LINCOLN — The question of whether Nebraska is a national championship contender or merely a pretender is still on the table after Saturday night's game against Notre Dame.
The fourth- and fifth-ranked Huskers showed flashes of brilliance in hammering out a 27-10 victory over the 17th-ranked Fighting Irish. Nebraska also displayed some of the flaws that make it a tough read, a mystery that three wins have failed to solve.
"What we were able to accomplish early in the game was great," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "Without question, this team was ready to play and we showed well."
But after building a 27-3 lead after two quarters, the Huskers failed to sustain the effort in the final 30 minutes. Solich admits he pulled hard on the offensive reins in the second half, preferring to see Nebraska eat time off the clock instead of making any crucial turnovers.
"We probably didn't give our offense a fair shake in the second half," Solich said. "It just didn't make sense in getting too exotic or getting too fancy. We didn't want to commit any quick turnovers to let them back in the game."
Overall, Solich said, Nebraska had more good than bad in the performance that had the record turnout of 78,118 — the 242nd consecutive sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium — in an early-game frenzy.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard it here," Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch said.
Crouch and a Nebraska defense that dominated the Fighting Irish contributed to whipping up the emotions of the crowd. The quarterback directed his team to a touchdown on Nebraska's first possession, and the defense recovered a fumble on Notre Dame's first play to set up a rapid - fire second score.
That set the tone for another dominating defensive performance. The Huskers came into the game fourth in the nation in total defense and did nothing to hurt that standing in holding Notre Dame to 162 total yards, an average of 2.6 per play. The Huskers also forced three takeaways, two of which set up 10 of their first 17 points.
"We set a goal of getting three takeaways tonight and we achieved that," said Craig Bohl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "We knew Notre Dame was going to be a challenge, and we had a lot of guys step up to the plate."
Nebraska finished with 270 yards, 133 of which belonged to I-back Dahrran Diedrick. He scored touchdowns on first-half runs of 2 and 3 yards. Crouch, who scored three touchdowns in last season's 27-24 overtime win over the Fighting Irish, added 31 yards rushing and 88 passing. He completed 6 of 9 passes, with only one of the throws coming in the second half.
Diedrick's first score capped Nebraska's opening possession, and the defense came right back with a takeaway when Notre Dame's Terrance Howard fumbled on the Fighting Irish's first play from scrimmage.
On the next play, Crouch found wingback John Gibson all alone in the far corner of the north end zone on a 22 - yard scoring pass that hiked Nebraska's lead to 14 - 0 less than five minutes into the game.
Notre Dame never recovered. Nebraska built its lead to 17-0 after one quarter — it could have been even more had the Huskers not squandered a pair of scoring opportunities — and took a 27-3 lead into intermission.
Nebraska scored 10 points in the final seven minutes of the first half. The late spurt allowed Nebraska to regain any momentum that Notre Dame had gained when sophomore Carlyle Holiday entered the game in relief of beleaguered starter Matt LoVecchio and guided the Fighting Irish to their only first-half points on a 29-yard field goal by Nick Setta.
Holiday, who picked Notre Dame over Nebraska in what was a hot recruiting battle in the first month of 2000, played the third quarter but couldn't get the Fighting Irish's offense going with any consistency. The Fighting Irish gained 43 yards on 28 plays in the first half, and were still under the 100-yard mark after 45 minutes as they ended the final quarter with 91 yards.
A blocked punt on the final play of the fourth quarter set up Notre Dame's only touchdown, but even that came with great difficulty for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame needed four plays to get the ball into the end zone from the 4 - yard line, with Tony Fisher getting the last yard by bouncing outside of Nebraska's stacked - up defense.
The score cut Nebraska's lead to 27-10 with 13:07 remaining.
Diedrick scored twice, the first coming on Nebraska's opening possession of the game. The Huskers moved 64 yards on nine plays, with Diedrick getting loose for runs of 12 and 13 yards and Crouch passing 14 yards to tight end Tracey Wistrom.
Diedrick got the score on a 2-yard run with 10:41 left in the first quarter. It took Nebraska just 22 seconds to score again, as Crouch passed 22 yards to Gibson for a touchdown on the first play following Jamie Burrow's recovery of Howard's fumble.
Nebraska made it 17-0 with 3:59 left in the period, taking advantage of a major mistake by Notre Dame's punt team. Long snapper John Crowther unleased a wild snap over punter Joey Hildbold's head, which Nebraska rush end Justin Smith ran down at the Notre Dame 8 - yard line.
Diedrick got 2 yards on first dwon and Crouch rushed for 5 to get the ball to the Notre Dame 1. The Fighting Irish stopped Diedrick for a 1-yard loss on third down, and Nebraska settled for a 19-yard field goal by Sandro DeAngelis.
Three plays later, Nebraska was back within 11 yards of the Notre Dame goal line when cornerback DeJuan Groce intercepted a LoVecchio pass and returned it 49 yards. Nebraska failed to convert the turnover when Crouch fumbled the center snap on the first play from scrimmage to give the ball back to Notre Dame.
Holiday guided Notre Dame to its second-period field goal before Diedrick and DeAngelis combined for Nebraska's final 10 points of the half.
Diedrick got his second touchdown on a 3-yard run to cap a 49-yard, nine-play drive, and DeAngelis kicked his second field goal of the game with one second left in the half. The 21-yard kick made it 27-3.
It remained that way through a scoreless third period until Fisher scored early in the fourth period after the blocked punt.
|Yards per carry||1.4||3.5|
Nebraska is 8-7 all-time against Notre Dame.
|Troy State||Sept. 1|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 8|
|Iowa State||Oct. 6|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 20|
|Kansas State||Nov. 10|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 3|
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