SAN DIEGO — The Huskers saw a fourth-quarter lead turn to defeat for the third time this season as fifth- and sixth-ranked Arizona rallied for a 23-20 victory in the Culligan Holiday Bowl. Kelvin Eafon’s 1-yard touchdown run with 6:08 left produced the winning points to finish off the 12-1 Wildcats’ most successful season in school history.
In turn, that left Nebraska, a team that started the season with national championship hopes, with its first four-loss season since the 1968 Huskers went 6-4. Nebraska finished Frank Solich’s first season as head coach with a 9-4 record as its string of four straight postseason wins — three of which capped national championship seasons — was snapped.
“I think people, including us, get spoiled, “ said Nebraska senior rush end Mike Rucker, named the game’s outstanding defensive player. “We’ve had so many great teams around here that when we do get a couple of losses, people treat it like it’s the end of the world.
“But we had a good ballclub, and it would be different if we weren’t playing hard. But we played extremely hard tonight and in some of our other games. We just didn’t get it done, and that’s the bottom line.”
As they did in regular-season losses to Texas and Kansas State, the 14th- and 16th-ranked Huskers were unable to keep Arizona from rallying when the game was on the line. Nebraska had taken a 20-16 lead with 10:55 to play when Tracey Wistrom made a twisting, over-the-head catch of a 4-yard pass from Eric Crouch in the back of the end zone.
“When we scored that touchdown, I thought it looked pretty good for us, “ said Crouch, who passed for 193 yards and finished as Nebraska’s top rusher with 28 yards. “But Arizona came back strong. You have to give them a lot of credit, especially Keith Smith. He did a great job of leading them on that drive.”
Smith, the junior who shares playing time with sophomore Ortege Jenkins, ignited Arizona’s 68-yard drive when, on the third play of the possession, he scrambled for 20 yards. When Arizona faced third down at the Nebraska 17-yard line, Smith responded with an 8-yard ramble to a drive-extending first down.
On the next play, Smith gained 8 more yards on a scramble to set up Eafon’s winning touchdown.
“Both teams made some big plays throughout the game, but Arizona made a few more when it needed them the most, especially on that last drive, “ Solich said. “You have to congratulate them because they got it done when it counted.
“We’ve had a lot of close, tough contests this year, games where a play here or a play there might have made a difference.”
One of the difference-makers Wednesday might have been Nebraska’s inability to mount a rushing attack. Arizona, ranked 12th nationally against the run, held the Huskers to 87 yards rushing on 34 attempts. I-backs Correll Buckhalter and DeAngelo Evans combined for 22 yards on 12 carries. Evans, in his first action since Oct. 10, finished with zero net yards on four attempts.
“We were able to shut down Nebraska’s running game, “ Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said, “and that’s one of the main reasons we won the game.”
Arizona finished with 107 yards rushing after spending most of the first three quarters spinning its wheels against Nebraska’s defense. The Wildcats had minus-1 yard rushing at halftime and were at minus-7 until Trung Canidate ripped off a 16-yard gain late in the third quarter.
Arizona’s final 19 rushes of the game produced 114 yards. Canidate finished with 101 yards on 22 carries, while Smith, the offensive player of the game, had a net of 25 yards rushing to go along with his 143 passing yards on 11-of-19 accuracy. Overall, Arizona finished with 280 total yards, 15 more than Nebraska’s total output.
“I thought we could win if we got our running game going in the second half, “ Tomey said. “At halftime, we eliminated two-thirds of our running plays. I had our quarterback ad-lib some offensive plays in the second half.”
With Nebraska unable to run, Crouch put the ball up 28 times, completing 12. In addition to the fourth-quarter scoring pass to Wistrom, Crouch hooked up on a 45-yard touchdown pass to Shevin Wiggins that highlighted Nebraska’s string of 13 straight points in the second quarter.
But Crouch also threw two interceptions, the second of which all but ended Nebraska’s comeback hopes. After Eafon’s touchdown, the Huskers moved from their 30-yard line to the Arizona 41. A 5-yard sack on second down left the Huskers facing third-and-11, and Crouch, under pressure, unleashed a long pass down the middle of the field that was intended for Wiggins.
Chris McAlister stepped in front of the throw at the 7, and the All-America cornerback returned the interception 23 yards. The Wildcats picked up a first down, forcing Nebraska to burn all of its timeouts. The Huskers did get the ball back with 34 seconds to play, but couldn’t pull off one of the miraculous finishes that have characterized past Holiday Bowls.
Wednesday’s game did mark the 12th time in 21 games that the final outcome was decided by seven points or fewer. The game also produced a record crowd, as 65,324 turned out for the game at Qualcomm Stadium. All 70,500 tickets were sold.
Nebraska, which spent most of the first two quarters on its heels, danced into halftime with a 13-9 lead, scoring all of its points in the final 4:58 of the second period.
Meanwhile, Arizona had to be kicking itself for squandering scoring opportunities that could have put four touchdowns on the board. Instead, the Wildcats had to settle for field goals of 38, 25 and 48 yards, the latter a career-long, by Mark McDonald.
“They were able to put points on the boards, which didn’t help, “ Solich said. “We had emphasized taking care of the football and eliminating turnovers. But at the beginning of the game, we had more turnovers than what most teams would have been able to overcome.”
The Huskers lost two fumbles in the first quarter, which set up two of McDonald’s field goals. The first came when Wiggins dropped Arizona’s first punt, with McAlister recovering at the Nebraska 21-yard line. Arizona picked up a first down, and appeared to have a touchdown when Smith threw 7 yards to Brad Brennan on a third-and-goal play.
But the Wildcats were called for holding, wiping out the first of two touchdowns that were nullified by penalties. The second came in the second period when an illegal block erased McAlister’s 75-yard punt return.
Arizona increased its lead to 6-0 when McDonald capped a six-play, 64-yard drive with his field goal from 25 yards. The Wildcats got 63 of the yards on a pass from Smith to Brennan, who split Nebraska rover back Mike Brown and free safety Clint Finley on the play. Finley eventually brought Brennan down at the Huskers’ 14-yard line.
Nebraska’s defense again held, forcing McDonald to come on for his 25-yard field goal with 52 seconds left in the first quarter. Arizona then squandered another big opportunity when linebacker Scooter Sprotte recovered quarterback Monte Christo’s fumble at the Huskers’ 15-yard line.
Three running plays later, the Wildcats appeared to have a first down at the Nebraska 2-yard line after a 4-yard run by Eafon. But a scuffle in the end zone involving Rucker and Arizona tight end Mike Lucky resulted in a pair of dead-ball fouls that ended up pushing the Wildcats back to the Nebraska 16.
The Huskers were penalized half the distance to the goal line for Rucker’s personal foul, taking the ball to the 1. But the Wildcats’ next snap came from the 16, as Arizona was assessed a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Rush end Chad Kelsay sacked Smith for a 15-yard loss, leaving Arizona facing fourth and 25 from the Nebraska 31-yard line. McDonald kept the possession from being a total failure when he drilled his third field goal of the game, from 48 yards, with 13:41 left in the second quarter.
“I was concerned about our defense running out of gas in the first half because it seemed like they were on the field forever, “ Solich said. “We could have been down by a number of points, but our defense played tremendously well and held them to three field goals.
“Whether we eventually wore down in the second half, I don’t know. Arizona has a lot of big play people, and they got a lot of snaps to get things done.”
One of the Wildcats’ biggest-play people is McAlister. In addition to his two interceptions, he appeared to break a punt return for a touchdown midway through the second quarter when he took a pitch from Dennis Northcutt and caught Nebraska on the reverse. McAlister raced to the end zone, but Derek Hall’s illegal block on Nebraska’s Brian Shaw at the start of the return nullified the effort.
The Huskers cut their deficit to 9-3 when Brown kicked a 25-yard field goal with 4:58 left in the half. Brown’s kick came seven plays after defensive tackle Loran Kaiser had recovered Jenkins’ fumble at the Wildcats’ 34-yard line.
The Huskers picked up a first down when Crouch completed a 24-yard pass to Matt Davison to the Arizona 9. Two incompletions and a 1-yard gain by Buckhalter stalled the Huskers, bringing Brown in to kick his field goal.
The Huskers got the ball back with 2:37 left after an Arizona punt wobbled out of bounds at the Wildcats’ 49-yard line. Makovicka gained 4 yards on first down, then Crouch and Wiggins burned Arizona with a play-action pass that covered the remaining 45 yards and produced Nebraska’s first touchdown.
Wiggins beat the coverage of Sprotte, an inside linebacker, and scored untouched on the play. Brown’s converted the extra point, giving Nebraska its first lead at 10-9 with 1:53 left in the second quarter.
“I thought when we got the lead just before halftime, we were going to be able to do some things in the second half, “ Crouch said. “But both defenses played well tonight. You have to credit them for the tenacity they showed throughout the game.”
Nebraska added to its lead when senior fullback Billy Legate delivered the hit of the game when he clobbered Northcutt on the ensuing kickoff return. Northcutt was heading upfield when he ran smack into Legate, fumbling the ball on impact. Legate then scrambled after the loose ball, recovering it at the Arizona 9.
Arizona’s defense kept Nebraska from the end zone, surrendering 3 yards on the Huskers’ next three snaps. Brown then delivered his second field goal of a half, a 23-yarder that marked the fourth time he ended the first half of a game with a successful kick. He also converted field-goal attempts to end the first half against Missouri, Texas and Colorado this season.
The first-half statistics reflected the defensive nature of the contest. Nebraska had 142 yards, 66 of it coming on 19 rushes. Arizona’s 21 first-half rushing attempts yielded a minus-1 yard, and the Wildcats had 99 total yards — 63 of them coming on Smith’s pass to Brennan.
|Yards per carry||2.4||2.6|
Nebraska is 1-1 all-time against Arizona.
|Louisiana Tech||Aug. 29|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 3|
|Texas A&M||Oct. 10|
|Iowa State||Nov. 7|
|Kansas State||Nov. 14|
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