2002 Texas @ Nebraska football
It wasn't a game, it was a roller coaster
By Ed Howard
LINCOLN - Call 'em the Heartbreak Huskers.
How many times were they just a step away? How many times were they just one more block away?
Lots of times.
And in the end, they were just 16 yards from victory; and just a field goal away from, at least, going into overtime.
The final: Texas 27, Nebraska 24.
This was more than the usual athletic contest.
Your eyes told you this was a football game. The pit of your stomach told you it was a roller-coaster ride. The kind that makes you worry about whether your entrails will ever untie themselves.
The Huskers had unarguably summoned up their muscle and guts for this one. They were facing seventh-ranked Texas in a game with so much pride on the line that even the most ridiculous fan would be hard pressed to exaggerate it. And, from the opening kickoff, the unranked Nebraskans showed their mettle was of good stuff.
The entire first half was a memorable defensive battle. Texas led at halftime, 6-3. The Longhorns had booted two field goals, NU just one. Both teams had good opportunities to put TDs on the board - and both had failed. The good news was that Nebraska had scored first, at least. And the Huskers had kept the vaunted Texas aerial attack from scoring a touchdown. And that Nebraska field goal was a regular-season record for Josh Brown, covering 48 yards.
So, it was a drama-soaked atmosphere when the second half began before a record-setting Memorial Stadium crowd of 78,268.
And the drama involved more than just this one game.
Nebraska was already 6-3 on the season; a miserable year in a land where the names of Devaney and Osborne are part of a gridiron mythology that is, in turn, an integral part of Nebraskans' collective identity. Fair weather fans and perennial critics were already saying that the Huskers were at the end of a decades-long era of greatness. (They forget that Devaney went 6-4 twice.
Texas on this day was, well, Texas. The Longhorns, 7-1 when the game began, were threatening to do it again. Nebraska's nation-leading streak of 26 consecutives home-field wins was at stake. Nebraska had not suffered defeat at Memorial Stadium since 1998 - when the Longhorns claimed a 20-16 win. That loss ended a 47-game home winning streak.
If that weren't enough, Nebraska had not lost four games in a regular season in decades. None of the players on either team were even alive the last time it happened.
Thus, hope was doing its eternal thing in that third period. It was a little bit like that part in Casey at the Bat, when a couple of the Mudville guys surprised everyone and set the stage for Glory. But Glory didn't show up. Not for the Mudville nine way back then, or for the Heartbreak Huskers tonight.
Quarterback Jammal Lord, who did great things as a ball carrier this day, had gains of 17 yards and 54 yards as he led NU 79 yards in 2:47, completing the drive with a two-yard TD pass to Jon Bowling. Lord had been criticized by some for everything but his haircut, and it was obvious the criticism had stung him. That had to feel good - for everyone but the Texans.
Among Nebraskans, spirits were higher than a little kid's hopes for Christmas. NU led, 10-6!
The Nebraska defense, maligned (and sometimes mangled) throughout the year, had shown what it could do against Texas in the first half. There was no sense of over-confidence in the stands, but some people had begun to breathe at regular intervals. NU was ahead and it had been a low-scoring game.
But with the eyes of Texas upon them, those Longhorns stampeded over the Huskers. Quarterback Chris Simms, the equal of Lord as a target for criticism back home, took his teammates from their own 16-yard line to the go-ahead touchdown with just five plays. And only three of those counted: Simms to Roy Williams for 16 yards. Simms to Ivan Williams for 49 yards. Simms to Roy Williams for 16 yards and a touchdown.
Texas 13, Nebraska 10.
The Huskers wasted no time wasting their next possession. Kyle Larson, however, booted a dandy punt that left Texas on its own 2-yard line.
Hope was still doing its eternal thing in the hearts of the Husker faithful. If NU could muster some Black Shirt defensive magic, things could still work out. Then Simms marched the Texans 97 yards on 17 plays, an effort that culminated with Simms' 2-yard TD pass to Roy Williams.
Texas 20, Nebraska 10.
Oh, well. Stuff happens, and this time it apparently had happened to Nebraska. With :49 left in the third period, the roller coaster ride was, perhaps, over.
Well, wait. Maybe not.
The fourth quarter was still ahead. It was only a 10-point deficit.
And, by golly, whaddya' know? With less than 30 seconds gone in the fourth quarter, Lord let fly with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Matt Herian. The folks in the top rows at Memorial Stadium were probably holding on for dear life. The roller coaster wasn't finished. It had just hit a low point prior to roaring off to where high hopes touch the clouds. Lord was the guy whose passing had been the butt of more jokes than a congressman's campaign promises. He zipped that ball into Herian's hands like it was on a wire.
Texas 20, Nebraska 17.
It seemed NU might yet put a bullet deep in the heart of Texas. Nebraska fans were again exchanging hopeful, longing looks. That roller coaster was chugging through the pit of tens of thousands of stomachs. Again.
Would you believe it? No sooner had it reached another peak than the bottom fell out of that roller coaster headed for hope - and tens of thousands of expectations went to a figurative hell in that perennial handbasket.
Texas did it again. Those Longhorns were like a cattle drive. On and on they came, until they had consumed 81 yards in ten plays, with Cedric Benson going the final three yards for a touchdown.
Texas 27, Nebraska 17. Just 4:12 left on the clock.
What the heck. It's only a game. A big one, but just a game.
And, given the way things had generally gone most of the day, the roller coaster had surely run its last crazy, sickening, dizzying dipsy-doodle through all those stomachs.
Then it happened. One of those fairy tale sorts of things. The Huskers started at their own 40. Josh Davis rushed for 20 yards. Pass interference on Texas put the ball on the UT 25. Lord rushed for 9 yards and passed to Davis for 7 more. NU was at the Texas 9-yard line. Pass interference on Texas put the ball at the 2-yard line. Dahrran Diedrick scored from there.
Texas 27, Nebraska 24.
Land o' goshen. How much can one heart stand? How much can 78,000-plus hearts stand?
But, Texas had the ball again. After all, it was their turn and there was nothing to be done about it. And they had been on a roll, for sure.
Then, the roll ended. The Longhorns went three-and-out. Brian Bradford booted a 29-yard punt - and NU's DeJuan Groce returned 44 yards to the Texas 16!
Nebraska was on the Texas 16-yard line! The roar across Memorial Stadium rivaled the liftoff on the space shuttle. That emotional roller coaster would, no doubt, soon begin to cause heart attacks.
Was that the essence of an upset wafting through the air?
There were 34 seconds on the clock, and Nebraska was just 16 yards from the most important victory of 2002 to date.
Got the picture? Texas leads, 27-24. It's first and ten on the Texas 16. Thirty-four seconds on the clock. Here we go:
First down. Lord rushed. No gain.
Second down. Incomplete pass.
Third down. Well, it seemed like a field goal would be in order. Tie up the game. Do the overtime thing. The crowd waited, with minimal expectation.
Well, not so fast. This roller coaster ride had displayed a lot of whoopsies besides those field goals and touchdowns reflected on the board. Nebraska had muffed one field goal attempt; bad snap or something. And Texas had blocked an NU field goal attempt, too.
The field goal, Solich said later, wasn't being thought of on the Husker sideline as "automatic."
Better to try one more play. A field goal could be attempted on fourth down.
So. Third down. Lord went back to pass, let it fly . and it was intercepted by UT's Nathan Vasher at the 1-yard line. You could hear the hearts breaking, just at the moment when that roller coaster took its final descent, then crashed with all hands aboard.
There were 10 seconds on the clock. Simms took the snap. End of story.
The rest is just numbers, although some of them were tremendously impressive. Lord, for example, set an NU quarterback record by rushing for 234 yards. And Nebraska gave up just 79 yards rushing, and claimed three sacks.
And, if ever heartbreak was to be seen, it was in the face of Lord when he talked to reporters. He had given the kind of performance that athletes and would-be athletes dream of; he ran and he passed and he kept his team focused all day. He made things happen. He carried the home team to the verge of glory. He had played like a true believer. It was his night to shine as an athlete. It just wasn't his night to quarterback the winning team.
Texas improved to 8-1 on the season and 4-1 in the Big 12. (They lost to Oklahoma.) Nebraska fell to 6-4 on the season and 2-3 in the Big 12.
Statistics speak for themselves, but an important one for the Longhorns' defense showed that it stopped Nebraska, three times out of three tries, in attempted fourth-down conversions. And Nebraska was only 4-of-13 on third-down conversions all day
Simms completed 29-of-47 passes for 419 yards. He threw for two TDs and was intercepted once. Roy Williams caught 13 passes for 161 yards and Iwan Williams caught 6 for 111 yards.
Here is what Solich told reporters after the game:
"I feel badly for our players. They played their hearts out and put themselves in position to win the game at the end. The decision not to kick the field goal is a very soul-searching decision. Certainly if I had it to do all over again I would do it. I feel badly again for the players for the way they hung in there and made the comeback and we did not get it done at the end. Our players stepped up and played well.. I thought we played with a lot of heart and there were a lot of plays in the ballgame that were good plays on both sides and on special teams. I thought both teams showed great ability and abreat deal of determination. In the third quarter, we had a drive that we stalled out on that I thought was somewhat of a decisive drive in terms of getting the ballgame in control and of course being able to keep some drives going in the second half. Jammal, I thought, had a tremendous day in terms of rushing the ball and playing with a lot of heart, was well as a number of players on both sides of the ball.
"There were a couple of times where we did not convert on fourth downs. That was tough on us. We had two field goals, one that got blocked and one that we didn't get off. Certainly that was a factor. When you add all of those missed points up, it will haunt you in the end."
On deciding not to kick the field goal at the end of the game:
"We were not automatic on a couple previous field goals. One that was blocked and one that we did not get off. We not look to be every smooth in that area. I didn't think it was necessarily automatic. The other thing I was hoping to do was to be able to get a flag route on them and if not then maybe get on the sidelines and have it be a fourth down to where we would kick the field goal. That's not the way it turned out. They were fairly tight on us and initially the flag route looked open; the corner dropped off and that became a problem. It was right right on the sideline, but it was a great catch."