LINCOLN — Nebraska's performance Saturday against Iowa proved to be a real rush for Tracey Wistrom and the rest of the Huskers' receivers.
Wistrom tied a school record with three touchdown catches, and split end Matt Davison had two more in one of the more efficient passing performances in school history. Half of quarterback Eric Crouch's 10 completions went for touchdowns, which also tied a school record, as top-ranked Nebraska posted a workmanlike 42-13 victory before a record crowd of 78,070 at Memorial Stadium.
"This is unheard of around here," said Wistrom, a junior tight end. "I didn't come here thinking I'd be catching three touchdown passes in a game. Don't get me wrong. I'm enjoying this."
The smile on Davison's face indicated that he, too, was thrilled with catching almost as many touchdowns in one game as he had in his first 41 as a Husker. He came into Saturday's game with three career touchdowns but came up with scoring catches of 31 and 43 yards in the first half against the Hawkeyes.
"That was more balls than I caught all week in practice," Davison said jokingly. "I have a question for you: When was the last time Nebraska didn't have a rushing touchdown? And won?"
That was in 1998. Nebraska didn't score a rushing touchdown in back-to-back games to close that season, winning 16-14 against Colorado and then losing 23-20 to Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska's other score Saturday came on Troy Watchorn's 39-yard interception return with 55 seconds to play.
Nebraska's performance before the 235th straight home sellout and an ABC regional television audience might not have been as unexpected as it was uncharacteristic. The Huskers had put in considerable time and effort in the previous two weeks in trying to improve a passing attack that had produced undesirable results in wins over San Jose State and Notre Dame.
Averaging 97.0 yards passing in the first two games placed the Huskers were 110th out of 114 Division I-A teams in passing offense. Crouch had completed 44 percent of his 25 passes, and his NCAA passing efficiency rating of 90.32 was below average.
Against the Hawkeyes, Crouch completed 10 of 13 passes for 159 yards. His five touchdowns tied the school record Steve Taylor threw against UCLA on Sept. 12, 1987. Taylor's passing efficiency rating for that game was 298.2 points. Crouch's efficiency rating against Iowa was 306.6, although he did not have the minimum of 15 attempts to qualify for a school record.
"We have the talent to throw the ball, and we have the receivers to go out and make big plays," Crouch said. "It was one of those situations where we had to go out and prove it in a game. We wanted to do that today, and we accomplished it. It was a good day."
Crouch and his receivers weren't the only Huskers who enjoyed good days. Saturday's win, Nebraska's ninth straight overall and its third as this season's No. 1 team, featured a balanced offensive attack and a defensive effort that improved as the game progressed.
The Huskers finished with 490 yards, averaging 7.7 yards on their 64 plays. I-backs Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter led Nebraska's rushing attack that produced 331 yards. Alexander gained 113 yards on 15 carries, while Buckhalter had 100 on 16. Crouch came within 7 yards of giving Nebraska three 100-yard rushers in the same game for only the third time in school history.
"They are not a passing team," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They talk about wanting to work on the pass, but I am not sure they have passed any more today than they have in the past. The thing that makes them so dangerous is that they are such a good running team.
"They set up the pass nicely with the run. As a result, they are very, very effective."
Defensively, Nebraska sacked Iowa quarterback Scott Mullen six times and intercepted him twice. The Hawkeyes, losing a school record-tying 12th straight game, did gain 299 yards, but only 88 in the final 30 minutes.
"I was frustrated at halftime," said Craig Bohl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "I thought we showed improvement during the course of the game. But any time an offense can move the ball the way they did at times, that's something we need to put a curb on that.
"You have to give Iowa some credit. Mullen throws the ball well, and he has a good release. But we need to do a better job of getting upfield on third down."
Five of Nebraska's sacks came after halftime. In the first 30 minutes, Mullen directed Iowa on scoring drives that ended with a 29 - yard touchdown to Kevin Kasper on the Hawkeyes' opening possession and second-quarter field goals of 40 and 39 yards by Nate Kaeding.
Nebraska countered Kasper's touchdown with scoring drives on two of its first three possessions. The first ended with Crouch's 31-yard pass to Davison that produced a 7-7 tie with 7:40 left in the first quarter. The second, covering 70 yards in eight plays, was capped by Wistrom's 12 - yard touchdown reception for a 14 - 7 lead with 11:01 left in the half.
Kaeding's second field goal pulled Iowa, a 42-point underdog, within 14-13 with 1:44 to play in the second period. It was still a one-point margin when Nebraska lined up for the final play of the half with four seconds on the clock.
Davison then came up with his second touchdown catch, outbattling a pair of Iowa defenders to come up with the football at the 3-yard line. Davison spun into the end zone to provide Nebraska with some much-needed momentum.
"That play was huge," Nebraska offensive guard Russ Hochstein said. "With four seconds left, I'm not expecting to score. We just wanted to complete a pass and get some yardage. Eric threw it up there, and as I was getting up, I saw Matt jump. Next thing I know, everyone is going nuts."
The Huskers quickly added to their lead in the second half, moving 86 yards on eight plays on their first possession. Wistrom got the touchdown, hauling in a 10-yard pass from Crouch.
The 28-13 lead stood up until late in the fourth quarter when Wistrom, who had four catches for 42 yards, caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Crouch. The reception, with 1:27 to play, put Nebraska ahead 35-13, and Watchorn closed out the scoring with his interception return 32 seconds later.
"I'd like to say that I had some spectacular catches, but none of them were," said Wistrom, who played most of the game with a strained right knee. "I was wide open on all of them. They were just routine plays that we've been working on, and today they all just worked."
To Nebraska Coach Frank Solich's satisfaction. In the days since the Sept. 9 win over Notre Dame, Solich repeatedly had said he wanted to see improvement in his team's passing attack, its defensive effort and its special-teams play. Only some spotty play by the special teams kept Nebraska from going 3 for 3 on Solich's wish list.
Solich praised the performance of Crouch, who finished with season highs in rushing and passing yardage. His 252 yards of total offense helped earn him ABC's player of the game honors.
"You'd have to give him an A+," Solich said. "He throws five touchdowns passes and does an excellent job of running our offense. All in all, I thought Eric played another excellent game."
Nebraska's overall grade might not match Crouch's, but it probably will be enough to help the Huskers hold onto their No. 1 ranking in the polls. More important to Solich, Nebraska played well enough to complete a fourth straight unbeaten non-conference season.
"We're 3-0 and that's where we wanted to be going into conference play," Solich said. "We have shown that we can be a very strong offensive football team. Defensively, I think we're getting better.
"It's not like people have run up and down the field on Iowa. For anyone to think that was going to be the case, then they're probably not studying the film as much as they need to study it. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and I thought we played well in many aspects of this game."
So did Crouch, especially when it came to establishing air supremacy.
"There was strong determination by everyone to get that part of our game going," Crouch said. "I'm proud of that. It was an approach by the whole offense. It was something we worked on together."
|Yards per carry||1.5||6.5|
Nebraska is 29-18 all-time against Iowa.
|San Jose State||Sept. 2|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 9|
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 14|
|Kansas State||Nov. 11|
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