EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Gregg Barrios got a big kick out of his first start as a Nebraska Cornhusker.
The sophomore out of Omaha Creighton Prep, kicking in place of the injured Chris Drennan, broke one Kickoff Classic record and tied another to help Nebraska outlast Texas A&M 23-14 Saturday night in the college football season opener.
Quarterback Steve Taylor also did his share to rally the Huskers, ranked No. 2 and 3 in the preseason wire service polls, from a 7-3 halftime deficit against the No. 6 and 10 Aggies.
The senior from Fresno, Calif., voted the game’s outstanding player, finished with 11 completions in 22 attempts for 125 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown to tight end Todd Millikan early in the fourth quarter.
With the victory, before 58,172 fans at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, the Huskers avoided a third loss in four games stretching back to last season — something that has never happened in the 26-year Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne coaching era.
“We’re really happy to win,” Osborne said. “It was a great game between two pretty good teams.
“A&M had the edge early, but we started to catch them in the second quarter. I thought we controlled the game in the second half.”
Barrios made field goals of 44 yards in the second quarter and 38 yards in the third quarter after a 35-yard miss on NU’s second possession of the game.
But his biggest kick was a 48-yard field goal with 7:10 left in the game.
Not only did it put NU up by more than a touchdown, it broke the Kickoff Classic record for longest field goal of 45 yards, set in 1984 by Greg Cox of Miami and tied in 1987 by Phil Reich of Tennessee.
Barrios, whose only previous varsity kick-scoring attempt was an extra point in 1986, also tied Reich’s record of three field goals in a game.
Though Barrios — slowed himself 10 days ago by a knotted thigh muscle — performed well, few questioned Taylor’s choice as the MVP.
Texas A&M’s blitzing defense stymied Nebraska in the first half, holding the Huskers to 100 total yards and a 2.1-yard average in 25 rushing plays.
But the Huskers rolled up 108 yards in the third quarter, taking their first lead of the night by scoring on the first two possessions of the second half, then stretching it with a third straight scoring march.
And the man pulling the trigger was Taylor.
“He made a couple of big plays that were really the difference,” Osborne said. “He was under a lot of pressure all night.
“I don’t think he’s ever had more things flying around his ears than he had tonight. He may not have played a perfect game, but he made the plays he needed.”
NU linebacker LeRoy Etienne added another big play at a big time.
On the opening kickoff of the third quarter, Etienne walloped A&M return star Rod Harris after just 12 yards, dislocating Harris’ shoulder and stopping the game.
The NU defense, thus inspired, stopped A&M in five plays to force a punt.
Taylor then shook the Nebraska offense loose.
He ran for 8 and 11 yards, the second gain breaking Turner Gill’s school rushing record for quarterbacks of 1,317 yards. He finished the night with 34 yards on 18 carries and a career total of 1,333.
Taylor then passed 8 yards to split end Morgan Gregory and 16 yards to split end Nate Turner to move the Huskers to the Aggie 25.
Fullback Sam Schmidt followed with an 11-yard bolt to the 14. But the A&M defense kicked back.
Linebacker Aaron Wallace sacked Taylor for a 7-yard loss. A heavy Aggie rush then forced two incomplete passes.
Barrios came on to kick a 38-yarder to cut the A&M lead to 7-6 with 8:49 left in the third quarter.
The Husker offense got the ball back on the next play when free safety Tim Jackson, making his first start, intercepted A&M quarterback Bucky Richardson’s pass and ran it back 19 yards to the Aggie 24.
From there, Nebraska ground it into the end zone in eight plays. I-back Ken Clark, another first-time starter, opened the drive with a 9-yard run and ended it with a 1-yard TD for Nebraska’s first lead at 12-7. NU tried a two-point conversion, but Taylor overthrew wingback Richard Bell to keep the spread at five with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
After forcing an A&M punt, the Huskers drove 80 yards in seven plays for another touchdown.
It might have been in one play had wingback Dana Brinson hung on to a Taylor bomb. He dropped it at the 50, but the offense went on to score anyway.
Taylor’s 9-yard pass to Bell and Clark’s 25-yard run moved the ball into Aggie turf. I-back Terry Rodgers added 28 more to the A&M 23 on a delay up the middle.
Two plays later, Taylor found Millikan with a pass at the 5. The senior broke the tackle of free safety William Thomas there. Then he spun through the grasp of cornerback Mickey Washington at the 1 and bulled into the end zone to complete the 20-yard scoring play. Clark ran for the two-point conversion to put NU up 20-7 with 13:23 to play.
“The difference in the game,” A&M Coach Jackie Sherrill said, “came in the third quarter when they made those big plays. Big plays won the game for Nebraska.”
Nebraska’s estimated 6,000 fans whooped it up when the Huskers immediately stopped A&M on three plays.
But the cheers turned to groans when Brinson fumbled away Sean Wilson’s punt and the Aggies’ Dion Snow recovered at the NU 44.
In just six plays, A&M cut the lead to 20-14. Backup tailback Larry Horton caught an 8-yard pass and broke a 26-yard run to set up fullback Randy Simmons’ 2-yard TD burst with 10:15 to play.
But Taylor and Barrios combined to give Nebraska breathing room again.
On a third-and-16 play at the NU 35, Taylor scrambled for 18 yards and a first down. Two plays later, he zipped a 12-yard pass to Gregory.
Though Clark was thrown for a 4-yard loss on the next play, Barrios entered and nailed his 48-yarder for the nine-point lead, which held up.
“We thought it might get easier in the second half, and it did,” said outside linebacker Broderick Thomas, NU’s leading tackler with 11. “We showed what we could do and what our linebackers could do.
“I think our whole team is just going to get better and better every game.”
The first half belonged to the defenses, which forced a combined four turnovers and limited the offenses to 11 first downs.
Nebraska missed a chance to strike first.
Richardson, running for his life under the rush of New Jersey resident Jeff Mills, had his first pass of the game intercepted by another New Jersey resident, cornerback Charles Fryar, and returned 9 yards to the A&M 19.
But the Huskers gained just 1 yard in three plays, leading to Barrios’ first varsity field-goal attempt. He hooked his 35-yard try wide right with 9:06 left in the first quarter.
Texas A&M moved into position for its lone first-half score with the help of a poor Nebraska punt return and a good Aggie punt return.
A&M’s Wilson boomed a 55-yard punt that NU’s Brinson fielded at his own 4-yard line and returned only to the 6.
The Aggies pinned Nebraska in that hole for three plays, forcing John Kroeker’s punt — a low, 41-yarder. A&M’s Harris caught the ball on the bounce and skittered 17 yards to the NU 34.
The Aggies used six plays to score. Tailback Darren Lewis’ 15-yard blast against an NU blitz moved the ball to the 14.
Then on first and goal at the 4, Richardson rolled right on the option play and turned to the goal line, where Husker safety Mark Blazek stripped him of the ball.
But Richardson fell on his own fumble at the 1. On the next play, fullback Matt Gurley thundered over for the touchdown. Scott Slater’s extra point put A&M up 7-0 with 2:27 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska’s longest gain of the first half — a 15-yard personal foul against A&M on the next possession — helped set up the Huskers’ lone first-half score.
Rodgers’ 27-yard kickoff return and Taylor’s 13-yard pass to Millikan moved the ball to the NU 43.
Taylor then scrambled for 8 yards, and got a 15-yard bonus on an A&M blow to the head. But the Huskers sputtered when fullback Bryan Carpenter was stuffed after a 2-yard gain on third-and-five at the A&M 29.
Barrios came on and made a 44-yard field goal this time, cutting the Aggie lead to 7-3 with 14:14 left in the half.
On NU’s next series, A&M linebacker Dana Batiste rattled Carpenter, forcing a fumble that teammate Aaron Wallace recovered at the NU 39.
Richardson immediately hit tight end Mike Jones for 18 yards. But the Huskers yielded just 2 yards in three plays, forcing Slater to try a 35-yard field goal. Slater, 13 of 17 in his career inside 39 yards, missed wide right.
“In the first half, we had the momentum and the game under control,” Sherrill said. “If we hit that field goal, we would have been looking pretty good.”
Nebraska got another chance to score after a turnover just before halftime, but A&M stood firm again.
NU junior Brian Harchelroad, making his first road trip as an active player, recovered Harris’ fumbled punt return to set the Huskers up at the A&M 30 with 4:19 left in the half.
Taylor’s 8-yard pass to tight end Monte Kratzenstein helped produce one first down. Clark then carried three straight times for 6, 2 and 1 yards to set up fourth and one at the 11.
Clark was supposed to get the ball again. But he dropped Taylor’s pitch on the sweep right and A&M’s Joe Johnson recovered with 1:08 left in the half to blunt the threat.
Despite the fumble, Clark finished with 80 yards in 18 carries. Rodgers added 65 in 10 carries as a backup.
|Yards per carry||5.0||3.4|
Nebraska is 10-4 all-time against Texas A&M.
|Texas A&M||Aug. 27|
|Utah State||Sept. 3|
|Arizona State||Sept. 24|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 15|
|Kansas State||Oct. 22|
|Iowa State||Nov. 5|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 2|
Nebraska hasn't played any other games on Aug. 27.
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