LINCOLN — What is believed to be the biggest fourth-quarter scoring explosion against Nebraska in its 101 years of football apparently has blown the Huskers out of this season’s national championship chase.
Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy, who through three quarters Saturday fumbled five times and lost three, ran for four touchdowns in the final period — from 1, 2, 3 and 5 yards out — to rally the No. 7 and 9 Buffs to a 27-12 victory over No. 2 and 3 Nebraska before 76,464 fans at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers had allowed just one rushing touchdown through eight games and six TDs overall before CU’s 27-point outburst in the final 14:43. Those also were the first points Colorado had scored in Lincoln since 1985.
“At the end, I thought we’d be the stronger team,” NU Coach Tom Osborne said. “But they got their running game going, and we didn’t get it untracked.
“Once they got ahead, they made a couple of big plays and big catches and that was the difference.”
The victory virtually assures Colorado, 8-1-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big Eight, of an Orange Bowl trip and a second straight league title, making it the first school other than Nebraska or Oklahoma to accomplish that since Missouri in 1940-41.
The Buffs finish with home games against Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
For the Huskers, the loss dropped them to 8-1 and 4-1, and left them wondering what might have been.
Despite heavy clouds, rain and 38-degree temperatures, things looked bright for Nebraska after three quarters — Miami bright.
With 11:05 left in the third period, Georgia Tech’s 41-38 upset of No. 1 Virginia was announced. Nine minutes later, NU quarterback Mickey Joseph hit tight end Johnny Mitchell with a 46-yard touchdown pass to stretch Nebraska’s 6-0 halftime lead to 12-0.
Then Colorado, held to 38 total yards in the first half, got serious.
After Mitchell’s TD, the Buffs marched 71 yards in 10 plays to score, despite having a 33-yard reverse wiped out on a holding penalty.
Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan hit split end Rico Smith with a 30-yard pass, and later found split end Mike Pritchard with a 19-yarder to the NU 1 before Bieniemy scored to close the gap to 12-7 with 14:43 left in the game.
After forcing Nebraska to punt, Colorado marched 53 yards in six plays to take the lead.
Hagan’s 34-yard pass to Pritchard was the big play, along with a 4-yard toss to tight end David Brown on third and five at the NU 6. On fourth and one from the 2, Bieniemy hopped the pile to give CU a 13-12 lead with 8:37 to play. The two-point conversion pass failed.
While the passes were important, Osborne said, Colorado’s ability to chew up yardage inside with a basic isolation play hurt just as much.
Bieniemy ran it often and well, finishing with 137 yards in 38 carries. That was just the second individual 100-yard game against NU in 23 games and the first this season.
“They just cut it back behind the nose guard,” Osborne said. “We tried a number of things, but we couldn’t hold up.
“They were blocking it, there was a hole there and he was finding it.”
Nebraska stalled at its 28 on the next possession.
Lining up to punt into a 20-mph wind on fourth and two, NU tried a fake by snapping the ball directly to blocking back Tim Johnk. But he was stopped a yard short.
“It didn’t work, so I’ll probably catch heck for it,” Osborne said. “But it was just a calculated risk.
“When I began to see we weren’t stopping them very well, I don’t know if we got prematurely anxious or not. But we felt we could run a fake punt on them. I thought maybe it was the last chance we had.”
When it failed, it was Nebraska’s last chance.
Bieniemey scored from the 3 five plays later for a 20-12 lead. When Nebraska gave the ball up on downs at its own 10 on the next series, Bieniemy raced in from the 5 with 1:31 left to make it 27-12.
“For three quarters, we showed what we can do,” NU tight end William Washington said. “In the fourth quarter, we had a lapse and that told the story.
“Our goal was to wear them down. When the third quarter ended, we all held up four fingers — a sign that the fourth quarter was ours. But we couldn’t handle them at the end, so you have to give Colorado credit.”
Nebraska could have had a bigger cushion entering the fourth quarter.
After outside linebacker Travis Hill recovered a Bieniemy fumble at the CU 45 early in the third quarter, Joseph broke the option to the right on the next play.
He appeared to score, setting off an end zone celebration. But Joseph was ruled out of bounds after 36 yards at the 9.
“We all thought he had scored the way he was jumping around,” NU guard Jim Wanek said. “But I’m sure it was a good call.”
Colorado stiffened, forcing Gregg Barrios, who made second-quarter field goals of 26 and 44 yards, to try a 20-yarder.
But he hooked it wide left to keep the score 6-0 Nebraska.
“That was a big momentum swing in the game,” Washington said. “We would have been up big. But from there, it was pretty much their game.”
Nebraska still had one surge left.
After exchanging punts, Colorado used a 19-yard pass from Hagan to fullback George Hemingway and a 36-yard strike to Pritchard to get to the NU 21.
But Bieniemy fumbled again on the next play, and outside linebacker Mike Croel recovered at the Nebraska 20.
The Huskers struck back in five plays.
Joseph completed his first pass of the game at the 3:38 mark of the third quarter — a 23-yarder to split end Jon Bostick.
After I-back Scott Baldwin ran for 9, Joseph showed option action left, then pulled up and threw deep to Mitchell. The freshman fielded the ball at the 15 and raced to the end zone. The two-point conversion pass failed, but Nebraska led 12-0 with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
But when Colorado took over in the fourth quarter, it prompted questions about the two teams’ strength of schedules.
Of CU’s 10 games this season, nine have been in doubt into the fourth quarter. In NU’s first eight games, it smashed opponents by an average of 43.8 points to 8.3 points.
Did the stiffer schedule prepare CU better?
“I don’t think our schedule had anything to do with how the game came out,” NU middle guard Pat Engelbert said. “But I’m sure we’ll hear about it.
“They’ve dogged us before, and they’ll dog us now. But I don’t feel that’s the case.”
Colorado opened the game with a quick surge before Nebraska began to dominate.
The Buffs’ defense stopped Nebraska on three plays, forcing a fumble and getting a sack. Then the CU offense raced from its own 49 to the NU 2 in eight plays. The big gain was a 15-yard late-hit penalty on Nebraska strong safety Reggie Cooper.
On second goal from the 2, NU free safety Tyrone Byrd jarred the ball loose from Bieniemy. The Buffs recovered for no gain, but they lost it on the next play.
That when NU’s Hill whacked Bieniemy, forcing another fumble that cornerback Tahaun Lewis grabbed at the 3.
After one first down, Nebraska had to punt again. Mike Stigge drilled a low line drive a career-high 54 yards into the wind to push CU back to its 33.
On the first play, Hagan faked into the line and threw deep to Pritchard. But the wide-open split end dropped the ball inside the Nebraska 20.
NU defensive tackle Kenny Walker stopped that possession with a 4-yard sack on third down.
Walker also stymied Colorado on its next possession. His rush of Hagan on third and nine from the CU 16 forced a bad pass and another punt. Tom Rouen, CU’s All-America punter, shanked a 25-yarder, setting Nebraska up at the CU 41.
The Huskers used nine straight running plays to move to the CU 13. On third and nine from there, Joseph scrambled for 5 yards, giving Barrios a chance at a 26-yard field goal. He made it to give NU a 3-0 lead with 13:14 left in the second quarter.
The Blackshirt defense set up Nebraska’s next score.
Hagan, under a heavy rush from NU tackle Le Andre Anderson, threw toward tight end Sean Brown. But inside linebacker Mike Petko intercepted at the Colorado 34.
Nebraska gained 8 yards in three plays, then brought Barrios in for a 44-yard field-goal try. With the wind at his back again, Barrios drilled it for a 6-0 lead with 11:25 to go in the first half.
Walker made his third big play of the half to stop Colorado on the next possession. On third and nine from the CU 26, Walker smothered Hagan for another 3-yard loss to force a punt.
But the Buffalo defense got into the act. Cornerback Dave McCloughan forced I-back Leodis Flowers to fumble and tackle Brian Dyet beat Joseph to the loose ball at the NU 40.
Bieniemy ran for 5 yards on first down, then lost 21 when he took a pitch from Hagan and Byrd knocked the ball back to the CU 44 with about eight minutes left in the second quarter.
No one threatened the rest of the half.
The Huskers had 96 total yards to 38 for Colorado at half. But the Buffs finished with 309 to 232 for the Huskers.
NU’s yardage total was its lowest in a regular-season game since a 1986 loss to Oklahoma.
Osborne said the weather altered Nebraska’s game plan slightly.
“We obviously weren’t going to throw it around a whole lot,” he said. “Mickey wasn’t throwing well early at all.
“At halftime, he said all his clothes were wet. And he doesn’t have a big hand, so he was having trouble gripping the ball. That hurt us.”
NU completed just 2 of 12 passes for 69 yards.
Osborne said he thought the Huskers had prepared well and were emotionally charged.
“We were really fired up and ready to play,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as emotionally high this year.
“But emotion carries you only so far. You eventually have to execute. We didn’t and they did.”
|Yards per carry||3.1||3.0|
Nebraska is 49-20 all-time against Colorado.
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 8|
|Oregon State||Sept. 29|
|Kansas State||Oct. 6|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 20|
|Iowa State||Oct. 27|
|Georgia Tech||Jan. 1|
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