LINCOLN — For all those doubters out there — and there will be many — Nebraska football coach Bill Callahan offered a message Saturday after the Huskers escaped Memorial Stadium fortunate to beat unheralded Ball State 41-40.
"I'd say this to you: It is a win," Callahan said.
"There are all types of wins. I'm just proud of the fact that our kids found a way to get this done. You need good fortune in life with anything you do. The ball bounces a lot of different ways.
"It just bounced one more time our way."
Somehow, his assessment might not satisfy all of Husker Nation. Another week of unrest appears on tap after the Cardinals torched NU for 610 yards and led most of the fourth quarter.
Thousands in the stunned crowd of 84,394 booed as Ball State (2-2) built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter and punished the reeling Blackshirts with consecutive touchdown drives of 80, 80 and 96 yards -- on 14 total plays -- over a stretch of less than nine minutes.
All that stood between Ball State and the biggest upset in its history? A 55-yard field-goal attempt by freshman Jake Hogue with 17 seconds to play.
He had plenty of distance but pulled it far wide to the left, igniting a celebration on the Nebraska sideline before quarterback Sam Keller ran out the clock with one snap.
"I thought he was going to make it," Ball State coach Brady Hoke said.
Before the errant kick, 24th-ranked Nebraska (3-1) struggled mightily on defense. Linebackers Steve Octavien and Bo Ruud produced game-saving second-half plays, but even they couldn't hide the truth.
"We've got to do a better job coaching," Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said.
Keller and Ball State quarterback Nate Davis, meanwhile, engaged in a second-half shootout after the Huskers led 14-10 at the break. Keller threw for a school-record 438 yards on 29-of-37 passing. Davis, an upstart sophomore, completed 26 of 43 throws for 422 yards.
The Cardinals' huge output came on the heels of a 49-31 NU loss last week to No. 1 Southern California. In the two games combined, the Huskers allowed 89 points, the most ever by Nebraska in consecutive home games.
"It's obvious that we've got to amend some things," Callahan said. "But overall, our defense made some plays at the end to win this football game."
First, there was Ruud.
Nebraska trailed 37-28 with less than 10 minutes to play after it committed turnovers on two straight possessions. But Ruud, the senior co-captain out of Lincoln Southeast, stepped in front of a Davis pass intended for running back MiQuale Lewis. Ruud bobbled the football, secured it and raced 34 yards for a touchdown that made it 37-35.
"That, as far as I'm concerned," Keller said, "was the play that allowed us to win the game."
It also re-energized the team.
"That did everything for both sides of the ball," tight end Sean Hill said. "It brought life back to the defense, and it gave hope to the offense that we were going to win this thing."
Hope took a hit as soon as the Cardinals regained possession. Davis scrambled for 29 yards and drew a late-hit penalty on cornerback Andre Jones. Ball State, though, could not convert a first-and-goal from the 6 as Jones deflected a third-down pass in the end zone with the Huskers applying rare pressure to the quarterback.
The Cardinals settled for a 22-yard field goal by Hogue to make it 40-35.
Keller answered with a classic drive, completing all of his seven passes as NU marched 82 yards in nine plays. He connected from 11 yards out with his favorite target, senior receiver Maurice Purify, with 3:13 to play on a crossing route that gave Nebraska its first lead of the quarter.
NU's try for a 2-point conversion failed when Keller's pass pulled Peterson out of the end zone, meaning a field goal would win it for the Cardinals.
And Davis looked intent to lead them. He connected on six straight passes to reach the NU 38 with 36 seconds left.
Dante Love, on second down, then broke free of Nebraska cornerback Armando Murillo, but Davis' throw bounced off the receiver's fingers. It was a sure touchdown dropped.
On the next play, Davis appeared to find tight end Darius Hill on a seam route for a 25-yard gain. This time, Octavien appeared out of nowhere, launching his body to deflect the pass.
That set the stage for Hogue. Nebraska tried to ice him with two timeouts. The snap from Cody Muhlenkamp sailed, and holder Tanner Justice was slow to place the ball.
NU fans in the north end zone erupted as soon as the ball left Hogue's foot.
"We had to claw back," Keller said. "Our defense was down. They were out. They had things go wrong. But they made plays when they had to. Not everything goes as scripted."
|Yards per carry||5.2||3.2|
Nebraska is 1-0 all-time against Ball State.
|Wake Forest||Sept. 8|
|Ball State||Sept. 22|
|Iowa State||Sept. 29|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 13|
|Texas A&M||Oct. 20|
|Kansas State||Nov. 10|
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