COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Nebraska played like the country’s second-ranked football team for the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s game against No. 18 Texas A&M.
It’s the first 45 minutes that killed the Huskers.
Burying its hopes for an unbeaten season after falling behind by three touchdowns one play into the final quarter, Nebraska left Kyle Field on the short end of a 28-21 score. The loss, before a crowd of 60,798 that shoe-horned its way into the 58,000-seat stadium, snapped Nebraska’s nation-leading winning streak at 19, damaged its bid for a national championship and saddled Frank Solich with his first defeat as the Huskers’ head coach.
“We did not play well enough to win,” said Solich, whose team dropped to 5-1 and 1-1 in the Big 12 Conference. “But I am proud of how our kids reacted to getting behind. They never quit, and they made a great comeback.”
Granted, the Huskers left Aggieland with the satisfaction of knowing they didn’t give in when the going got tough. But they also headed for home dogged by a number of questions, and the most important one was the about the offense’s inability to get untracked until the fourth quarter.
“We kind of picked up the pace a little bit and wore them down at the end,” Nebraska center Josh Heskew said. “Maybe that was something we could have thought of a little earlier, but we didn’t.”
Nebraska ran 42 plays in the first three quarters and gained 117 yards. At that point, the Huskers had produced just one run of more than 7 yards and one pass that had gained more than 15.
In the final 15 minutes, Nebraska’s slumbering offense awoke. The Huskers ran 29 plays and gained 228 yards. They put together scoring drives of 76 and 66 yards. They got the ball back with two minutes to play, confident they could drive the 80 yards to a possible tying touchdown.
“I really thought we were going to score,” said Husker split end Matt Davison, whose 167 receiving yards broke an NU single-game record. “I really thought we were headed for overtime.”
Those hopes vanished with 51 seconds remaining when Sedrick Curry picked off Newcombe’s last pass of the day. The 5-1 Aggies ran out the clock to finish the win that erased a decade of big-game frustration for Coach R.C. Slocum’s program, which hadn’t beaten a Top 10-ranked team in nine tries in the 1990s. One of those losses was a 54-15 whipping by Nebraska in last season’s Big 12 championship game.
“This is great for what it does,” Slocum said. “It makes us 2-0 in the conference, and we beat a team that had done what no one else in college football has done. It is more meaningful because we did it against a legitimate team like Nebraska."
Nebraska, winner of three of the past four national championships, became the highest-ranked team beaten by Texas A&M.
The Aggies had twice knocked off teams that were rated No. 4 — Tulane in the 1940 Sugar Bowl and Texas Christian in 1956.
Ironically, the victory over Tulane had wrapped up the national championship for Texas A&M’s 1939 team, which was honored during halftime Saturday.
That ceremony came shortly after the Aggies had used their biggest pass and run plays of the season to take a 14-7 lead. Texas A&M’s first score came on an 81-yard pass, on a third-down-and-25 play, from quarterback Randy McCown to Chris Taylor midway through the first quarter.
The Aggies broke a 7-7 tie when a 72-yard run by 260-pound Ja’Mar Toombs set up Dante Hall’s 1-yard run with 3:37 left in the first half.
“We did not make big defensive plays early in the game, and that caused us some problems,” Solich said. “And we struggled moving the ball early.”
Nebraska’s first-half offensive performance was a replay of the previous week’s struggle against Oklahoma State. The Huskers won that game 24-17 but finished the game with just 73 yards rushing — their lowest total in 23 seasons — and 215 total yards.
In the first half against the Aggies, Nebraska ran 30 plays and had 90 yards, 48 coming on the possession that produced Correll Buckhalter’s 7-yard scoring run. The Huskers failed to make a first down on their other seven possessions of the half.
“We struggled moving the ball on the ground with any consistency early in the game,” Solich said. “We gave it a good shot. We gave the option game a really good test in the first half, but we really didn’t produce any big plays.”
On Sept. 26, Nebraska chewed up Washington with big plays in piling up 524 yards and scoring 55 points. Since then, every possession has seemingly become a struggle to produce positive results, a development that leaves the Huskers perplexed.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t run the ball,” Davison said. “I’m going to have to watch the films like everyone else to see what’s going on.”
Said Newcombe: “We just couldn’t get things going on the ground, and that’s what Nebraska does — run the ball. We missed a few assignments at the quarterback spot and on the offensive line. On any play, you have to have 11 guys doing the right thing for the play to work. We didn’t have that today.”
Texas A&M deserves a share of the credit for that, Solich said.
The Aggies’ “Wrecking Crew” defense came into the game ranked in the Top 25 in the four NCAA defensive statistical categories.
“It’s no mystery they have a fine defensive football team,” Solich said. “I thought today they played hard, and they made the most of their quickness.”
Ultimately, the game swung into Texas A&M’s control in the third quarter because its defense produced big plays while Nebraska’s could not. Early in the period, the Aggies sacked Newcombe on three consecutive plays, with the final one producing Texas A&M’s third touchdown.
Linebacker Cornelius Anthony got the first sack, dropping Newcombe for a 5-yard loss. Linebacker Warrick Holdman followed with a 4-yard sack, leaving Nebraska facing third down and 19 from its 12-yard line. Noseguard Ron Edwards then bagged Newcombe, forcing a fumble that Holdman recovered in the end zone with 9:13 left in the third quarter.
Nebraska countered with three straight big plays — a 40-yard kickoff return by Shevin Wiggins, an 11-yard run by Newcombe and a 22-yard bolt up the middle by fullback Joel Makovicka — to move within 18 yards of Texas A&M’s goal line. Three rushes gained just 8 yards, leaving Nebraska staring at fourth and two from the Aggies’ 10.
The Huskers failed to pick up the 2 yards when Holdman and cornerback Jason Webster combined to drop Wiggins for a 4-yard loss on a wingback reverse.
“We thought with the way they were pursuing that we had a chance to put it in the end zone on that play,” Solich said. “Their corner from the weakside fired (blitzed) on the play, and he wound up being the guy in the face of the reverse man. It ended up being the right call for the wrong play as far as we were concerned.”
Texas A&M, the Big 12’s worst offensive team in terms of yardage production, then put together its biggest drive of the season. The Aggies moved 86 yards in 13 plays for the score, with Toombs crashing across from the 3 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Aggies converted three third-down plays on the drive, the biggest being McCown’s 33-yard scramble to the Nebraska 7-yard line. Toombs scored three plays later.
“We gave up a couple of big plays early in the game, but those are going to happen,” Nebraska rush end Chad Kelsay said. “But that good drive they put together, we just let that happen. Anytime a team marches down the field, that’s no good.”
Toombs’ touchdown gave the Aggies a 28-7 lead, but it also seemed to ignite the Huskers. The Huskers drove to the Aggies’ 22-yard line on the first possession of the fourth quarter before the drive fizzled when Newcombe threw incomplete on fourth down.
He directed the Huskers 76 yards on six plays on their next possession, scoring on a 11-yard run to cut the deficit to 28-14 with 8:08 to play. Fewer than four minutes later, Makovicka burst up the middle on a 9-yard scoring run to finish a 10-play, 66-yard drive and pull Nebraska within a touchdown.
The Husker defense, which limited Texas A&M to 22 yards on 17 fourth-quarter plays, appeared to have forced the Aggies into a punting situation when McCown’s third-down pass for Chris Cole was knocked away by cornerback Ralph Brown.
But Brown was called for interference on the play, giving the Aggies a first down. While Nebraska forced the Aggies to punt four plays later, the call cost the Huskers a minute and seven seconds of priceless time.
“From my viewpoint, and certainly it’s biased, I didn’t see any flags for a long period of time,” Solich said. “I thought it was a very clean play, but I thought the officials felt that way, too. But that wasn’t the case. They made the call.”
The Huskers got flagged again on a holding call after Nebraska had moved from its 20 to its 45-yard line following the Aggies’ last punt. That wiped out a catch by Billy Haafke that carried into Texas A&M territory, instead leaving Nebraska at its 32 with 1:23 to play. Three plays later, Curry stepped in front of Newcombe’s pass and sealed Nebraska’s fate.
“We had a couple of calls go against us there — I’m not saying they were wrong or right — that obviously cost us yardage and time on the clock,” Davison said. “We had to try to overcome a lot.”
Nebraska’s inability to overcome its early offensive ineffectiveness, and not calls by officials, is what ultimately decided Saturday’s game. Not that Solich was blaming anyone for the loss.
“No one play, no one unit — offense, defense or kicking game — cost the loss,” he said. “It was a combination of things that happened.
Our team had a chance to make more plays, and we didn’t get those plays made on both sides of the ball.”
|Yards per carry||4.5||3.2|
Nebraska is 10-4 all-time against Texas A&M.
|Louisiana Tech||Aug. 29|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 3|
|Texas A&M||Oct. 10|
|Iowa State||Nov. 7|
|Kansas State||Nov. 14|
Nebraska has played 17 games on Oct. 10. See them all »
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