LINCOLN — Coming off its worst season in four decades, Nebraska came out Saturday night determined to prove that things would be changing in 2005.
This won't exactly do the trick.
The Huskers struggled with Maine at Memorial Stadium, never really putting away their NCAA Division I-AA opponent until Bo Ruud's fourth-quarter interception return in a 25-7 victory.
The crowd of 77,469 that showed up with a certain electricity went home rather quietly. The team that wanted to make a statement could only offer promises that it would get better.
Welcome to Bill Callahan's second season as head coach.
"I feel good about what our team accomplished tonight, but are we there yet? No,'' Callahan said. "We're not there yet. And we all know that. We're not fooling anybody. We have a long ways to go.''
Callahan and his players answered postgame questions in an upbeat fashion. But other than the defensive performance, there was plenty to question.
Nebraska went nearly 20 minutes into the game before scoring. It had two turnovers inside the Maine 10. Its running game managed just 121 yards against a team that ranked 69th among I-AA rushing defenses last year. It missed an extra point and saw a punt ricochet off one of its players.
And, for perspective, last season started with a 56-17 win over Western Illinois, also a I-AA team, before nose-diving to 5-6 -- the school's worst record since 1961.
"There's a lot of room for improvement with a bunch of the new guys, and really our whole offense,'' quarterback Zac Taylor said. "If we had won 25-7 and we felt like we played great, I'd be a little worried right now.''
Nebraska did start its 20th straight season with a win, the longest such streak in Division I-A football. It just made things awfully interesting into the fourth quarter.
With NU ahead 15-7, Ruud intercepted Maine quarterback Ron Whitcomb with 9:58 left and returned the football 27 yards for the touchdown that finally shook the Black Bears, a team that upset Mississippi State last year but went just 4-6 against I-AA competition.
Jordan Congdon then added a 23-yard field goal with 4:40 left — the freshman's fourth of the game — allowing fans to finally head for the exits, hopeful that things would look better next weekend against Wake Forest.
"We're taking it game by game, and a W's a W,'' cornerback Cortney Grixby said. "That's all you can ask for. You win and keep going. Tuesday we'll start preparing for Wake Forest.''
A huge shift in personnel put 17 newcomers on the field Saturday night, including nine freshmen. Taylor opened by completing 11 of 15 passes, but the junior college transfer was just 4 of 21 with two interceptions to finish his debut.
In addition, the Huskers lost promising linebacker Steve Octavien for the season. The JC transfer broke his left leg in the second quarter and is scheduled for surgery today.
There were some bright spots between the frustration.
The defense allowed Maine to cross midfield just once in the first three quarters. Stewart Bradley, Adam Carriker and Le Kevin Smith were all credited with two sacks as the Huskers finished with 11.
The Huskers actually caused the most problems for Maine with their punt return game, a real problem area last season.
Grixby had returns of 12, 14 and 8 yards before Nebraska tried Terrence Nunn. The sophomore receiver then broke returns of 62 and 45, the first setting up I-back Cory Ross' 1-yard touchdown run that made it 9-0 with 2:46 left before halftime.
But Ross also lost a fumble on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line earlier in the second quarter and another after a 30-yard run in the fourth. Ruud negated the second one with his interception.
Whitcomb was hurried by defensive end Jay Moore as he threw into the right flat. Nobody was near Ruud, a sophomore linebacker, as he grabbed the pass and ran into the end zone untouched.
Ruud, who replaced Octavien, was glad to save NU from what was becoming a scary situation.
"It was kind of frustrating,'' he said. "They didn't cross the 50-yard line most of the game. It was tough looking up at the scoreboard.''
Congdon at least netted the Huskers some points with his field goals of 23, 38, 33 and 23 yards. The first broke a scoreless tie with 5:21 left in the second quarter, but was a letdown after Taylor had thrown a 73-yard pass to Frantz Hardy that gave NU a first-and-goal at the 8.
Hardy was impressive in his debut, catching six passes for 144 yards. Taylor and Hardy teamed up again after playing together last season at Butler County (Kan.) Community College.
"I really felt comfortable here,'' Hardy said. "If you feel comfortable, you can play football.'
|Yards per carry||-0.2||2.9|
Nebraska is 1-0 all-time against Maine.
|Wake Forest||Sept. 10|
|Iowa State||Oct. 1|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 8|
|Kansas State||Nov. 12|
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