LINCOLN — Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said Saturday that because of injuries to key players, his team played Oklahoma State without all its bullets.
Indeed, the Cornhuskers shot blanks for much of the afternoon.
Then, suddenly, the Nebraska Cowboy shot down Oklahoma State’s Cowboys in the biggest play of a big 17-3 Cornhusker victory.
Senior wingback Shane Swanson, nicknamed “Cowboy” because of his high school rodeo background, returned a fourth-quarter punt 49 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cornhuskers their first lead of the game, 10-3, with 8:51 left.
“It was awesome. That was the ice breaker,” said quarterback Travis Turner, another of the Husker heroes in a relief role for starter Craig Sundberg. “We needed a big play. We hadn’t had one all day. It really helped put us over the edge.”
Swanson joined Turner, the entire Husker defense, cornerback Dave Burke, kicker Dale Klein, punter Scott Livingston, I-back Doug DuBose and split end Jason Gamble as the key contributors in the win before 76,368 at Memorial Stadium.
Klein, a sophomore from Seward, Neb., got the Huskers started to a 17-point fourth quarter with a 36-yard field goal that tied the game 3-3. Turner, a junior from Scottsbluff, combined with Jason Gamble, a freshman from Santa Barbara, Calif., for the insurance touchdown a 64-yard pass with 1:49 left in the game.
“This game today was critical,” said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne.
“Next week is going to be critical, too, but I thought this was going to be a real pivotal game for our football team.”
The win gave Nebraska, 4-1, a good start in its quest for a fourth straight Big Eight Conference championship and a quick get-well feeling after last week’s 17-9 loss to Syracuse.
But it didn’t come easy.
Until the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers appeared on the brink of losing a second straight game in the regular season for the first time since 1976.
The Huskers entered the fourth quarter trailing 3-0. And with the offense sputtering much as it did against Syracuse, things didn’t look good.
Sundberg’s three pass interceptions contributed to the problem, as did injuries to Nebraska’s key runners, I-backs Jeff Smith and DuBose and fullback Tom Rathman.
“The offense showed some great tenacity,” Osborne said. “We were out there playing without all of our bullets. Obviously, when you’ve got a guy like Jeff Smith out, a guy like DuBose playing at 90 percent, and Rathman not in there a lot of the ballgame, you don’t have all your guns. And that’s tough.”
Smith, the nation’s leader in rushing and all-purpose yardage entering the game, was bothered by the sprained ankle that kept him out of the Syracuse game. He carried just six times for 19 yards.
DuBose, also bothered by an ankle injury, took up the slack with a career best of 157 yards on 30 carries, a 5.2-yard average.
“Once he went down, I knew I had to help carry the load,” DuBose said.
The sophomore from Uncasville, Conn., said he didn’t expect to get more playing time in the future unless Smith is hurt.
“I really don’t think we’ll be alternating,” DuBose said. “I’m his backup, and when he gets hurt it’s my job to come in and take over.”
Turner said he didn’t expect to take over as the starting quarterback after his performance in relief of Sundberg. Osborne said he’ll wait until Monday before making any decisions.
“I don’t care,” Turner said. “It’s not my worry right now. It doesn’t matter to me. But I’d say probably not.”
Turner completed five of 10 passes for 100 yards. Sundberg completed four of seven for 47 yards, but had three intercepted.
The first came on Nebraska’s second offensive play of the game.
Mark Moore picked it off and returned the ball 16 yards to the Husker 29. The interception led to Oklahoma State’s only points, a 40-yard field goal by Larry Roach.
Sundberg’s second interception ended a Husker scoring threat.
Sundberg underthrew Todd Frain in the Cowboy end zone, and OSU safety Adam Hinds intercepted.
Osborne inserted Turner in the second quarter after Sundberg’s second interception. Sundberg returned to start the second half, but left the game again after Moore made his second interception, stopping a Husker drive that reached the Cowboy 28-yard line.
“I certainly haven’t given up on Craig,” Osborne said. “I hope the fans haven’t.”
Sundberg bruised his shoulder against UCLA, and Osborne said the injury has affected his passing.
“I don’t think Craig has been able to put a whole lot on the football,” Osborne said. “These guys just broke well on the ball.
You’ve got to put a lot on it, and you’ve got to throw it on time to get it out front. Craig was throwing a little bit late and a little behind.”
With Smith and Rathman limping and Paul Miles out because of a dislocated shoulder, the Huskers didn’t have all their bullets. But they still had one tough son of a gun.
Husker linebacker Mark Daum said Swanson is as tough as they come.
“There isn’t a better person, a person that’s more deserving of that punt return than Shane Swanson,” Daum said. “He’s a down-to-earth kid, a hardworking kid. He’s tough.”
Swanson, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior from Hershey, Neb., broke up the middle after taking the punt from Cowboy freshman Cary Cooper, a 5-10, 155-pound walk-on freshman from Broken Arrow, Okla.
“Their punter had been kicking them short all day,” Swanson said. “This one was short also. A lot of their guys had overrun the kick. I just angled off to my right and got some great blocks.”
After Swanson broke through the initial crowd of Cowboys, Cooper stood as the only obstacle between Swanson and a touchdown. Swanson eliminated Cooper by faking a move inside and going outside. Cooper slipped to the turf and Swanson was gone.
Smith’s punt return and the touchdown pass from Turner to Gamble might have been two of the game’s biggest plays, but Osborne passed most of the credit for the victory to the Husker defense.
“We felt we had to play a great defensive game to stay in it,” Osborne said. “And that’s pretty much what happened today.”
The Husker defense, ranked No. 1 nationally this week, gave up a seasonhigh 324 yards to the Cowboys, but made big plays when they counted.
After Sundberg’s first pass interception, the defense stiffened to limit the Cowboys to a field goal.
It also helped for the defense to be a little lucky.
In one of the game’s bigger plays, OSU quarterback Rusty Hilger threw an apparent 43-yard touchdown pass to split end Malcolm Lewis that was nullified on a clipping penalty by guard Derek Burton against Husker cornerback Burke.
The play started with play action to the right, but Hilger turned and threw a screen to Lewis on the left that caught Nebraska without any defenders in the area. It appeared Burke had no chance to catch Lewis when Burton clipped him.
“It was a big play for us because that saved our bacon at the time,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said.
The clipping penalty and defensive tackle Jim Skow’s 9-yard sack of Hilger put the Cowboys out of field goal range.
The biggest play of the first half from the defense came after Hilger completed a 28-yard pass to Thurman Thomas that advanced the Cowboys to the Husker 22 in the final minute of the first half. Nebraska’s Burke prevented additional damage when he intercepted a Hilger pass in the end zone.
Burke finished his impressive day with seven tackles, a pass interception, a fumble recovery, a key block on Swanson’s punt return, and after Nebraska had taken its 10-3 lead a deflection of Roach’s 42-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter
Burke also broke up a pass on the drive, forcing the Cowboys to attempt the field goal.
Oklahoma State Coach Pat Jones said he called for the field goal on fourth-and-10 from the Husker 25 because it would make the score 10-6, and the Cowboys could still win with a successful onside kick and a touchdown.
Oklahoma State’s defense held Nebraska’s offense to 352 yards — 238 rushing and 147 passing and became the first team to hold Nebraska scoreless in the first half since Auburn in 1981.
Nebraska bounced back to beat Auburn that day and Oklahoma State on Saturday by the same score, 17-3.
Osborne said another key to beating Oklahoma State was the Husker kicking game.
“In at least four of our first five games, we’ve had the best of the kicking game by a good margin,” Osborne said. “Today, the kicking game was really outstanding.”
It included Swanson’s punt return, Klein’s field goal, and Livingston’s eight punts for a 43.5-yard average.
Klein’s 36-yarder tied the game at 3-3 with 13:05 left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska reached the Oklahoma State 7 on a 19-yard pass from Turner to Todd Frain. After Oklahoma State’s Warren Thompson threw Turner for a 7-yard loss, a delay of game penalty, and an incomplete pass to Gamble on third-and-goal from the 19, Nebraska settled for a field goal.
Klein, a sophomore from Seward, Neb., said he felt pressure because the Huskers trailed and it was the first attempt of his Husker career.
“As I got ready to kick, Craig Sundberg, the holder, said, ‘Kick it like you always do in practice. There’s no problem,’” Klein said.
“That gave me confidence.”
Nebraska got a break on Oklahoma State’s next possession when Burke recovered a fumble by Charles Crawford at the Oklahoma State 46.
Nebraska didn’t capitalize right away Oklahoma State forced the Huskers to punt. Livingston put the Cowboys in a hole with a punt that the Huskers downed on the 5.
Oklahoma State came up just short of a first down on Kelly Cook’s 3-yard run to the 14. Cooper followed with the punt that Swanson returned for Nebraska’s go-ahead touchdown.
Oklahoma State didn’t quit. The Cowboys stayed alive with a 35-yard pass from Hilger to Jamie Harris that carried to the Husker 31.
But after getting a first down at the Nebraska 25, Hilger, who completed 14 of 28 for 242 yards, threw three straight incompletions.
Nebraska got the ball back at the 25 after Roach missed the field goal.
The Huskers then iced the game when Turner hit Gamble with a pass over the middle. Nebraska hoped for a first down, but got a touchdown when Gamble bounced off Moore and broke open for the 64-yard score.
Nebraska’s big plays ended Oklahoma State’s hopes of breaking its Cornhusker jinx.
Oklahoma State has now gone 23 years without beating the Huskers, In that time the Cowboys have managed one tie and 22 losses.
Oklahoma State, 4-1, is idle next week before playing Kansas in Stillwater, Okla., Oct. 20. Nebraska plays Missouri in Lincoln next Saturday.
“This means so much to us,” Daum said. “Last week we were down in the dumps. Now we’re in euphoria. It gives us a big shot in the arm for Missouri.”
|Yards per carry||2.0||3.7|
Nebraska is 37-5 all-time against Oklahoma State.
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 6|
|Kansas State||Oct. 27|
|Iowa State||Nov. 3|
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