin for a four-yard loss on fourth-and-four.
Nebraska got a break when Baylor was called for a five-yard penalty for sideline interference. The Cornhuskers converted another third down when Ganz hit Todd Peterson for seven yards.
After throwing short passes most of the day, Ganz fooled Bryan with a pump fake and found Swift streaking down the left sideline for a 53-yard touchdown to open up a 30-20 lead with 12:11 left in the game. Alex Henery missed the extra point, but the touchdown was a back breaker.
Career day for Swift
“We had been wanting to use that play all day, and it worked,” Swift said. “We had been using a lot of slants and sideline patterns. That was the perfect time to go deep.”
With Baylor banged up in the secondary, Ganz hit 32 of 46 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns. Swift caught a career-high 11 passes for 121 yards to extend his career catches to 146, breaking Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers’ school record of 143 set from 1970-72.
Sophomore Krys Buerck and freshman Trentson Hill started at cornerback for the Bears after Bryan suffered a strained quadricep muscle and Dwain Crawford twisted an ankle last week against Oklahoma State. Bryan came off the bench to play, but Crawford didn’t suit up for the game.
After the Bears rushed for just 42 yards in last week’s 34-6 loss to Oklahoma State, they picked up 216 yards and scored three touchdowns against the Cornhuskers. Griffin led the way with 121 yards on 16 carries to become the first quarterback in school history with three 100-yard career rushing games.
“They’re not as fast as us, so we tried to utilize it to our advantage,” Griffin said. “They’ve got a tough defense, but when it came to running laterally, they couldn’t stay with us.”
However, Griffin had trouble throwing consistently as he hit just nine of 20 passes for 134 yards. He’s now thrown 175 straight passes without an interception, breaking Shawn Bell’s school record of 161 from 2003-05.
But after a hot start, Baylor’s offense picked up just 116 yards in the second half. Baylor offensive lineman Jordan Hearvey limped off with a strained left knee early in the second quarter and didn’t return.
Nebraska’s defense finished off the win when Colton Koehler nailed Baylor running back Jay Finley for a safety with 6:59 left in the game.
“They didn’t really do anything different in the second half,” said Finley, who rushed for 88 yards. “We just couldn’t convert our third downs. This is real tough for us because we thought we could come in here and win.”
The first half was an offensive showcase as Baylor piled up 234 yards and Nebraska gained 200. Despite constantly starting deep in their own territory, the Bears used an explosive ground game to grab a 20-17 halftime lead.
It was the most points the Bears have scored in the first half of a Big 12 road game.
The Cornhuskers scored first after Niles Paul set them up at Baylor’s 39 with a 19-yard punt return. Ganz completed the drive by hitting a wide-open Ryan Hill for a six-yard touchdown with 7:42 left in the first quarter.
But the Bears quickly struck back as Finley blew up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown. He shook away from Eric Hagg and Matt O’Hanlon before breaking into the open to tie the game with 7:03 left in the first quarter.
The Bears got into a deep hole when Dan Titchener punted 46 yards to the 4. But Griffin quickly got out of it when he broke loose for a 40-yard gain.
Facing fourth-and-one, Griffin sped around the left side and tightroped down the sideline for a 47-yard touchdown run to give the Bears a 14-7 lead with 2:26 left in the first quarter.
“I was very proud of the way we started off the game attacking them,” Briles said. “We came out ready to play and we were confident. Our guys are fighters and they’ve got a lot of belief.”
Huskers steady marchers
The Cornhuskers used most of the second-quarter clock when they marched 67 yards before Henery nailed a 27-yard field goal.
The Bears got into another deep hole when Mikail Baker fumbled the kickoff at the 2, recovered it in the end zone and returned it to the 8.
Baylor couldn’t move and Derek Epperson shanked a 25-yard punt to give Nebraska possession at the Bears’ 36.
Marlon Lucky took advantage of the ideal field position by breaking loose for an 18-yard touchdown, spinning away from Jordan Lake inside the 5 with 2:06 left in the first half.
But Nebraska’s 17-14 lead didn’t last long as the Bears responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive.
After Nebraska’s Cody Glenn was called for a facemask penalty against Griffin, the freshman quarterback found a wide-open Ernest Smith for 35 yards to the 17.
Griffin then hit Wright over the middle for 16 yards to set up Jacoby Jones’ one-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds left in the first half.
Ndamukong Suh blocked Parks’ extra point attempt, but the Bears went into halftime with a 20-17 lead.
The Bears never thought that would be their last score of the day.
“This loss obviously hurts,” Lake said. “There’s no other words to explain it.”