LINCOLN — For the past month, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne has been telling anyone who would listen that South Carolina has a good football team.
“Before the season, we said this game would be as difficult as UCLA and Arizona State,” he said.
Few believed then. But many are convinced now after the second-ranked Huskers scrambled for 17 fourth-quarter points Saturday to beat the unranked Gamecocks 30-21.
A crowd of 76,061 the 151st straight Memorial Stadium sellout saw Nebraska come from behind in both halves to boost its record to 4-0 entering Big Eight Conference play this week against Kansas.
“I’m pretty glad the non-conference is over,” Osborne said.
“It’s been a little tough on my ticker.”
His tuckered ticker might have skipped beats more than once Saturday as the 2-2 Gamecocks 17 1/2-point underdogs scored two third-quarter touchdowns for a 21-13 lead.
“It looked pretty bleak there for a while,” Osborne said.
The picture darkened more when quarterback Steve Taylor, injured badly enough once earlier to leave the game, departed for good on the last play of the third quarter with a severe headache after a sack. He spent Saturday night at Lincoln’s St. Elizabeth Community Health Center, and could face surgery for a shoulder injury.
But without Taylor the hero in Nebraska’s first three victories this season a long list of players jumped into the spotlight.
Among the first was senior I-back Keith Jones.
Nebraska was in the midst of an 18-play, 96-yard drive when Taylor was helped off the field after a safety blitz sack. So Jones cranked up and carried on seven of the next 10 plays for 41 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown to cut South Carolina’s lead to 21-19 with 9:58 to play.
“Keith Jones played a great ball game,” Osborne said. “That was one of his finest efforts.”
The Gamecocks stopped Jones just inches short on the two-point conversion attempt. But NU’s next hero, linebacker Steve Forch, got the ball right back.
Two plays after Jones’ touchdown, Forch drilled backup running back Keith Bing to force a fumble. NU strong safety Jeff Tomjack recovered at the Gamecock 27-yard line.
“A turnover was the big thing on our minds,” said Forch, whose first career interception last week sealed NU’s 35-28 victory at Arizona State. “We knew we had to make something happen because the offense had been kind of stymied.
“I didn’t square up on him real well. But I slid down and must have stripped the ball.”
Nebraska regained the lead in four plays behind backup quarterback Clete Blakeman, who made amends for a third-quarter fumble that led to South Carolina’s third touchdown.
“I’m really proud of Clete Blakeman,” Osborne said. “I thought he came in and showed a lot of poise.
“I’ve thought all along that he would be a very, very valuable No. 2 guy. He showed it today, and he’ll show it again this season, I’m sure.”
With Blakeman reading South Carolina’s blitzes, fullback Micah Heibel, who gained a career-high 82 yards in 15 carries, bolted for 6 yards. Jones carried for 9 and wingback Richard Bell, who earlier scored his first varsity touchdown on a 78-yard pass from Taylor, rambled for 8 more.
Jones, whose 129 yards in 25 carries marked his third time over 100 yards this season, finished the drive with a 4-yard run off right tackle. He also ran for two points to put Nebraska ahead 27-21 with 7:38 to play.
South Carolina was far from finished.
Quarterback Todd Ellis, who earlier threw touchdown passes of 35 yards to Ryan Bethea and 80 yards to Sterling Sharpe, dropped back to pass 12 straight times on the next series.
He weathered a sack and two dropped pases to move the Gamecocks from their own 20 to the NU 35. After NU defensive tackle Tim Rother sacked him again, the sophomore from Greensboro, N.C., faced a third-and-29 from his own 46.
Ellis, who completed 17 of 36 passes for 256 yards, got a break when NU reserve defensive tackle Willie Griffin was called for roughing the passer, giving South Carolina an automatic first down.
But two plays later, in a scene similar to the end of last year’s 27-24 Nebraska victory at South Carolina, Ellis faded back and fired over the middle.
Last year, NU free safety Bryan Siebler intercepted him with 38 seconds left to secure the win. This time, Mark Blazek the graduated Siebler’s replacement stepped in front of Bethea, picked off the pass at the Nebraska 25 and ran it back 46 yards to the South Carolina 29 with 3:43 to play.
“We were kind of comparing that interception to last year,” Blazek said. “His was a little closer to the end zone than mine.
“But it was at a crucial time. I was just happy to come up and make the play. If he wants to keep throwing to our safeties, we’ll keep catching them.”
Defensive coordinator Charlie McBride caught up with Blazek on the sideline.
“I didn’t kiss him,” a beaming McBride said. “But I did give him a hug.”
There were hugs all around for placekicker Chris Drennan, too.
The sophomore hadn’t tried a field goal in Nebraska’s first three games. But he made 3 of 3 Saturday from 27, 36 and 43 yards. The last one gave the Huskers their final spread of 30-21 with 2:07 to play.
“Drennan was great,” Osborne said. “I started shooting off my mouth a little quick, saying, ‘We never had to kick field goals, we just score touchdowns.’
“Today, we had to kick field goals. I’m very appreciative of the job he did. He’s a heck of a player and a great competitor.”
The Gamecocks got the ball back once more. But with 1:11 left, Ellis’ wobbly fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and the Huskers started celebrating.
Nebraska held South Carolina to a minus-14 yards rushing and outgained the Gamecocks 406-242. The defense sacked Ellis six times and limited the Gamecocks to 2 of 9 third-down conversions.
“Our defense overall did a great job,” Osborne said. “We gave up a couple of big plays. But they’ve got big-play people.”
Two interceptions and a fumble got Nebraska in trouble, however.
“We made a lot of mistakes again,” Osborne said. “Fortunately, we were good enough to overcome them.
“But I don’t think you ought to take anything away from South Carolina’s effort. They’ve got great athletes.”
The Gamecocks showed that, especially on defense the first half.
On its first two possessions, Nebraska drove inside the South Carolina 10, yet scored just three points.
Then on three other drives that started in Gamecock territory at the 34, 33 and 17-yard lines the Huskers again scored only three points and netted a minus-7 yards against the No. 4 defense in the country.
Two holding penalties and a delay of game call helped stall three drives. But South Carolina’s blitzing defense forced two Taylor interceptions at the Gamecock 1-and 31-yard lines.
“They came up with some schemes that were not unusual to us,” Osborne said. “They blitzed a lot of second and third and long.
“We had some things prepared that we thought would work. But we just couldn’t handle them one-on-one at times. Taylor was under a lot of pressure. Some were missed blocks, and sometimes they just had guys coming free on the blitz.”
Taylor limped to the huddle in the first quarter after a blitzer shoestring-tackled him. He was helped from the field early in the third quarter after a shot from a safety blitz. He left for good on the last play of the third quarter after another safety blitz.
Taylor, averaging 7.7 yards a carry, gained just 1 yard in 13 rushing attempts. He completed 6 of 16 passes for 130 yards.
The biggest was his 78-yard bomb to Bell that gave Nebraska a 13-7 lead with 1:12 left in the first half. It came just 48 seconds after Ellis’ 35-yard touchdown bomb to Bethea over NU cornerback McCathorn Clayton put the Gamecocks in front 7-6. Besides the blitz, Nebraska also struggled to beat the 25-second clock in the first half. The Huskers used three timeouts in the game’s first 18 minutes to avoid delay penalties.
“They were starting the clock so darn fast,” Osborne said.
“I’ve never been in a game where they started it any faster.
“Then we were trying to audible when we got into blitzing situations, so we ran out of time two or three times.”
The Huskers looked like they were on borrowed time the way South Carolina opened the second half.
On the Gamecocks’ first play from scrimmage, Ellis caught Nebraska blitzing and launched an 80-yard scoring bomb to Sharpe, who was tied for the national lead in receiving before Saturday. That gave South Carolina a 14-13 lead.
After defensive end Patrick Hinton recovered Blakeman’s fumble on the next series at the NU 27, the Gamecocks scored in four plays. On second and 10 from the 17, Ellis rolled right and flipped a pitch on a reverse to Bethea. Five blockers escorted him untouched into the end zone.
Collin Mackie’s third extra point made it 21-13 South Carolina with 7:27 left in the third quarter.
On an exchange of punts, South Carolina bounced one out of bounds at the NU 4. That’s when Osborne said things looked bleak.
But the 96-yard touchdown drive co-engineered by Taylor and Blakeman started the Husker revival.
“Anytime you take the ball 96 yards and score,” South Carolina Coach Joe Morrison said, “it has to develop a lot of confidence.”
Nebraska was confident.
“There wasn’t any panic,” linebacker Forch said. “We kept our heads pretty well.”
But after two close calls in a row with the Gamecocks, the Huskers say they’ve seen enough of them.
“More than enough,” split end Rod Smith said. “They are a good football team.
“But we got two wins in two years against them. I’m sure they’re as tired of seeing us as we are of seeing them.”
|Yards per carry||-0.6||3.9|
Nebraska is 3-1 all-time against South Carolina.
|Utah State||Sept. 5|
|Arizona State||Sept. 26|
|South Carolina||Oct. 3|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 17|
|Kansas State||Oct. 24|
|Iowa State||Nov. 7|
|Florida State||Jan. 1|
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