LINCOLN — Nebraska enhanced its position Saturday to play for a conference championship next month — and perhaps a whole lot more next year.
The Huskers’ 41-15 dismantling of fifth-ranked Kansas State on a picture-perfect November afternoon left Nebraska needing to win at Colorado on Nov. 26 to punch its ticket for the Dec. 4 Big 12 Conference championship game in San Antonio.
The victory, coupled with third-ranked Tennessee’s loss to Arkansas, could reward the Nos. 6 and 7 Huskers with a big jump in the ratings today. To a man, the Nebraska’s players said Saturday that they are not worried about where they might fit into the national picture and the race for the Sugar Bowl, where the title is to be decided Jan. 4.
But the Huskers agree that their national title hopes, seemingly non-existent after last month’s loss at Texas, are improving week by week.
“Three weeks ago, we thought we were out of it,” Husker linebacker Carlos Polk said. “Now, it’s starting to become more of a reality. But we know we have to take care of our side of it before we can even think about that.”
The Huskers took care of previously unbeaten Kansas State in such dominant fashion that not even a school-record 10 fumbles — three of which were lost — made a difference in the outcome. The Huskers, with quarterback Eric Crouch leading the way with 158 yards on 27 carries, finished with 378 yards against the country’s No. 2 defense.
Nebraska, which came into the game fourth nationally in total defense, matched its average yield by limiting Kansas State to 234 yards. The Huskers forced four fumbles, intercepted a pass, sacked Wildcats’ quarterback Jonathan Beasley and Adam Helm five times and harassed the pair into a 7-of-29 passing performance.
“We got a lot of pressure on them, and I think that took a toll, “said Husker rover back Mike Brown, who intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and finished with six tackles in his final home game at Memorial Stadium. “We kept putting the pressure on them, and things started happening.”
In addition to sending the seniors out with a win in their final home appearance, Nebraska’s win before a 233rd consecutive sellout crowd of 77,744 allowed the Huskers to:
Improve to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big 12’s North Division. A victory over Colorado would make Nebraska the division’s representative in the Big 12 title game regardless of what Kansas State does in its final game against Missouri. The Wildcats, also 9-1 and 6-1, could earn a repeat trip to the championship game with a win over Missouri and a Nebraska loss at Colorado.
Extend their streak of nine-win seasons to 31, a continuing NCAA record. Nebraska also won for the seventh straight time at home and for the 16th time in a row at Memorial Stadium against Kansas State. The Wildcats, who snapped Nebraska’s 29-game winning streak in the series with last season’s 40-30 win in Manhattan, will have to wait until the next century to end its string of losses in Lincoln that stretches back to 1968.
Snap Kansas State’s 21-game conference winning streak and the Wildcats’ string of 10 straight Big 12 road wins.
Gain their first win over a higher-ranked team since 1994, when a No. 3 Nebraska team defeated a No. 2 Colorado team at home. The win also finished off the Huskers’ 23rd unbeaten home season, seven of which have occurred this decade.
All that might be secondary to what Nebraska did to polish its image as a national championship contender. It took on a grimy tinge in the 24-20 loss at Texas, and wasn’t helped by a lethargic first-half effort in an Oct. 30 game at Kansas. But in its last 10 quarters, Nebraska has outscored Kansas, Texas A&M and Kansas State 102-23 and outyarded the trio 1,105 to 501.
“The Texas loss was tremendously tough on us,” Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. “We felt a little uneasy going into the Kansas game as far as where we were emotionally. But to their credit, when it caved in on them in the first half against Kansas, they had the fight and they had the character to stand up and get it done.
“That was a big turning point for that football team. From that moment on, they’ve played tremendously well and tremendously hard.”
Where Nebraska fits into the national championship picture, Solich said, is of no concern at this point.
“I’ll see where this game plays into it when the voters vote and they tabulate it all,” Solich said. “I think we’re playing well right now, but there are other teams around the country that are playing well. Hopefully, the system will put the two best teams in the national championship game, whoever that might be.”
The Huskers displayed a national championship-caliber defensive performance against Kansas State. Twelve of the Wildcats’ 16 offensive possessions lasted no more than four plays, and Kansas State was 3 of 15 on third-down conversions. Two plays — a 55-yard pass from Beasley to Quincy Morgan and a 29-yarder from Helm to Morgan — accounted for more than a third of the Wildcats’ offensive output.
Nebraska’s ability to hold Kansas State without a first down in the first 13 minutes of the third quarter proved critical in the Huskers’ protection of the 24-9 lead they carried out of halftime.
The Wildcats went three-and-out on their first three possessions of the second half, then were unsuccessful on a fake punt near midfield on their fourth.
“We knew they were a second-half team, and that’s something we harped on during halftime,” Brown said. “They’re a team that seems to play better when they’re down. We really wanted to come out in the second half and give them no hope at all.
“When we came out and established ourselves right there, it was almost like they felt they had no shot and it was too much for them.”
The Huskers sealed Kansas State’s fate with a 17-point fourth quarter that featured a 30-yard field goal by Josh Brown, a 46-yard scoring run by Dahrran Diedrick and linebacker Eric Johnson’s 15-yard return for a touchdown after Helm fumbled when he was sacked by Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Brown set up the first two scores in the final quarter, forcing and recovering a Helm fumble that led to Brown’s field goal. On Kansas State’s next possession, Brown intercepted at the Wildcats’ 46-yard line and Diedrick scored on the next play.
Diedrick, who started the game as Nebraska’s No. 3 I-back, finished with 93 yards on 14 carries in his most significant contribution of the season. He got his chance after Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter lost first-quarter fumbles, with Alexander’s occurring on the opening play from scrimmage at the Nebraska 28-yard line.
That marked the second straight week Nebraska fumbled on the first play of the game. And for the second straight week, the defense and Vanden Bosch stepped up to keep the game scoreless. The defense held on downs, and Vanden Bosch blocked Jamie Rheem’s 40-yard field-goal attempt to snap a string of 15 straight successful kicks.
Vanden Bosch also blocked two field goals last week, including one after Texas A&M failed to convert after recovering Bobby Newcombe’s game-opening fumble.
“Like I said last week, the biggest play of the game right there,” Brown said. “They were in our backyard again, but it was weird. I had this feeling like it was going to happen again when they lined up for that field goal. He’s just one of those guys who gives everything he has on every single play.”
Crouch, who set a school record for carries by a quarterback, got Nebraska’s first touchdown on a 30-yard run with 6:05 left in the first quarter. The Huskers squandered a chance to drop Kansas State in a deep hole, forcing a fumble on the kickoff that Ralph Brown returned to the Wildcats’ 1-yard line.
Buckhalter fumbled on the first play, but Nebraska managed to get two points out of the deal when Randy Stella blocked Mike Ronsick’s punt out of the end zone. Nebraska took the ensuing free kick and drove 73 yards in 11 plays, with Crouch getting the touchdown on an 18-yard run 41 seconds before the end of the period.
“He’s a pretty elusive guy,” Kansas State linebacker Ben Leber said. “He’s extremely fast. He’s got so many threats. He’s probably the toughest quarterback we’ve faced.”
Kansas State trimmed Nebraska’s lead to 16-6 when Beasley capped a seven-play, 53-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak. The Huskers countered by moving 62 yards in 14 plays, with Willie Miller getting the touchdown on a 4-yard run. The score came two plays after Crouch, being spun to the ground by Kansas State defensive end Darren Howard, managed to get off a 14-yard completion to tight end Tracy Wistrom.
“I didn’t know Eric got hit until someone told me later on that he did,” said Wistrom, who had four catches for 68 yards. “I wouldn’t have known that he did because he threw a perfect ball.”
Crouch finished the game with 69 yards passing, completing 8 of 17. One of the completions was to himself on a ball that was batted into the air. It resulted in a 14-yard loss.
Kansas State cut Nebraska’s lead to 24-9 by getting a 35-yard field-goal from Rheem with 25 seconds left in the half. Being up by 15 points hardly had the Huskers in a comfort zone against a Kansas State team that had wiped out 21-point deficits in comeback victories over Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
“We knew they couldn’t play four quarters with Nebraska, that we were just too physical for them,” Polk said. “We came out in the second half knowing we were going to have to dominate. We knew that first defensive stand was going to be an important one, and I think we deflated them when we made them go three-and-out on that first series.”
That set a tone that Kansas State was unable to overcome. In the end, a game that was expected to be a down-to-the-wire battle turned into one where Brown was signing autographs for fans with a minute and half to play.
“No way did I expect that,” he said. “I was expecting a tough, four-quarter game. At the same time, I knew we were capable of putting on a dominating performance. And we did.”
In doing so, the Huskers sent a message that they’re not out of the title race.
“We need some things to fall into place,” Crouch said. “But we know what we’re capable of doing if we just focus on the things that we can control.”
|Yards per carry||2.5||5.1|
Nebraska is 78-15 all-time against Kansas State.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 18|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 2|
|Iowa State||Oct. 9|
|Texas A&M||Nov. 6|
|Kansas State||Nov. 13|
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