COLUMBIA, Mo. — After 145 offensive plays and 59 minutes 57 seconds of typically brutal Nebraska-Missouri football Saturday, it came down to one play.
Three ticks on the clock. Missouri trailing the mighty Cornhuskers 23-20. Ball on the Husker 11-yard line.
Time out while the Tiger coaches huddled, the Huskers stewed and the second-largest Faurot Field crowd ever — 74,575 — worked its emotions to a near-fainting level.
A field goal for a moral victory by a two-touchdown underdog or a touchdown attempt for the real thing.
Warren Powers hadn’t upset Nebraska with his Washington State and Missouri teams the last two years by playing it cozy. He plunked his whole bankroll down on the black. It came up red.
Powers said later he never considered the field goal. “These kids played their hearts out, and I don’t think any of them was ready to settle for the tie.”
Swell decision, said the Huskers.
The Play came to pass because Missouri’s lithe and wily quarterback, Phil Bradley, deftly avoided Husker blitzes enough times to complete eight passes in a final desperate drive, helped along by a facemask penalty.
Bradley retreated on The Play, looking for James Wilder coming out of the backfield. Wilder had been belted to the ground. Suddenly, Bradley found himself face mask to face mask with hard-charging defensive end Derrie Nelson. Bradley was pounded into the turf for an 18-yard loss.
As the ball popped free and the gun sounded, the Huskers could quit holding their breath, with their unbeaten season still secure at 8-0.
Missouri was soothed by an appreciative ovation from its long-suffering backers and the knowledge that it had extended the nation’s No. 2-ranked team to the maddening fullest.
As darkness fell, a scoreboard message proclaimed: “We’ll get a bowl bid yet, so don’t worry.” With a fourth loss in five games and a 4-4 record, the operator might have been guilty of wishful thinking.
“Anybody back in Nebraska not happy with this win doesn’t know what happened down here,” Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. “We overcame a lot. It doesn’t mean we’re not No. 1 in the country because we only won by 3 points.”
What happened at Faurot Field Saturday before and after Dean Sukup’s winning field goal late in the fourth quarter included a dizzying assortment of give and take, such as:
— Early dominance by Nebraska, established by a touchdown in the first five plays, including a 50-yard scoot by fullback Andra Franklin, his longest as a Husker.
— Drives of 60 and 90 yards for Tiger touchdowns against the defense that ranked second in the nation in rushing and fourth in total defense. A string of 20 consecutive quarters without a touchdown scored against the Blackshirts ended on the first play of the second quarter.
— A 20-6 Nebraska lead that vanished in a mere eight seconds late in the third quarter when the Tigers followed up their 90-yard drive with a mid-air fumble recovery touchdown to make it 20-20.
— A gut-check winning drive that started at the Nebraska 37 with 7:31 remaining with forgotten quarterback Jeff Quinn running the show. Third stringer Craig Johnson punctured the Tiger defense for 47 yards on seven carries while the Big Eight’s leading rusher, Jarvis Redwine, watched from the bench with a sore knee and all-time Husker rushing leader I.M. Hipp was sidelined because of ineffectiveness in a continuous bout with gout of the toe.
— A 19-yard field goal with 3:15 remaining by Sukup, an imperturbable senior from Cozad, who had practiced for his second decisive boot with earlier field goals of 24 and 26 yards. Sukup had drilled the winner in a 24-21 victory over Iowa with 5:52 left.
— Finally, Bradley’s late heroics after the Huskers scored too quickly.
Toss in some controversy after an inadvertent whistle changed a Husker interception to a simple quarterback loss just before the half, and there were enough dramatic developments in this one to fit proudly into a series that is noted for high drama.
“I never did consider going for the field goal unless it was fourth down from around the 25-yard line or so,” said Powers. “I don’t think my kids wanted to go for the field goal. They wanted to win.”
Osborne said, “I’m not going to second-guess Warren. He’s a good coach. It’s his problem, his decision.”
Nelson, the end who made the crucial play, said “I was real glad they were going for the 7. I was just hoping he (Bradley) wouldn’t move. Their tackle was screening me from Bradley, and I was on him before he saw me. He knew it when I hit him.
“That was the best hit I ever made because we’re 8-0 right now.”
A year ago, Missouri put together a “must” drive behind Wilder, who rushed for 181 yards and four touchdowns, including the last one in a 35-31 upset.
This time, a similar role fell to Johnson, a slender junior from Omaha Westside. Johnson opened the deciding march with runs of 14 and 12 yards. He carried again for 12 before stepping out of bounds on the Mizzou 3. But Kurt Petersen dropped Johnson for a yard loss from the 1 on third down, and Sukup was summoned for the field goal.
“I’m just happy to have played,” Johnson said. “Had Jarvis or Isaiah (Hipp) been in there, I would have been just as confident. There wasn’t too much said in the huddle when we started the drive. We showed poise. It was just a job we had to do.”
Tim Hager, who contributed a 42-yard option run to set up his own sneak to the second Nebraska touchdown in the second quarter, was relieved by Ord junior Quinn in the last 12 minutes.
“They had taken our pitches away,” Osborne said, "and we felt we could break an option on them. Quinn is big and fast enough to break it.”
On his first play, Quinn sprinted 18 yards before stumbling while in the clear. “I was just startled when I saw that much open ground, and I fell down,” Quinn said.
That drive stalled, but on the next attempt, the Huskers made their winning march on 10 successive ground plays.
“We just decided to go on down and score,” Quinn said, simply. “It was just a real fine job by the line.”
The Cornhuskers finished the day with 291 yards in rushing, compared with their average 384 which had been leading the nation. And they suffered through another subpar passing day of 5 for 13 and 54 yards.
But despite Wilder gaining a season-high 87 yards, the Huskers again held their opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground (99, to be exact).
After Nebraska’s quick-strike opening touchdown drive ended with Redwine’s 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Nebraska was granted 15 extra yards on the kickoff because Missouri had too many men on the field on the PAT. An onside kick was ordered, and split end Tim Smith pulled it off.
But the drive ended when Sukup missed with a 45-yard field goal attempt.
Missouri made it 7-6 in the second quarter when Gerry Ellis made good on a 1-yard dive and Ron Verrilli made bad on the extra-point kick.
Hager’s sneak and Sukup’s first field goal made it 17-6 at the half, and Sukup pushed the lead to 20-6 in the third quarter.
“We were within a touchdown of getting the game under control,” Osborne said.
Then it happened.
Mizzou drove 90 yards, aided by a 25-yard pass interference penalty and four completions by Bradley, who finished the day with 18 of 28 for 170 yards.
Nebraska had just completed a grand midfield stand by twice stopping the Tigers when they needed a yard on third and fourth downs.
Grand Stand No. 2 was in the works when Mizzou started with first down on the 5 and made it to the 4 on fourth down. But Bradley lobbed the touchdown to freshman tight end Andy Gibler from there. Mark LeRoy foiled a 2-point conversion pitchout to Wilder.
At 20-12, the Huskers still were not swallowing hard, but they were just eight seconds later.
Tiger Ron Fellows belted kickoff returner Anthony Steels. The ball popped into the grateful arms of Orlando Pope, who fled 17 yards to the end zone. Bradley looped a 2-point pass to tight end Tim Hornof, and it was 20-20 at three quarters.
Tiger Jeff Brockhaus missed a 47-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have forced Osborne to make the win-or-tie decision at the 1 later on.
“We’ve played so well so far, it would be a shame to lose one now,” Osborne said. “It was a tough game. This is the kind of game that will serve us well in the next three games. Winning one like this is better than steamrolling over someone.”
But that close?
As Steels said after his fumble-turned-Tiger-touchdown: “It was a terrible feeling. I was praying we’d come through. We didn’t need that. The game was interesting enough already.”
|Yards per carry||1.9||5.5|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Utah State||Sept. 15|
|Penn State||Sept. 29|
|New Mexico State||Oct. 6|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 20|
|Kansas State||Nov. 10|
|Iowa State||Nov. 17|
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