The day started badly for Nebraska. I-back Jeff Smith didn't suit up and, on the opening kickoff, fullback Tom Rathman got knocked cold.
And that's the way it ended. The Cornhuskers got knocked cold.
Syracuse threw the punch that floored the nation's top-ranked football team 17-9 Saturday and produced a bedlam scene for the success-starved fans of the Orangemen in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse's fans in the crowd of 47,280 went wild, seemingly raising the roof, when Harold Gayden scored the clinching touchdown with 1:29 remaining.
The Orangemen, a 19-0 loser to Rutgers last week and a 63-7 loser to Nebraska last season, won with a defense that roughed up the Cornhuskers in a way that doesn't happen often.
"We just played hard," said Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson.
"It's not a secret. There wasn't one strange defense in the pack, nothing strange at all. We just lined up and played and so did they.
"It was just a great game."
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne didn't line up with a long list of excuses afterwards. He discounted the impact Smith, the nation's No. 3 rusher and the leader in all-purpose yardage and punt returns, might have had if he had played.
"Obviously it hurt us a little bit, " Osborne said. "It interrupted some of our continuity on offense and maybe our punt returns weren't as secure. But I don't want to in any way point to that. Syracuse outplayed us. With or without Jeff Smith it would have been tough."
Syracuse started its move for the victory with Don McAulay's 24-yard field goal in the second quarter and a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Todd Norley to wingback Mike Siano with 4:50 left in the third quarter that put the Orangemen ahead 10-7.
Osborne praised MacPherson and his players at every opportunity.
"Their defense probably played as good a football game as we've had played against us in the
last three or four years, " Osborne said.
The statistics speak on that subject as well as Osborne. Nebraska entered the game ranked second nationally in rushing offense, 403 yards per game; third in total offense, 531.7 yards per
game, and fourth in scoring offense, 40.7 points per game. The Huskers didn't come close to their averages.
The Orangemen limited Nebraska to 214 yards in total offense, its lowest total since 174 against Alabama in a 20-7 loss to open the 1978 season, 77 games ago.
Nebraska gained just 154 yards rushing, the Huskers' meekest production since they ran for 150 in the 10-7 opening loss to Iowa in 1981.
Nebraska's nine points is the lowest total since a 6-0 win over Missouri in 1981. The Huskers got their last two points against Syracuse charitably when punter James Fox took an intentional safety on the last play of the game.
The loss ended Nebraska's 23-game regular-season winning streak going back to the 27-24 setback to Penn State in 1982. It was the Huskers' worst loss since the Alabama game of 1978.
It happened, Osborne said, because Syracuse played better up front and the Cornhuskers made too many mistakes at costly times.
Nebraska normally wins in trench warfare, especially its offensive line against the opposing defensive front. It didn't happen against a Syracuse line, led by All-America candidate Tim Green.
"The name of the game for us is to be physical, " Osborne said.
"They were more physical. They were more physical today. I don't think we were totally flat or totally unprepared, but we made mistakes and they didn't make many at all."
Nebraska's biggest mistake of the game was a penalty for having 12 players on the field for a Syracuse punt in the fourth quarter.
It came with 7:30 left in the game and the Huskers trailing 10-7.
They needed the ball and didn't get it.
Defensive tackle Jim Skow ran on the field as the extra player in confusion over what Nebraska planned to do on the play.
"We were going to block the punt, " defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. "We had gotten our all-out block team ready. Then we decided we were going for the return because a return had opened up before."
Skow apparently heard someone yell to get on the field.
"Normally, they don't go in unless they see my lips move, " McBride said. "Somebody happened to yell to one of the players, and he ran onto the field."
Instead of Nebraska taking possession, Syracuse got a first down at its 41-yard line with the help of the 15-yard penalty.
"If he had tried to get off the field it would have been just a 5-yard penalty, " McBride said. "But he didn't try, so that made it 15."
With a 5-yard penalty, Syracuse would have punted again facing fourth-and-1 from its 31.
Osborne said the play was costly.
"That was really critical, " he said. "At that point it looked like we had one more chance to take it down the field, and that's where we find out what we're really made of."
Syracuse didn't give the Huskers the chance. The Orangemen used the break to continue the drive for their final touchdown Gayden's 1-yard run.
The 79-yard drive was a killer for Nebraska. Syracuse kept the ball for 15 plays and
7:33 in elapsed time.
Nebraska quarterback Craig Sundberg said another costly mistake was a lost fumble early in the second quarter.
The Huskers led 7-0 at the time on Sundberg's 25-yard touchdown pass to Todd Frain in the first quarter and seemed to be heading for their second score.
Those hopes died when Sundberg collided with fullback Scott Porter and fumbled. Sundberg was on his way to make a handoff to wingback Shane Swanson.
"It was a big turning point, " Sundberg said. "We were driving.
"We had the counter sweep called, the same play we scored on last week with Shane. I don't know what happened, if the fullback hit the ball or I didn't get a deep enough drop. I think we would have gone in to score there."
Sundberg said another breakdown came in the fourth quarter when Syracuse stopped Rathman for no gain on third-and-1 from the Nebraska 36. The Huskers had to punt, and Syracuse got the ball for Gayden's touchdown that put the Orangemen ahead 17-7.
"We had a breakdown somewhere in the offensive line there, " Sundberg said. "That was probably a big key there. It got them motivated and they kept the ball most of the rest of the game."
|Yards per carry||2.1||3.8|
Nebraska is 5-7 all-time against Syracuse.
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 6|
|Kansas State||Oct. 27|
|Iowa State||Nov. 3|
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