LINCOLN — It took a few tries, but quarterback Brook Berringer passed his test.
Ultimately, so did the rest of the No. 1-and 2-ranked Nebraska football team in its 42-32 come-from-behind victory Saturday over Wyoming, but not with flying colors.
"I was somewhat disappointed in the fact we weren't a little crisper, a little sharper," NU Coach Tom Osborne said. "I don't think we played terrible football today, but we can play better than that.
"If we don't, we'll have a hard time from here on out."
As Memorial Stadium's 198th straight sellout crowd of 75,333 watched in amazement, the Huskers' nation-leading rushing attack was nearly ground to a halt early. But Berringer, making his first collegiate start, directed four straight scoring drives during a seven-minute span of the second and third quarters to turn a 14-point deficit into a 14-point lead.
Still, the wild ride wasn't over for the Huskers, who entered the game as 40-point favorites. Not until Damon Benning's recovery of a fumbled punt, followed by I-back Lawrence Phillips' touchdown with 5:28 to play, could they breathe easily.
But such a hard-earned victory over what supposedly was a lesser competitor gave 5-0 Nebraska no opportunity to relax. The 32 points were the most allowed by NU since Washington posted a 36-21 victory in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 21, 1991.
After this week's Big Eight opener at home against Oklahoma State, the Huskers visit Kansas State. And a matchup against national title contender Colorado looms Oct. 29 in Lincoln.
"This raised a little red flag today," said senior defensive tackle Terry Connealy.
Nebraska's defense shut down Wyoming's running attack cold, but the pass coverage concerned Osborne.
Wyoming's Ryan Christopherson, who entered the game as the nation's fifth-leading rusher with 152 yards a game, netted zero yards on 12 carries, and his longest run went for just 4 yards. The Cowboys' rushing total was a mere 36 yards.
But quarterbacks Jeremy Dombek and John Gustin grilled the NU secondary for 344 yards passing on 25-of-46 efficiency. The Huskers did come up with three interceptions-all of which led to touchdowns-but that wasn't enough to satisfy Osborne.
"They couldn't run the ball on us," Osborne said, "and when they can't run, you ought to be able to shut down the passing game better than we did. Defensively, we let them have the ball way too long."
Said Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride: "Our secondary made a monumental number of mistakes."
Berringer got more than he bargained for as the first-time replacement for Tommie Frazier, who had started the previous 23 games dating to the middle of the 1992 season. Frazier remains on the shelf until at least the K-State game as he undergoes follow-up treatment for a blood clot that was discovered behind his right knee Sept. 25.
Frazier watched from the sidelines in jean shorts and a warmup jacket as Berringer ran the offense. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior from Goodland, Kan., finished 15 of 22 passing for 131 yards, with one interception. He ran 12 times for a career-high 74 yards and three TDs.
"Brook Berringer was great today," Osborne said. "A lot of times, if you're taking over and things aren't going well, you tend to get jittery or panicky. But he never did.
"Whatever problems we had weren't Brook's making."
Quarterbacks Coach Turner Gill called Berringer's performance "excellent."
"For a first start," he said, "he played as well as you can play."
Berringer took several hard shots and after the game was diagnosed with a slight lung injury. The NU medical staff said Berringer complained of shortness of breath, and he went to Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Saturday night for an examination.
Berringer said he was just glad to win.
"I didn't feel much different than I usually do when I play," he said. "The difference was that I played the whole game. We came out a little sluggish, but we still scored 42 points, and that was enough against this team."
The Huskers' game-tying touchdown came with 12:05 left in the third quarter after NU cornerback Tyrone Williams returned an interception 28 yards to the NU 43. Four plays later, Berringer scored the second of his three touchdowns from 24 yards to make it 21-21.
Just two plays into Wyoming's ensuing series, an outstretched Barron Miles picked off his second pass of the game to set up the Huskers at the Wyoming 40. Phillips went all the way on the next play, putting NU up 28-21.
The Huskers' defense then forced a Wyoming punt, and Berringer led a nine-play, 43-yard march that ended with his 11-yard run around left end for a 35-21 lead with 8:11 left in the third quarter.
Wyoming put together two scoring drives late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. The first was capped by Taylor Sorenson's 40-yard field goal. The second-which went 86 yards in 13 plays-ended on Gustin's 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Gilstrap to cut NU's lead to 35-32.
Suddenly, it was a game again.
"When we were up 35-21," Osborne said, "I thought we could take it from there. We didn't, and that's what bothers me."
Nursing their three-point lead, the Huskers got the ball back with 9:09 to play. Berringer moved them 28 yards in seven plays before Darin Erstad was called on to punt on fourth-and-7 from the NU 48.
Wyoming's Je'Ney Jackson tried to field the punt at the Cowboys' 11, but it glanced off his hands, and Benning pounced on it at the 8. Phillips then busted through Wyoming's line to give NU the cushion it needed to preserve its 20th straight home victory.
"We had our backs to the wall a little bit," Osborne said. "If it wasn't for the fumbled punt at the end, it might have been anyone's ball game."
Phillips, who scored three touchdowns, finished with 168 yards on 27 carries for his fifth straight 100-yard game. Phillips, third nationally in rushing at the start of the day, raised his season average to 159 yards a game.
It took Phillips until the fourth series to get untracked, though. He netted just nine yards on his first five carries.
The Huskers' slow-starting offense, combined with two turnovers, contributed to 2-3 Wyoming taking a 21-14 halftime lead.
The last time Nebraska had trailed at half was last year at Oklahoma State. The Huskers, down 14-3, stormed back to win 27-13. Nebraska hadn't been behind at half at Memorial Stadium since 1991, when Oklahoma led 14-3. NU came back to win 19-14.
Berringer didn't start clicking until late in the half, after Wyoming had gone up 21-7 with 2:12 to play. He completed seven straight passes operating the two-minute offense before scoring from 5 yards out on a bootleg run.
Until that drive, the Huskers' offense was largely ineffective.
NU generated a total of just 13 yards on its first three series. And it was 12 minutes, 45 seconds into the game before the Huskers got their initial first down, on a 2-yard run by fullback Cory Schesinger.
"We never panicked, though," senior offensive tackle Rob Zatechka said. "If it were the third quarter and we still weren't doing anything, that's when we would have panicked.
"But Brook always had a lot of confidence. We just came out a little flat."
Osborne said Wyoming deserves credit for fouling up the Huskers. The Cowboys had played man-to-man coverages in their first four games. Saturday was the first time they played much zone.
"All you can do is prepare from what you see on film," Osborne said. "They changed up on us, and I think they played really hard."
While NU's offense found the going tough, Dombek, a redshirt freshman making his first start, tormented the Huskers' secondary.
He connected with wide receiver Marcus Harris for 35 yards before flipping an inside screen pass to Harris for a 39-yard touchdown with 8:30 to play in the first quarter. Harris slipped past fallen NU roverback Kareem Moss en route to the end zone.
The Cowboys' second score, which came with 25 seconds to play in the opening quarter, was set up when their free safety, Lee Vaughn, nailed NU wingback Abdul Muhammad after a 6-yard reception and jarred the ball loose. Defensive end Brent Schieffer, a senior out of Papillion-LaVista, recovered at his own 38.
Dombek teamed with wide receiver Eddie Pratt for a 56-yard pass play on first down to the NU 6. Pratt had zoomed past NU cornerback Leslie Dennis, who slipped on the play, and would have scored if he hadn't been dragged down from behind by cornerback Tyrone Williams. But on the next play, Dombek hit Gilstrap with a bootleg pass in the end zone for a 14-0 advantage.
The Huskers started cutting into the lead after Miles made the first of his two interceptions with 6:52 to play in the half. Berringer's 20-yard pass to tight end Mark Gilman highlighted a four-play, 34-yard drive that ended when Phillips dived over the goal line from 1 yard out.
Nebraska's defense held on Wyoming's next possession, and the Huskers got the ball back on their 36. But Vaughn picked off a Berringer pass intended for Muhammad, and after a 10-yard return and personal foul on NU, the Cowboys were set up at the NU 11.
Miles was called for pass interference on first down. Two plays later running back Terry Hendricks rumbled in from 1 yard out to make it 21-7 Wyoming.
Then Berringer went to work on the hurry-up offense, completing seven straight passes. The school record for consecutive completions is 15, set by Dave Humm against Kansas in 1974.
Berringer's streak was made up of tosses of 9, 10, 6, 11, 6, 9 and 7 yards to Phillips, Muhammad, Clester Johnson, Brendan Holbein, Reggie Baul, Phillips and Muhammad. Then Berringer finished off the series with his 5-yard bootleg run into the right corner of the end zone.
"That drive helped his confidence, no doubt about it," Gill said.
The drive also helped swing the momentum NU's way, Osborne said.
"It was pretty important," he said. Getting down 14-0 can give the other team tremendous encouragement. If we had scored first and things had gone well, maybe we would have taken some wind out of their sails.
"But being down 21-14 at half is a lot better than 21-7.
|Yards per carry||1.7||5.8|
Nebraska is 8-0 all-time against Wyoming.
|West Virginia||Aug. 28|
|Texas Tech||Sept. 8|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 8|
|Kansas State||Oct. 15|
|Iowa State||Nov. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 1|
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