BOULDER, Colo. — Colorado’s special season lives on because of the play of its special teams.
No. 3 Nebraska outgained the No. 2 Buffaloes 397 yards to 227, but two long punt returns and a 30-yard-per-kick edge in net punting lifted CU to a 27-21 victory Saturday before a sellout crowd of 52,877 at Folsom Field.
Colorado, 9-0 overall and 5-0 in the Big Eight, can secure the league’s automatic Orange Bowl bid and a possible national title shot by beating Oklahoma State and Kansas State on the road the next two weeks.
Nebraska, 8-1 and 4-1, saw the end of a 17-game regular-season winning streak snapped and an 11-game Big Eight streak.
Colorado, with just its second win over Nebraska in the past 22 years, moved into position to stop the 27-year NU-Oklahoma domination of the Big Eight by running wild on punt returns.
Split end Jeff Campbell returned a punt 47 yards to the NU 4 in the first quarter to set up the touchdown that put CU up 14-7.
Then early in the third quarter, Campbell raced 55 yards to the NU 19 to pave the way for the touchdown that put the Buffs up 24-14.
“We had some problems with the kicking game, and I suppose that would be the major difference,” NU Coach Tom Osborne said. “I thought offensively and defensively, we played well enough to have a good chance to win it.”
The statistics back that up.
Nebraska held Colorado to a season low in yardage and claimed total yardage advantages after each quarter (99 to 95, 211 to 150, 311 to 182 and 397 to 227).
The Huskers also limited quarterback Darian Hagan, a 69.1 percent passer, to 2 of 10 completions for 22 yards. And NU sacked Hagan three times. He had gone down just six times in CU’s eight previous games combined.
But all that meant nothing when two fourth-quarter NU drives stalled short of the end zone in the final 3?1?2 minutes.
After Ken Culbertson’s second field goal — a 28-yarder — put CU up 27-21 with 8:47 to play, the Huskers rolled to the Buffs’ 26 in 11 plays.
But on fourth and six from there, quarterback Gerry Gdowski underthrew wingback Richard Bell on a square out with 3:28 to play.
“We saw a zone defense and were going to run an ‘under’ route,” Osborne said. “Then it looked like they were coming up to blitz and were playing man to man.
“So Gdowski audibled the play we asked him to audible. It turned out they were in a tight zone, so they kind of fooled us.”
Nebraska forced a punt in three plays and appeared to get a break when Colorado’s Tom Rouen, the nation’s leading punter with a 46.5 average, hit a wobbler.
But NU deep back Tyrone Hughes let it bounce and roll ... and roll ... and roll into a 63-yarder that pinned the Huskers at their own 12 with 1:40 to play. Rouen finished with a 51.2 average.
“If we had just gotten it back somewhere near midfield,” Osborne said,”I think we would have had a good shot at the end.”
NU’s last gasp came on the last play.
Gdowski, who passed for 211 yards and ran for 69 more, took the Huskers to the CU 42.
As the clock ticked down from 0:06, Gdowski launched a Hail Mary bomb to split end Jon Bostick in the end zone. Bostick touched the pass, but cornerback Dave McCloughan broke it up, setting off a charge for the breakaway goal posts that had been installed Friday.
Even if Bostick had caught the pass, it would have been called back because Gdowski was flagged for crossing the line of scrimmage.
It wasn’t the first time Saturday that a penalty marker hurt the Huskers.
The costliest was on a Colorado trick play in the third quarter, just after Campbell’s second long punt return.
On second and goal at the 9, CU tailback Eric Bieniemy made his first appearance since cracking a leg bone Oct. 14 at Iowa State.
Bieniemy took a pitch, rolled left and lobbed a halfback pass toward wide receiver M.J. Nelson. NU cornerback Tyrone Legette intercepted it in the end zone as a flag flew.
At first, officials appeared to signal it was Nebraska’s ball. But defensive pass interference was ruled, giving CU an automatic first down at the 2.
Tailback J.J. Flannigan, who gained 96 yards in 18 carries, scored his second touchdown from there two plays later to give Colorado a 24-14 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter.
“I didn’t see the interference,” Osborne said. “But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
“I was on the sideline looking down the sideline and I couldn’t tell. I thought we had the ball and had the interception and I was feeling pretty good about things.
“Then I saw the interference call. But that’s part of football. You’ve got to overcome those things. And we didn’t do it today.”
Osborne said he also wants to see film of both of Campbell’s punt returns.
“There might have been a clip or two,” he said. “But they do a great job of staying with you all the way down the field. And Campbell is a great return man.”
Colorado is ranked No. 4 nationally in punt returns and Campbell is 12th individually with a 12.4-yard average.
“I should have been smart enough to tell them just to kick away from Campbell,” Osborne said. “We were trying to kick to the sideline, but we ended up with a couple fairly low and right down the middle of the field.”
Down the middle of the field is where Nebraska stomped after Campbell’s second long return and the pass-interference controversy.
The Huskers moved 80 yards in 12 plays to score.
Gdowski fired a 13-yard pass to Bell to convert one third-down play. Then I-back Ken Clark bolted for 14 of his 95 yards on another third down.
Gdowski, again on third down, hit Monte Kratzenstein for 9 yards to the CU 31 to keep the drive going.
Three plays later, Gdowski rolled right and found tight end Chris Garrett with a 26-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 24-21 with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
“It was kind of like getting rebound position,” said Garrett, who outjumped two defenders for the ball. “It was a broken play.
“I was supposed to run to the flag. But he got in trouble and threw it back toward the middle. I was just happy to come up with it.”
But that was Nebraska’s last score despite its yardage domination.
Gdowski outdueled Hagan with 280 yards of total offense and three touchdown passes to 118 yards and one touchdown run.
“Hagan is a really good player,” Osborne said. “But I thought Gdowski really played well. There is a great football player.”
Gdowski got the early edge in the quarterback competition.
On Colorado’s first possession, Husker free safety Tyrone Byrd dived to intercept a Hagan pass at the NU 49.
Then in one play, Nebraska stunned the overflow crowd with a touchdown.
As CU defenders streamed in on Gdowski, he flipped a sideline screen pass to Bryan Carpenter. The senior fullback juked past defensive tackle Okland Salavea, cut back to the middle of the field and sprinted between the hash marks to complete the 51-yard touchdown play. Gregg Barrios’ extra point put NU up 7-0 just a minute and a half into the game.
After a first down, Nebraska forced a Colorado punt, but the Huskers also couldn’t move and had to punt.
Then it was Colorado’s turn to strike fast.
From the CU 30, Hagan rolled left on the option and raced untouched for 30 yards with Flannigan following as a trailer. With only NU cornerback Tahaun Lewis to beat, Hagan ran toward Lewis, then pitched to Flannigan who finished the 70-yard touchdown run. Culbertson’s PAT tied it at 7-7 with 8:22 left in the first quarter.Touchdown Pass to Gregory
CU’s special teams helped provide the next touchdown.
Campbell’s 47-yard return of Mike Stigge’s 34-yard punt took the Buffs to the NU 4 before Stigge made the tackle.
On third and goal at the 1, Hagan scored untouched on the option for a 14-7 lead with 5:04 left in the first quarter.
On an exchange of punts, Nebraska’s return game helped set up a score. Hughes’ 19-yard runback to midfield set up an eight-play, 50-yard drive to tie the game.
Gdowski made up for an illegal-procedure penalty with a 17-yard dash to the CU 37. He overcame another procedure call with a 32-yard pass to Morgan Gregory, who returned to the field after a defender shoved him out of bounds.
That created a first-and-goal play at the 8. Gdowski was snowed under for a 4-yard loss. But on a third-and-goal play at the 12, he found Gregory in the front corner of the end zone to tie the game 14-14 with 11:33 left in the second quarter.
Rouen’s 51-yard punt pinned NU at its 11. After three misfires, Stigge punted 41 yards and allowed a 6-yard return, giving CU the ball at midfield.
Kent Wells’ 7-yard sack of Hagan and an incomplete pass shoved the Buffs into a third-and-17 at their own 45.
Then Hagan worked some magic.
Slipping the tackles of Ray Valladao, Mike Croel and Mike Petko in his own backfield, Hagan snaked for a 13-yard gain.
That got CU back in field-goal range, and Culbertson took advantage. He drilled a 49-yarder with 12 seconds left in the half to put CU up 17-14.
“We thought we were doing the things we needed to do in the first half,” Osborne said. “There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong.
“I really felt that other than a few key plays in the kicking game, we played well today.”
|Yards per carry||4.4||4.3|
Nebraska is 49-20 all-time against Colorado.
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 9|
|Oregon State||Sept. 30|
|Kansas State||Oct. 7|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 21|
|Iowa State||Oct. 28|
|Florida State||Jan. 1|
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