November 28, 2008
Reaching the finish line was a very hard thing for Nebraska to accomplish on Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. But it happened. Just barely.
Nebraska, in all likelihood, is headed for the Gator Bowl with an 8-4 record. And by the narrowest of margins, Colorado is shut out of the bowl season with a 5-7 mark.
Three big kicking game decisions by Bo Pelini put Nebraska just where it hoped to be and left Colorado out in the cold. But it took a huge play by junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who likely will be Nebraska's only first-team Big 12 selection, to finally finish off the pesky Buffs in a wild 40-31 game.
Finishing was a huge problem for the Cornhusker offense, which has been potent for much of the season. It couldn't finish second-half drives, and generally had a rough time with a marginally talented and beat-up but very determined Colorado team.
The Buffaloes came close to a bowl bid and have no reason to hang their heads. In fact, they showed a lot of guts.
Their biggest play was made by freshman safety Patrick Mahnke, a second-teamer playing with a separated shoulder and a broken rib. Mahnke's 15-yard sack of Joe Ganz on a second-and 10 play, coupled with a subsequent dropped pass by tight end Mike McNeill, put Nebraska in a confounding fourth-and-25 situation with time running out. It should have won the game for CU, except for an improbably spectacular, school-record 57-yard field goal by Alex Henery with 1:43 remaining.
Then Suh snuffed out the Buffs' fading chances, grabbing a Cody Hawkins pass that senior defensive end Zach Potter had deflected. Suh raced 30 yards to the end zone, stiff-arming Hawkins along the way, and slamming the ball against the facing of the North Stadium wall in triumph.
For awhile, it didn't look like things would end well for the Cornhuskers, who held CU to 291 total yards, including only 39 in the fourth quarter, but couldn't finish drives to put away the stubborn Buffs.
A good pass rush by Colorado kept Ganz off balance, rendering him as inefficient as he has been since the Oklahoma game. Ganz and the Huskers were 0-for-3 on third-down conversions in the fourth quarter.
The Huskers blew several opportunities to take control of the game. With the score tied 17-17 early in the second quarter, Nebraska put together two long drives in the second and third quarters, holding the ball for nearly 15 minutes of game clock time, but could manage a net gain of only three points on the scoreboard. The Buff defense went into grudging retreat mode but allowed very little real damage. It gave up a lot of yards and possession time but stiffened when it mattered and did not allow the Nebraska offense a touchdown in the second half.
Nebraska got four takeaways and went plus-two in turnovers, yet still had to struggle to win. NU ran the ball 51 times but had to work hard to get 178 rushing yards – almost all of them by Roy Helu Jr., who missed much of the fourth quarter with sore ribs.
But this game will be remembered for the kicking game decisions Pelini made. With less than two minutes left in the first half and NU leading 24-17, Pelini chose to pass up a 50-yard field goal attempt and run a fake, which in itself may not have a bad call. But using the same "give-and-go" play it used against Kansas – a backward, overhead toss from holder Jake Wesch to Henery – turned out to be the "bonehead play of the year," as Pelini freely admitted at halftime to ABC-TV sideline reporter Jack Arute. "I got greedy," Pelini said to reporters after the game. Colorado was ready for it, and Jimmy Smith picked it off, returning it 58 yards for a momentum-changing touchdown that pumped life into the CU sideline.
The brutally honest Pelini redeemed himself with his two other kicking game calls.
The next came with about eight minutes in the game, after Nebraska had squandered great field position when Nate Swift returned a punt to the CU 26. When Colorado linebacker B.J. Beatty stuffed Quentin Castille for a two-yard loss on third-and-one, Pelini showed some patience and ordered a 37-yard field goal attempt by the supremely consistent Henery, which cut Colorado's lead to 31-30.
The third call came at the two-minute mark, with Nebraska in a perplexing fourth-and-25 situation at the Colorado 40. Pelini had to call a time out and think that one over long and hard. He looked Henery in the eye and Henery responded, selling his coach on the idea that he could deliver.
And he did, nailing the most dramatic field goal in Cornhusker history.
Two things seem fairly clear to me after listening to part of the CU postgame call-in show on Denver radio station KOA. One: Nebraska did not convince Colorado fans that it is a vastly improved football team. At least one caller ranked the Huskers about equal with Texas A&M, which beat Colorado 24-17 earlier this season. Two: Dan Hawkins could lose his job as coach if he doesn't develop a running game and win at least eight games in 2009.
Nebraska did not overachieve Friday against CU, but when you take the season as a whole, NU's mid-level talent did overachieve, and the Huskers are beginning to take back their home field, going 6-2 at Memorial Stadium.
So this season marches on in Lincoln, where the Huskers delivered a clutch victory over Kansas and two much-needed wins over Kansas State and Colorado.
Nebraska and Pelini got done this season what they needed to get done. Eight wins for a team with a profound lack of speed at linebacker and defensive back is not bad, especially when you consider that Phillip Dillard missed the last four games of the season, Cody Glenn the last three, and Barry Turner, possibly the team's best pass rusher, the last 10. Nebraska had not won its last three regular-season games since 1999.
At times, CU exposed Nebraska's lack of athleticism on defense. (Hopefully, that will change when current redshirts Will Compton and Sean Fisher step in at linebacker next year, and Anthony Blue returns to the mix in the secondary.) But the Huskers, who have been a resilient bunch all year, are in line for a New Year's Day bowl with only one first-team all-conference player, which is a testament to their mental toughness and coaching.
It happened. The bowl season is next.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. | Archive