LINCOLN — After watching his team commit five first-half turnovers Saturday, maybe it was appropriate that Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne fumbled with his clip-on microphone before addressing the press.
“We’ll get this over with so you can talk to some people who aren’t quite as shook up as I am,” he said after the Huskers stormed away from a halftime tie to thump Northern Illinois 48-17.
A crowd of 76,194 gathered at Memorial Stadium for what was expected to be a romp in the first game of NU’s 100th year of football. But after 30 minutes of play, some might have wondered if they were about to witness one of the biggest upsets of that century.
Four lost fumbles and an interception helped Northern Illinois — such an underdog that most oddsmakers listed no point spread on the game — forge a 17-17 halftime tie with the Cornhuskers, ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the national wire service polls.
“Halftime was pretty scary,” Osborne said. “This could have been one of those deals that you never live down.
“And yet you know it can happen. If we had come out and dropped it a few more times the second half, it could have happened.”
But it didn’t.
The Huskers played turnover-free after halftime, scored on the first three possessions of the third quarter and got a school-record tying 55-yard field goal from Chris Drennan to pull away.
Among the good news was I-back Ken Clark’s 168 yards rushing in 14 carries. But even that was tinged with sadness.
The senior out of Omaha Bryan left the game with 11:21 to play in the second quarter with a bruised and hyperextended knee. He tried one more play in the third quarter before limping off again.
“Ken doesn’t think his injury is real bad right now,” Osborne said. “But we’ll know more in the morning.
“Sometimes those guys swell and they are out for two weeks, or sometimes they are practicing by Monday or Tuesday.”
Compounding the injury woes was the compound fracture of the right big toe suffered by senior tackle Doug Glaser, one of the key men throwing blocks for Clark.
The preseason All-American underwent surgery at 6 p.m. Saturday and is expected to miss four to six weeks, Osborne said.
“That’s really a big blow to us,” Osborne said. “We’re thin in the offensive line to start with.”
Fellow starting lineman John Roschal, the right guard, also hobbled off with a sprained ankle.
But the defending national rushing champions kept running. The Huskers averaged 9.7 yards a carry to produce 455 ground yards and added 102 in the air.
Clark’s backup, sophomore Leodis Flowers, rushed for 65 yards and touchdown runs of 4 and 5 yards in 11 carries.
Senior quarterback Gerry Gdowski, in his first varsity start, also drew praise for completing 6 of 8 passes for 83 yards with a touchdown and for running five times for 74 yards.
And the defense held firm most of the day, allowing just 174 total yards — 81 the second half.
“We played a real good second half of football,” Osborne said. “We were really pleased.”
The same couldn’t be said of the first half after two fumbled punt returns, a fumbled pass reception, a fumbled pitchout, an interception and NU penalties on both of NIU’s touchdown runs.
You have to go back 25 games — to the 1987 opener against Utah State — to find five Husker turnovers in four quarters, much less two periods.
But the man with the red hair said he decided not to give his players one of his “red-faced” speeches at halftime.
“I thought that would have been the worst thing I could have done,” Osborne said. “The mistakes they were making weren’t because they weren’t giving the effort or because they were lazy. And it was experienced players who were doing it.
“I could feel everybody was getting a little anxious, including me. So if I went in and threw a fit and it made them mad, that would’ve been good. But if I had got them more jittery, it would’ve been bad.
“So we just talked to them and told them they were playing OK. We just had to hang on to the ball and play with more intensity.”
The extra intensity showed from the second-half kickoff.
Wingback Nate Turner, who fumbled after catching a pass in the first half, returned the kick 44 yards to the Nebraska 47.
Wingback Richard Bell, who fumbled a punt return in the first half, ran for 6 yards. Then Gdowski, who threw a first-half interception, ran for 36 yards and passed 11 yards to tight end Monte Kratzenstein for a touchdown to give Nebraska a 24-17 lead.
“The start of the second half was really important to get us back on track,” Osborne said.
Northern Illinois fell off the track by making its first two mistakes of the game.
After its first penalty turned a third-and-two into a third-and-seven, quarterback Stacey Robinson was forced to throw and Nebraska free safety Marvin Sanders intercepted and returned it 18 yards. A personal-foul penalty put the ball on the NIU 11.
Flowers scored two plays later from the 4 to put the Huskers up 31-17.
After forcing a punt, Nebraska drove 66 yards in eight plays for a touchdown behind sophomore quarterback Mickey Joseph. He capped the drive with a 12-yard TD toss to tight end Chris Garrett for a 38-17 lead with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
Drennan’s 55-yard field goal — which matched the record kicks of Paul Rogers vs. Kansas in 1969 and Billy Todd vs. Kansas in 1977 — and reserve wingback Mark Dowse’s 10-yard run in the fourth quarter gave Nebraska its 48-17 final spread.
“The second half, I’d give us a B or a C,” strong safety Reggie Cooper said. “But that first half — I don’t even want to talk about that.
“I don’t think we were playing up to our potential at all. We’ve been sitting around a long time waiting to play. Maybe we were a little anxious.”
About three minutes into the game, Nebraska looked awesome, not anxious.
The Huskers took the opening kickoff and raced 69 yards to a touchdown in five plays.
On the first play, Gdowski hit Kratzenstein with a 28-yard pass. Then Clark rambled for 30 yards two plays later to help set up his own 2-yard touchdown run. Gregg Barrios’ point-after kick put NU up 7-0 with 12:51 to play.
Not to be outdone, the Husker defense promptly stuffed Northern Illinois for three plays.
The Huskies lost 3 yards on first down, 7 on second down and 4 on third down as Cooper, outside linebacker Mike Croel and middle guard Mike Murray made the hits.
But then the bobbling began.
Husker split end Morgan Gregory fielded a punt near midfield, made a move and dropped it. Northern Illinois’ Mike Jordan recovered at the NIU 47 and the Huskies were off and running.
Well, actually passing. Robinson fired strikes of 15 and 11 yards to help move the Huskies to the NU 2.
On first and goal from there, Robinson asked for relief from the crowd noise. The officials said no, so Northern Illinois took a timeout.
The crowd was quieted moments later when fullback Adam Dach blasted over from the 2 with Nebraska jumping offside. John Ivanic’s extra point tied the game 7-7 with 6:04 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska turned the ball over on its next two possessions.
After Clark bolted 47 yards to the NIU 25, Turner caught a Gdowski pass but fumbled and linebacker Paul Rogan recovered for Northern Illinois.
Nebraska forced a punt, but gave the ball back again.
On the ninth play of a solid drive, Gdowski aimed a pass for Gregory but hit Huskie linebacker Patrick Bryant instead at the NIU 15.
With only 10 starters back, Osborne said he expected a few mistakes Saturday.
“We were playing some guys who hadn’t played much,” he said. “But I hadn’t seen these kind of mistakes in the last couple of scrimmages. We’ve taken pretty good care of the ball.”
Nebraska’s defense forced a second straight punt to give the offense time to regroup.
Clark started another drive with a 31-yard dash, putting him at 2,004 yards for his career. That moved him past Joe Orduna and Jeff Smith into 13th on NU’s all-time rushing chart.
But three plays later, Clark hobbled off injured and the drive stalled. Barrios hit a 28-yard field goal to give Nebraska a 10-7 lead with 9:31 left in the half.
The Husker defense held on three plays again, and a 22-yard punt into the wind set the offense up at the Northern Illinois 36.
Turner ran for 14 yards, Gdowski for 17 and Flowers the final 5 to push the Huskers to a seemingly comfortable 17-7 lead with 6:33 left in the half.
But two more NU fumbles led to two more NIU scores and a tie game at halftime.
Bell bobbled a punt return and Rogan recovered his second fumble at the NU 34.
Four plays later, Dach scored from the 17 as several Nebraska defenders slowed down when flags were thrown. But it was the Huskers who were offside, and the play stood, bringing NIU within 17-14 with 3:13 left in the half.
Nebraska lost the ball again two plays later when Flowers couldn’t handle an errant pitchout from Gdowski and Huskie defensive end Cary Caliendo recovered at the NU 20.
Three plays produced just 2 yards, so Ivanic kicked a 36-yard field goal into the 15-mph wind to tie the game at 17 with 15 seconds left in the half.
Osborne said the closeness of the game might serve Nebraska well in the long run.
“Though it was a little hard on the nerves, it was probably a better game for us than if we had just played flawlessly,” he said. “It was better than if we had put the game out of reach in 10 minutes.
“And you’ve got to give Northern Illinois credit. They’ve got a good team and played well. They have a chance to win most of the rest of their games.”
|Yards per carry||2.6||9.7|
Nebraska is 2-1 all-time against Northern Illinois.
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 9|
|Oregon State||Sept. 30|
|Kansas State||Oct. 7|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 21|
|Iowa State||Oct. 28|
|Florida State||Jan. 1|
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