LINCOLN — The Nebraska offense, struggling to find the end zone, was thrown two life preservers by the defense Saturday that the Huskers turned into second-half touchdowns and the margin of victory in a 17-3 win over Auburn.
“Thank God for the defense,” said one Husker as the team made its way to the locker room.
A Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,423, the largest ever for a non-conference game, sat through a rainy day and watched Auburn muster enough resistance to keep the game in doubt until the final minutes.
The win came the hard way, but Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said he was proud of the effort.
“I’m thankful for the way the players pulled together today,” Osborne said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of friends here last week and maybe not this week.”
Osborne was referring to the Huskers’ recovery from last week’s 30-24 loss to Penn State that left Nebraska with a 1-2 record.
The Husker offense, which moved inside the Auburn 10 three times on its own during the game and didn’t score, was finally handed two opportunities by the defense and capitalized.
The first was provided by defensive end Jimmy Williams when he hit Auburn quarterback Charles Thomas to force a fumble that Williams recovered himself at the Tiger 4. Two plays later Roger Craig scored on a 3-yard sweep to give the Huskers a 10-3 lead with 9:25 remaining in the third quarter.
Just 45 seconds earlier Nebraska, which trailed 3-0 at halftime, had tied the game on a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Seibel. Nebraska followed its 4-yard scoring drive with another mini-thrust by the fourth quarter. Husker safety Jeff Krejci set it up by recovering a Lionel James fumble at the Auburn 9 and quarterback Turner Gill, playing in relief of Mark Mauer, wrapped up the scoring with his 8-yard touchdown run that made the score 17-3 with 3:51 left.
Osborne saluted the defense for its role in the victory that evened the Husker record at 2-2.
“I was very pleased with the way our defense came along today,” said Osborne. “My main concern was that they would 3-, 4- and 5-yard us to death. That didn’t happen. We set a goal of getting four turnovers or so and we did at least that.”
Nebraska bettered that goal by getting seven and held the Auburn offense to an average of just 2.4 yards per play. Fullback Ron O’Neal, who had been averaging over 6 yards per carry for the Tigers, was limited to 22 yards on 14 carries.
Nebraska held Auburn to 55 yards in rushing and 95 yards in passing. The Husker total offensive edge was 307-150.
“Offensively we got manhandled,” said Auburn Coach Pat Dye.
The Husker defense shut down the Auburn wishbone offense and made sure it was the opponent that suffered more from the case of turnovers that plagued both teams.
Nebraska, which had 14 turnovers in its first three games, added four more against the Tigers. Two wiped out almost certain touchdowns. Husker I-back Roger Craig lost one at the Auburn 4-yard line in the second quarter and another at the Tiger 5 in the fourth period.
But Auburn was even more charitable — fumbling 10 times and losing five. The Huskers also swiped two Tiger passes.
“The defense really held us in there,” said Osborne.
The Husker offense moved the ball with authority much of the game but was frustrated frequently by an Auburn defense that made big plays near its own goal.
The frustration surfaced in the opening quarter when the Huskers had the ball for 10:34 to just 4:26 for Auburn, but the Tigers entered the second quarter with a 3-0 lead.
Nebraska marched to the Auburn 29 on its first possession. Auburn ended the drive when defensive back Bob Harris broke up a Mark Mauer pass in the Husker backfield.
A 30-yard keeper by Auburn’s Thomas put the Tigers in position for Al Del Greco’s 52-yard field goal. Del Greco connected with 6:28 left in the quarter.
Nebraska’s next drive reached the Auburn 9. The Huskers, facing fourth-and-inches, came up short on a sneak by Mauer.
Osborne decided against a field goal attempt “because we had only two or three inches to go. Normally, we feel we can make that.”
He said he nixed the idea of a field goal on the first drive because of the strong wind.
“We don’t have anybody that can consistently kick that far into the wind,” he said.
Nebraska had the ball 46 plays in the first half to just 22 for Auburn, but still trailed 3-0 at the half. Auburn was the second team this season to blank Nebraska in the first half. Iowa did it in the opener that the Hawkeyes won 10-7.
Auburn’s first turnover of the game was quarterback Ken Hobby’s fumble in the second quarter. Sammy Sims recovered for Nebraska at the Auburn 21. But the Huskers failed to capitalize when Craig lost his first fumble at the 5 with Tiger linebacker Chris Martin recovering.
“On offense we moved the ball, but our execution just wasn’t good,” said Osborne.”We had some turnovers and fumbles that could have been blamed on hard hitting and the wet ball. We had some dropped passes that may have been from the same kind of thing.”
Heavy rain fell before the opening kickoff and at frequent intervals during the game.
“It was a rainy day,” said fullback Phil Bates. “That had a lot to do with it (Nebraska’s offensive problems). We’ve just got to get finer on our technique to get the ball in the end zone. We’ve got to score more. We’ve got a better offense than 17 points. We really should have blown them out.”
Osborne didn’t talk as if he was worried about the offense with the Huskers’ Big Eight opener against Colorado just a week away.
“I think the offense will come along and will be good,” he said. “We’ve got the basic ingredients there. I’m just very pleased we won the game.”
Osborne was undecided after beating Auburn which of his quarterbacks would be the starter against Colorado.
Mauer started the game and the second half against Auburn. Gill entered early in the second quarter, and again midway in the fourth quarter.
“They both did some good things and some bad things,” said Osborne.
“I’ll make the decision on who is going to start early and I’ll tell them before I tell anybody else.”
Both Gill and Mauer had passes intercepted by Auburn freshman David King. King intercepted the throw from Gill at the Auburn 7 and returned it 26 yards to the Auburn 33 in the second quarter.
Mauer was intercepted in the fourth quarter with King taking it at the Auburn 21 and returning it 18 yards.
Osborne said Gill “showed a little inexperience at times but he’s got a lot of athletic ability and did a great job there at the end.”
Gill was looking first to pass on the touchdown play before running to his left and finding a clear path to the end zone.
Nebraska’s strike for a pair of quick scores in the second half was reminiscent of the Florida State game when the Huskers broke open the game with two touchdowns in six seconds — the second when Tony Felici returned a Florida State fumble on a kickoff for a score.
Against Auburn the Huskers scored 10 points in 45 seconds.
The first three came on Seibel’s field goal. Following the kickoff, Auburn ran only one play before Williams did his number on Thomas to give the Huskers the ball at the 4.
Williams enjoyed his most productive day of the season with 12 tackles, including two for 16 yards in losses. Williams and Felici, the other Husker end, benefited from a strategy that sent them crashing on the Tiger quarterback and fullback. Felici was in on nine tackles, including three sacks for 31 yards in losses.
“The game plan was set up to cut the ends loose,” said Williams. “We were able to make a lot of things happen.” Eleven of Williams’ tackles were unassisted.
“The ends were going to make a lot of big plays today,” said Osborne. “They had to. They had to stop the fullback.”
O’Neal, the Tigers’ 245-pound fullback, was Auburn’s leading rusher with his 22 yards. Thomas gained 73, but also lost 72 and ended with a net of just 1 yard gained.
In the end, it was the turnovers that haunted Auburn most.
After Craig’s score put the Huskers up 10-7, Auburn had three possible comeback drives wiped out because of miscues.
The Tigers drove into Nebraska territory late in the third quarter, but were stopped at the 33 when Thomas fumbled a snap, and Jeff Merrell recovered for Nebraska.
The next time Auburn had the ball, Husker Ric Lindquist thwarted the Tigers with an interception of a Thomas pass. Lindquist took the pass at the Husker 32 and returned it to the Auburn 45.
Auburn’s deepest penetration into Husker territory reached the 23 where O’Neal fumbled and Felici recovered with 8:01 remaining.
Husker punter Grant Campbell, who averaged 50.2 yards on five punts, and Anthony Steels also deserve an assist on Nebraska’s final touchdown. Campbell’s 54-yard punt was downed at the Auburn 3 by Steels. On the next play James fumbled and Krejci recovered at the Auburn 9 to set up Gill’s touchdown.
“Our kicking game was a little better today,” Osborne said.
Nebraska will start Big Eight play with the knowledge that rival Oklahoma, which was tied 7-7 by Iowa State Saturday, already has a blemish on its record.
“That doesn’t make much difference to me,” said Bates. “We’re not worried what those teams are doing, but that was an interesting development.
|Yards per carry||1.1||4.0|
Nebraska is 3-1 all-time against Auburn.
|Florida State||Sept. 19|
|Penn State||Sept. 26|
|Kansas State||Oct. 17|
|Oklahoma State||Nov. 7|
|Iowa State||Nov. 14|
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