TEMPE, Ariz. — Nebraska opened a new century of football Sunday with a win that allowed a longtime assistant to close out his career in style.
The Huskers' 31-21 victory over Tennessee in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl sent Charlie McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator for the past 18 seasons and a member of the coaching staff for the past 23, out on a winning note. It also capped a 12-1 season for the third-ranked Huskers.
"My first win came here on this field when I was at Arizona State, and this will be where my last one will come, " said McBride, his voice choking with emotion. "I love this football team, and I also love my family. It's time for me to spend more time with them, so I'm going to pull the plug."
McBride had been non-committal about his future plans in the days leading up to the Sunday's game against the fifth- and sixth-ranked Volunteers, who closed out a 9-3 season after winning the national championship here a year ago.
"I didn't want to do anything to take away from this football team," McBride said. "They deserved this big win. As far as I'm concerned, they are No. 1. There's no question about it. I don't have any hesitation in my mind. Anyone who wants to step up against them, we can win."
Although the national championship will be given to the winner of Tuesday's Nokia Sugar Bowl game between Virginia Tech and Florida State, Nebraska made a strong final argument that it should be included in any short list of the best teams of the 1999 season.
The Huskers did it by delivering a gut-punch to the Volunteers with three long drives in the second half that took the bite out of Tennessee's upset bid. Nebraska mounted scoring drives of 96 and 99 yards after the Volunteers had closed to within three points early in the third quarter, then hung onto the ball for the final 7 minutes and 25 seconds to close out the game that drew a sellout crowd of 71,526 to Sun Devil Stadium.
"We got another good lesson tonight," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Obviously, they're something special."
The Huskers, who closed the season with six straight wins — four over ranked opponents — showed it with their two most productive back-to-back drives of the season. Nebraska covered 96 yards in nine plays, with Eric Crouch passing 13 yards to Aaron Golliday for the score, to hike its lead to 24-14.
On its next possession, Nebraska marched 99 yards in 10 plays, with Correll Buckhalter capping the march with a 2-yard scoring run. Tennessee refused to quit and cut the lead to 31-21 on a 44-yard pass from Cedrick Wilson to Donte Stallworth.
Nebraska then never gave the Volunteers another chance, running 14 straight times and eating all of the time off the clock to finish off the win.
Nebraska finished with 469 to 311 edge in total yardage, with Dan Alexander supplying 108 yards rushing. Crouch added 64 yards and passed for 148, while fullback Willie Miller gained a career-high 89 yards on eight carries.
Crouch was named the game's outstanding player on offense, while Mike Brown won the game's top defensive player award.
"I have so many mixed emotions," said Brown, who returned home to close out an All-America career in style. "I'm frustrated about how our defense played. I'm happy we won, but I'm sad that Coach McBride's coaching career is over.
"At the same time, I'm happy for him because he'll be able to enjoy life."
Big plays by Crouch and Bobby Newcombe helped Nebraska build a two-touchdown lead in the opening quarter, and the Huskers' defense kept Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin under control until the final moments of the half.
Martin kept the Volunteers from heading into halftime down 17-0 when he drove Tennessee 65 yards in eight plays. Martin completed passes of 16, 5, 10, 11 and 15 yards before drilling a 9-yard scoring strike to Stallworth with 18 seconds left in the half.
Stallworth also had two other catches on the drive, Tennessee's most successful offensive possession of the first half. Only one other Volunteer possession last more than five plays, and Nebraska intercepted Martin twice and sacked him once.
Crouch got the Huskers started when he moved Nebraska 43 yards on its first possession, with Dan Alexander getting the touchdown on a 7-yard run on the fourth play of the drive. Alexander's run came one play after Crouch had sprinted 30 yards to the Tennessee 7-yard line on an option.
Alexander then took a pitch from Crouch and ran through Fred White's tackle at the 2-yard line and into the end zone for the score with 11:34 left in the first quarter.
In the days leading up to the game, Tennessee's coaches and players had talked repeatedly about their respect for Newcombe's big-play potential. "He's about as good as I've seen," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, commenting on the Nebraska wingback's ability as a punt returner. "He's special."
Newcombe showed the Volunteers just how special he can be when he fielded David Leaverton's second punt of the game at the Nebraska 40-yard line, ripped through a tiny opening in the Volunteers' coverage and raced upfield.
He scored untouched, with Ralph Brown's block at the 10 clearing the final Volunteer in Newcombe's path, to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead with 3:31 remaining. Newcombe also returned a punt for a touchdown against Kansas, and now has three for his career.
Nebraska, which held a 182-165 edge in total yardage at halftime, increased its lead to 17 points when it drove 52 yards in five plays to set up Josh Brown's 31-yard field goal with 1:37 left in the half.
Crouch's 46-yard pass to Matt Davison opened the drive, but it stalled when Correll Buckhalter was stopped for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-three play from the Tennessee 13-yard line. Brown then came in and connected on his 15th field goal of the season, rattling the kick off the right upright and through the goal posts.
Martin then pumped some life into Tennessee by directing the touchdown drive in the closing moments of the first half. The Volunteers got a big break to open the third quarter when Alexander, fighting for extra yardage after taking a pitch from Crouch, fumbled on the opening play of the second half.
Four plays later, Travis Henry pulled Tennessee within three points with a 4-yard scoring run to complete a 25-yard drive that included a pass interference penalty on Ralph Brown. The penalty on the first play of the drive gave the Volunteers a first-down at the Nebraska 18-yard line.
Martin's 12-yard pass to Eric Parker gave the Volunteers a first and goal at the 6-yard line, and Henry, dragging Nebraska middle linebacker Carlos Polk with him, scored two plays later to pull the Volunteers with 17-14 with 13:03 to play.
Nebraska regained some momentum with its 96-yard touchdown drive midway through the third quarter. The nine-play possession included Miller's career-high, 47-yard run, a clutch third-down catch by tight end Jon Bowling and tight end Aaron Golliday's first career touchdown.
|Yards per carry||1.7||5.7|
Nebraska is 2-1 all-time against Tennessee.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 18|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 2|
|Iowa State||Oct. 9|
|Texas A&M||Nov. 6|
|Kansas State||Nov. 13|
Nebraska has played 7 games on Jan. 2. See them all »
©2018 BH Media Group