BOULDER, Colo. — Nebraska's lack of killer instinct Friday afternoon almost choked the life out of its national championship bid.
As it is, the second-ranked Huskers' escape from Folsom Field with a 27-24 win over a 5-6 Colorado team hardly can be seen as a way to win votes in their poll chase of No. 1 Michigan. Nebraska had come to Colorado seeking an impressive win over the Buffaloes, whom Michigan barbecued 27-3 early in the season, to pick up some ground on the Wolverines.
The 11-0 Huskers were impressive-for 55 minutes. Then they let Colorado off the hook with a finish that could leave their title hopes hung out to dry.
"We've been instructed not to talk about who's No. 1, who's No. 2," said Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, when the subject was brought up after the game. "If you really want to know who's No. 1 and No. 2, ask the Colorado players and ask the Baylor players. I think they'll tell you who they think is better."
Since Baylor, which also lost to both Nebraska and Michigan, wasn't available Friday, the hot topic in the Colorado locker room was comparing the national championship contenders. Several Colorado players, obviously majoring in diplomacy, called the difference between Michigan and Nebraska too close to call.
But Colorado offensive lineman Andrew Welsh said his money would be on Michigan if the two teams met.
"Michigan has much more of a killer instinct," Welsh said. "I don't know if Nebraska left the door open for us, but they really should have finished us off earlier in the game."
Truer postgame analysis might never have been spoken. Nebraska owned a 27-10 lead when the Huskers took control of the football at the Colorado 47-yard line with 6:33 to play. Another touchdown would have given the Huskers the same margin of victory, while playing on the road, as Michigan posted at home against Colorado.
Instead, the bottom dropped out on the Huskers, much to the delight of the suddenly fired-up Colorado backers in the crowd of 52,738. First, Nebraska I-back Ahman Green fumbled, putting a slight tarnish on an otherwise brilliant day that saw the junior I-back rush for 202 yards and score two touchdowns.
Quarterback John Hessler got the Huskers sweating by directing Colorado on a six-play, 77-yard scoring drive that ended with his 32-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Stiggers. The Buffaloes, 21-point underdogs coming into the game, found themselves within 27-17 when Jeremy Aldrich converted the point-after kick with 3:16 to play.
Colorado then did what everyone expected-attempt an onside kick. And the Buffaloes did it successfully as Nebraska backup tight end T.J. DeBates couldn't handle the bouncing ball. The kick ricocheted off DeBates' hands to Colorado's Darren Fisk, who recovered the loose ball at the Buffaloes' 45-yard line.
Hessler, who finished with 362 yards passing, needed only four plays to get Colorado to the end zone. He completed passes of 22 yards to Phil Savoy and 15 yards to Herchell Troutman. After an incompletion, Hessler scrambled out of trouble and found sophomore Robert Toler in the back of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown pass.
Down 27-24 with 2:37 left, Colorado again tried an onside kick but it bounced out of bounds. All Nebraska needed was one first down - the Buffaloes were out of timeouts - to punctuate the win.
Instead, three runs gained just nine yards, and the Huskers had to punt the ball back to the Buffaloes with 52 seconds to play.
"At that point, we knew what we had to do," Nebraska safety Eric Warfield said. "We knew we couldn't let them get any more yards, and we especially knew we couldn't let them get a touchdown."
Colorado, starting at its own 20, got 16 yards on its first play, a completion from Hessler to Savoy. Hessler threw incomplete on his next two attempts, then found Savoy for first-down yardage. But the Colorado wide receiver was called for offensive pass interference when he pushed off against Nebraska cornerback Erwin Swiney.
"I'm sure it was pass interference," Colorado Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "There was an obvious pass interference a year ago that they didn't call at the same juncture of the game. The referee said then it was too big of a game to be making those kind of calls."
Penalized 15 yards on the play, Colorado found itself facing third down and 25. Hessler threw incomplete on his next pass, then hooked up with Savoy on a fourth-down throw. Swiney pounded Savoy out of bounds, leaving him 3 yards short of the first down and ending the Buffaloes' upset bid as well as their first losing season since 1984.
"I feel fortunate to win this game," Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. "In one sense, we had several chances to put it away. They came at us late with everything they had, their offense made some big plays and our defense gave up some big plays.
"But in the end the defense took it to them and put it away."
But will Nebraska's last stand turn out to be too little, too late as far as the Huskers' title hopes are concerned.
"As for the polls, it wouldn't be wise to talk about it before the Texas A&M game," said Osborne, referring to next Saturday's opponent in the Big 12 championship game. "The bottom line is that we won the game. But we almost lost to a team with five losses, so that is probably in the voters' minds.
"We just have to go out and win the next game and then our bowl game. That's all we can do."
Nebraska will advance to San Antonio to play Texas A&M with its fifth perfect regular-season record in 25 seasons under Osborne.
Nebraska's victory was its sixth straight over Colorado, its 39th straight in conference regular-season play, and its 58th in its past 61 games.
Frost and Green played leading roles in helping Nebraska pad those totals with impressive performances. Green carried 29 times in becoming the first Nebraska back since Kenny Clark in 1988 to post back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. Green had 209 yards against Iowa State on Nov. 15, and Saturday's performance pushed his season total to 1,698 yards.
Frost added 76 yards rushing and 92 yards passing against the Buffaloes to become the 12th player in NCAA Division I-A history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season. Navy's Chris McCoy became the 11th when he accomplished the feat last week.
Frost, who completed 7 of 14 passes Friday, now has 1,016 yards rushing and 1,036 yards passing in his senior season.
"I think what makes this special to me is the names on the list that I recognize," he said. "I watched some of those guys play, and they were great ballplayers. To accomplish what they've done is special to me."
Friday's close call left Frost and his teammates feeling anything but special. The looks on their faces and the tone in their voices are usually found in the locker rooms of losers.
"We're disappointed," Husker offensive lineman Matt Hoskinson said. "This feels more like a loss. I think that shows the character of this team. I wouldn't want to be part of a team that was proud to win by three points. I'm glad to see that people are disappointed. If people were jumping up and down after this one, something would be wrong.
"We wanted to come out here and put on an impressive showing. Instead, we did things that just weren't like us. We got lackadaisical and we relaxed."
Nebraska appeared to take control of the game in the third quarter behind Green, who opened the second half with a 64-yard run. He scored on a 16-yard run on the next play, turning a 10-3 halftime lead into a 17-3 advantage in just 30 seconds of the third quarter.
That's three more seconds than Hessler needed to get the Buffaloes back within a touchdown. He completed a 45-yard pass to Darrin Chiaverini and followed it with a 35-yard screen pass to Dwayne Cherrington for the score.
Nebraska countered with an eight-play, 77-yard drive that Green ended with an 11-yard scoring run with 10:37 to play in the third period. Kris Brown's conversion made it 24-10, and he made it 27-10 with 20 seconds left in the period when he drilled a 46-yard field goal, his second of the game and 12th straight without a miss.
Nebraska outgained Colorado 234-109 in the third period and had nine first downs to the Buffaloes' four. Green alone outgained the Buffaloes as he picked up 114 yards in the period.
Nebraska's defense opened the fourth period by stopping Colorado on downs for the third straight possession. Nebraska's offense took the field hungry to add to its lead.
"Sometimes this whole thing with the polls is bad for you," Frost said. "Early in the fourth quarter, I was trying to hurry up and get plays run so we could score some more points. As it turned out, that almost cost us the ballgame."
Nebraska's offense broke down in the final period, gaining just 41 yards and picking up two first downs. Colorado's late flurry allowed the Buffaloes to finish with a 455 - 442 edge in total yardage, the first time since last season's loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game that the Huskers had been outyarded.
"We kept having little things happen, we missed a couple of blocks, had a few penalties and fumbled the ball," said Frost when asked about Nebraska's fourth - quarter offensive flatness.
"Sometimes things happen and we can't control them. "We felt like if we played the way we are capable, we could have put up 40, 50, 60 points."
Nebraska started strong, scoring on its first two possessions of the game while eating almost 12 minutes off the clock. Frost moved the Huskers 55 yards in 14 plays to set up Brown's 25-yard field goal with 4:16 left in the first quarter. Nebraska followed that with a 10-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Frost's 19-yard touchdown run.
Colorado's first three possessions had ended with a 19-yard punt, a missed 50-yard field goal attempt and Warfield's flying interception of a Hessler pass.
The Huskers appeared to have stopped the Buffaloes' fourth possession but got fooled on a fake punt. Cherrington rambled 43 yards on the play, setting up Jeremy Aldrich's 30-yard field goal that cut Nebraska's lead to 10-3 at the half.
After Nebraska's productive third quarter, the Huskers appeared ready to cruise home with the win. The Buffaloes had other ideas.
"We put a lot of heart into today's game," Hessler said. "No one would give up."
In the end, the Huskers refused to give in.
"We knew this was going to be tough," Warfield said. "Each year, Colorado plays us harder than any team we play. I think our defense stuck to it at the end and we came out with the win."
How others view the victory doesn't matter to Warfield.
"This one doesn't shake our confidence or anything," he said. "We know what kind of team we have. Right now, even though we only won by three points, I don't think there's any team in the country that can beat us right now."
|Yards per carry||3.7||6.0|
Nebraska is 49-19 all-time against Colorado.
|Central Florida||Sept. 13|
|Kansas State||Oct. 4|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Nov. 15|
|Texas A&M||Dec. 6|
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