LINCOLN — The Nebraska football season came to an odd juncture Saturday with the Cornhuskers winning a war that they insist has one battle left to fight.
The day started with Nebraska struggling early against a pesky Iowa State team. It ended with a strike of sudden fury that saw the Huskers wrap up a 31-7 win over the Cyclones, the Big Eight Conference championship and an Orange Bowl berth in one quick swoop.
Nebraska and Iowa State entered the fourth quarter in a 7-7 deadlock. The Huskers took care of that problem with 24 points in a span of 5:08 that was ignited by Eddie Neil’s line drive 49-yard field goal and a 63-yard touchdown on a punt return by Irving Fryar.
About 15 minutes after the game and with the Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,258 on its way home, word came to the Husker locker room that it was time to start a championship celebration.
Nebraska’s first undisputed league championship since 1971 and the first in Coach Tom Osborne’s career was guaranteed when Missouri completed a 19-14 victory over Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has a 3-1-1 league record and no hopes of continuing its championship reign that has lasted eight years, including ties with Nebraska in 1975 and 1978.
The 1972 Huskers were given the crown by default when Oklahoma was forced to forfeit three conference games.
The seventh-rated Cornhuskers will take a 6-0 league record, an 8-2 overall mark and a seven-game winning streak to Norman, Okla., Saturday for a game that won’t be the annual NU-OU shootout for the championship, as it has been every year the past decade.
But it will still be a shootout in the eyes of the Cornhuskers, who have lost to Oklahoma nine of the last 10 times they have played.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” said Husker fullback Phil Bates. “Oklahoma is Oklahoma. Nebraska and Oklahoma don’t like each other. It’s going to be another shootout in Norman.”
Osborne was in the middle of his postgame interview session when the Missouri-Oklahoma game ended. He reacted by mentioning the importance of next week’s game to his team.
“I’m real glad we’re Big Eight champions,” he said. “But I think the players and coaches feel we haven’t accomplished all we want to accomplish if we don’t win at Oklahoma.
“It’s nice. One of our goals all year was to be Big Eight champions. After we started 1-2 that was our main objective. I guess now we’ve got to make sure we reset our goals.”
The goal now would be to put icing on the championship cake. Osborne hinted to that when asked if he felt the pressure of the season was over with the championship wrapped up.
He smiled when he answered no. “This is a one-game season up here,” he said. “It’s Oklahoma or else.”
Osborne did pay tribute to the way his team has held together after losing two of the first three games, the worst start by a Nebraska team in 20 years.
“The players and coaches have really done a good job of not losing their composure,” Osborne said.
“A lot of people were down on us for a while and then negative stuff was starting to fly. The players kind of pulled together at the time.”
Nebraska was in a familiar position with Iowa State, which is now 5-4-1 overall and 2-3-1 in the Big Eight.
In previous games en route to the title, Missouri and Nebraska were tied at halftime 0-0 before the Huskers won 6-0. And the Huskers trailed Kansas 9-3 at intermission before winning 31-15.
“I guess this is pretty much the same case as Kansas and Missouri,” said Osborne. “We didn’t play all that well in the first half.”
The Cyclones dominated play in the first 30 minutes behind the power running of Dwayne Crutchfield and the Cyclone defense that shut down one of the nation’s most powerful offenses.
Iowa State had 166 total yards at half to just 88 for the Cornhuskers. The Cyclones held Nebraska to 272 yards in the game. Only Iowa, which limited Nebraska to 231, has been stingier against the Huskers.
Crutchfield had 98 yards on 20 carries in the first half and scored the game’s first touchdown on a 2-yard run with 9:41 left in the second quarter. It was the first touchdown scored on the ground against Nebraska in seven games and the first by the Cyclones against the Huskers since 1977.
Crutchfield was held to minus 1-yard rushing on five carries and finished with 97 yards. Charlie McBride, Husker defensive line coach, said, “We made some blocking adjustments in the second half that got us squared away and Crutchfield wasn’t much of a factor.”
“In the first half, they showed us a few blocking schemes that we hadn’t worked on in practice last week.”
Crutchfield said it wasn’t just his injuries that enabled the Huskers to curtail his running that produced 98 yards the first half.
“We lost a center, right guard, right tackle and left guard (with injuries) and that makes it pretty hard to keep going,” said the 246-pounder. “We all started to play excellent until we got banged up.”
“I felt great coming into the game,” he said when asked about his previous hamstring injury. “I felt 90-95 percent. But on the first play (of the game) I tried to cut and twisted my left ankle. The pain came and went every now and then. I was nursing the hamstring.”
But Crutchfield also credited Nebraska’s defense “for making some adjustments during the half on what we were doing. Nebraska has one of the best defenses. I consider ours one, too.
“I think anybody that goes out and does their job is the best. Our defense gave us a lot of opportunities, but we didn’t put the ball in when we should have.”
Osborne said, “We started a little flat and they started out really together. We were really fortunate to be tied at half 7-7.”
On Iowa State’s first possession of the game, the Cyclones drove to the NU 4-yard line before Husker linebacker Brent Evans recovered quarterback John Quinn’s fumble.
Iowa State was able to penetrate deep into Nebraska territory on a 37-yard run by Quinn to the NU 8. Then Crutchfield carried to the 4 before Quinn’s fumble.
Nebraska tied the game with 3:01 left in the half when Mike Rozier scored on a 4-yard run that was set up because Iowa State had to punt from deep in its territory and Husker Allen Lyday returned it 9 yards to the ISU 35.
Grant Campbell was responsible for getting Iowa State in trouble at that point with his 53-yard punt that Michael Wade fumbled at the 4 before returning it 2 yards to the 6.
“The kicking game was a big factor in the game,” said Osborne. “It was probably the only area we clearly dominated.”
That domination came in the form of Campbell’s 47.0 average on six punts, Neil’s field goal and the 102 yards Nebraska produced on four punt returns. Iowa State had one punt return for two yards and Alex Giffords’ miss of a 45-yard field goal was the first by a Husker opponent at home this season in 12 attempts.
Fryar had an 82-yard punt return against Florida State for a touchdown, but the Huskers hadn’t been doing as well in that department lately as Osborne would like.
“We set a goal every game of two returns for at least 20 yards,” he said. “We haven’t done that for five or six games. That was a big factor in the game. Eddie Neal’s field goal and his punt return really enabled us to control the momentum and put the game away.”
Neil put the Huskers ahead 10-7 with 14:52 left in the game. Fryar’s score made it 17-7 at the 13:12 mark.
A couple of turnovers helped Nebraska pad its lead even more in a hurry.
Iowa State ran only two plays after Fryar’s touchdown before losing the ball on a pass interception by defensive tackle Henry Waechter. Fellow tackle Toby Williams tipped the pass and Waechter caught it to give the Huskers the ball at the ISU 21.
Waechter had never intercepted a pass before in his life. “I was amazed,” he said. “I still am. The ball ended up in my hands and I didn’t know what to think.”
Waechter said he was in position for the play because of advice he tries to follow from Coach McBride. I was pursuing down the line of scrimmage,” said Waechter. “Coach (McBride) says if we do that sometime we’re going to be surprised and the ball is going to be there. He was right.”
Five plays later Nebraska increased its lead to 24-7 when quarterback Turner Gill threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Steels. Gill completed only 5 of 15 passes and had one intercepted. The Husker quarterback was not hampered by injury, Osborne said. He just had a bad day passing, the coach said.
The touchdown reception was the second big moment of the day for Steels, who had sung the national anthem before the game and dedicated it to his fellow 22 seniors who were playing their final game at home.
Iowa State’s luck was no better after receiving the next kickoff. Two plays later Quinn fumbled and middle guard Curt Hineline recovered on the ISU 11. On the next play Bates covered all 11 yards for the final score of the game with 9:32 remaining.
Nebraska’s second-half showing was described as fitting by Bates for a season that has seen the Huskers come from adversity.
“We have been down at half, we’ve been tied at half and we keep coming back regardless,” said Bates.
“We’ve always kept our poise. That shows the character this team has.”
Osborne agreed. “The best thing you can say about today’s game is that we continued to show good character,” he said.
One crucial test of character came at the start of the second half when Rozier fumbled on the first play and Iowa State recovered at the Husker 25. The Huskers got a break when Iowa State was penalized for illegal procedure and then stopped the Cyclones for two plays before a holding penalty took them out of field goal range.
“If we could have let them in (score) there it would have been really tough,” said Osborne. “Stopping them and getting the 15-yard penalty was a key factor in the game.” Osborne was especially pleased with the way the Husker defense played in the second half. Crutchfield was limited to minus one yard on five second-half carries after gaining 98 in the first half.
“They just knocked us off the ball in the first half,” said Osborne. “He had a 2 or 3-yard head start before he hit anybody.”
|Yards per carry||3.7||4.0|
Nebraska is 86-17 all-time against Iowa State.
|Florida State||Sept. 19|
|Penn State||Sept. 26|
|Kansas State||Oct. 17|
|Oklahoma State||Nov. 7|
|Iowa State||Nov. 14|
Nebraska has played 18 games on Nov. 14. See them all »