LINCOLN — Measured against the standards of recent seasons, Nebraska’s performance in its first two 1998 football games comes up short.
The Huskers, who have humbled some of college football’s best teams in winning three of the past four national championships, have beaten two lightly regarded opponents this season by “only” a total of 60 points. Nebraska, the NCAA rushing champion three of the past four seasons, has produced “just” 525 yards on the ground.
The defense, considered the team’s strength before the season, already has had to redeem itself from an effort that left its members embarrassed.
The Huskers’ need for 17 fourth-quarter points to properly punctuate Saturday’s 38-7 win over Alabama-Birmingham probably reinforced the notion for some in the 222nd consecutive sellout crowd of 75,921 at Memorial Stadium that there is something wrong with this Nebraska team.
“I imagine there are a lot of people out there who look at it that way,” Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. “But the bottom line for coaches is getting the job done. Sometimes you can look very stylish and not get the job done.
“I don’t think we’ve looked bad by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve won our first two games when we’ve had a number of starters unable to play. We’ve got some inexperienced players on the field. When you combine all that, I feel pretty good about our football team.”
How others, particularly those who vote in the national polls, judge Nebraska’s efforts against Louisiana Tech and Alabama-Birmingham will be known today when the ratings are released. Nebraska started the season ranked third and fourth, but the hot question in the postgame interview room was whether the Huskers deserve a Top 5 rating.
“We’ll just have to let our play answer that,” Nebraska fullback Joel Makovicka said. “Any time you get a win, that’s what you want to do. We won the ballgame. A lot of people didn’t give Alabama-Birmingham much of a shot, but they played well and they played tough.
“We’re not out there to beat a team by 60 points or to run up the score. A lot of people might say that we didn’t win this game by enough but hopefully our play in the future will silence them.”
Nebraska’s play Saturday produced some ammunition for its critics. The Huskers were supposed to blow away Alabama-Birmingham, a school that is beginning just its third season of Division I-A competition. It was a matchup that was supposed to be so lopsided that the oddsmakers decided to skip putting a betting line on it.
Instead, Nebraska found itself needing a defensive stand late in the third quarter to protect a 21-7 lead. The Huskers got it, thanks in part to four Alabama-Birmingham penalties in five plays.
Nebraska then closed strong, getting a record-setting field goal from Kris Brown and big plays from quarterbacks Eric Crouch and Monte Christo to finish its 44th straight home victory.
Crouch, the redshirt freshman from Millard North, delivered big time in his first career start in relief of injured starter Bobby Newcombe. Crouch completed 11 of 17 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown. He added 74 yards rushing, 59 on which came on a fourth-quarter touchdown scamper.
“I have nothing but praise for Eric Crouch and the performance he had today,” Solich said. “I think we’ve had great performances from two different quarterbacks in the two ballgames.”
Newcombe had passed for 168 yards in the opening 56-27 win over Louisiana Tech. But a knee injury forced him to watch Saturday’s game from the sidelines, where Crouch joined him midway through the third quarter when leg and hip cramps left him unable to maneuver efficiently.
That provided Christo, an oft-injured senior from Kearney, Neb., a chance to put in some significant playing time. He responded by completing all four of his passes, including a 63-yard touchdown toss to redshirt freshman tight end Tracey Wistrom with 2:19 remaining.
Wistrom’s touchdown, on his first catch as a Husker, produced the final yards of Nebraska’s 444-yard output against the Blazers. The Huskers averaged 6.9 yards per play. Subtract the two big fourth-quarter scoring plays and Nebraska had a more modest 322-yard total and 5.2-yard average.
Alabama-Birmingham, which finished 48th nationally in total defense in 1997, deserves credit for keeping the Huskers from marching up and down the field, Makovicka said.
“Everybody was saying that those guys weren’t going to be a challenge for us and that we should beat them by 60 points,” Makovicka said. “But we knew they were going to be tough for us.
"They kept us from getting untracked on offense."
The Huskers finished with 236 yards rushing, with I-back Correll Buckhalter leading the way with 96 on 19 carries. Nebraska led the nation in rushing offense last season, averaging 392.6 yards per game in running off 13 straight wins.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with our rushing game,” said Makovicka, who gained 27 yards and scored the Huskers’ first touchdown. “Teams are bringing 11 guys up to the line to stop our run. Everybody thinks the key to beating us is stopping the run and forcing us to throw the ball.
“But we’ve been throwing the ball well.”
Nebraska passed for more than 150 yards in just three of 13 games last season. Crouch and Christo combined for 208 yards passing against Alabama-Birmingham, and Crouch and Newcombe threw for 173 yards against Louisiana Tech.
“Anyone who understands football knows what we’re doing by throwing the football is opening up the running game,” tight end Sheldon Jackson said. “If the passing game wasn’t working, we’d run the football and keep running it. We’re just trying to force teams to play us honest on defense.
“We’ve got people out there thinking we should run for 500 yards on anybody. The fact that we didn’t do it today doesn’t mean we have anything wrong with the offense. We’ve had a lot of injuries this year, and that affects some of the things we want to do.”
In addition to Newcombe, Nebraska played Saturday’s game without four other starters — I-back DeAngelo Evans, wingback Lance Brown, free safety Clint Finley and defensive tackle Jason Wiltz.
Wiltz’s injury, a sprained ankle that could sideline him three weeks, forced the Huskers to play true freshmen Jason Lohr and Jeremy Slechta in backup roles at defensive tackle.
“I’m hoping that we get some of our players back who have been banged up and have them travel to California,” Solich said.
One thing that won’t be hurting when the Huskers play Saturday at California is the defense’s pride. Stung by allowing 590 yards passing and 569 total yards in the opener, the Nebraska defenders rebounded with a solid effort against the Blazers.
Nebraska held Alabama-Birmingham to 210 yards, 80 of which came on a second-quarter possession that resulted in the Blazers’ only score. The Huskers allowed just 92 yards in the second half after adjusting to the wishbone offense the Blazers used frequently in the game.
“We hadn’t prepared to face the option, so it was kind of difficult making adjustments in the first half on the spur of the moment,” Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown said. “But we came in at halftime, made the adjustments we needed and fixed what needed fixing.
”This game is going to give the defense, and the offense, a lot of confidence going into the California game.”
The Blazers’ only score came 3:45 before halftime when Ortavious Miles bulled in from the 2-yard line to cap a 16-play, 80-yard drive. That cut the 14-0 lead Nebraska had built on Makovicka’s 3-yard touchdown run and Crouch’s 15-yard, fourth-down pass to Jackson to seven points.
Crouch countered by directing Nebraska on a 70-yard scoring drive, getting his first touchdown as a Husker on an 11-yard run nine seconds before the half to make it 21-7.
“That felt great,” Crouch said. “The last two years, ever since I graduated from high school, it’s been on my mind to go in there and make some big plays for the team. I haven’t led a team to victory since high school. It was a big adrenaline rush.”
Cramps slowed Crouch in the third quarter, forcing Christo into the game. The Huskers failed to add to their lead in the third period, while Alabama-Birmingham threatened to pull back within a touchdown by driving from its 34-yard line to the Nebraska 11.
But rush end Chad Kelsay came up with a big play, dropping quarterback Daniel Dixon for a 4-yard loss on a second-down play.
The Blazers then were flagged for three straight penalties — two false starts and offensive pass interference — that eventually left them punting on fourth and 39 from the Nebraska 43.
Brown’s 17th straight field goal hiked the Huskers’ lead to 24-7 with 10:13 remaining and made him the school’s all-time leading scorer. The kick gave him 313 points, one more than Mike Rozier scored from 1981 to 1983, and Brown added two more points on conversions following the fourth-quarter touchdowns by Crouch and Wistrom.
The fourth-quarter scoring flurry closed out Nebraska’s 62nd win in the past 65 games. While the last two might not have come as easily as expected, Solich will take them.
“Louisiana Tech and Alabama-Birmingham are good football teams,” he said. “They have good personnel, their coaches have done a good job and you just can’t step on the field and count a win.
“There are a lot of people who do, but they’re not in coaching and they’re not playing. You have to play well. We have things we need to work on. We need to get better, and I think we will get better. But I’m pleased with those two wins just the way they came."
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Video: Nebraska-UAB game highlights (via YouTube)
|Yards per carry||3.3||5.5|
Nebraska is 1-0 all-time against UAB.
|Louisiana Tech||Aug. 29|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 3|
|Texas A&M||Oct. 10|
|Iowa State||Nov. 7|
|Kansas State||Nov. 14|
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