SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Just when Notre Dame threatened to wake up the echoes Saturday, Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch put them back to sleep.
Crouch put an end to the Fighting Irish's inspired bid to knock off the top-ranked Huskers when he scored on a 7-yard run in overtime. The touchdown, Crouch's third of the game, gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory in a game worthy of the hallowed ground it was played on at Notre Dame Stadium.
"This is a huge win for us, on the road, in a place like Notre Dame," Crouch said. "It doesn't get any better than this."
The estimated 25,000 Nebraska fans in the sellout crowd of 80,232 undoubtedly would agree after watching the Huskers remain unbeaten in three overtime games. The first, at Missouri in 1997, kept alive the Huskers' drive to a share of the national championship. Saturday's game ultimately could have the same effect on the Huskers' 2000 season.
"This could turn out to be the best thing that could happen to us," said Husker tight end Tracey Wistrom, whose 9-yard reception kept the Huskers' final drive alive. "Last week, we were pretty dominant on offense and maybe we had an attitude that we could move on anybody.
"Maybe this is what we need to bring us back down to earth."
In overcoming some special-teams breakdowns that might have buried many a team — the Huskers were burned for touchdowns on a 100-yard kickoff return and an 83-yard punt return — Nebraska improved to 2-0 and evened its series with Notre Dame at 7-7-1.
Nebraska also became the first No. 1 team to win at Notre Dame Stadium since 1968. The Fighting Irish had upset top-ranked Miami 31-30 in 1988 and tripped No. 1 Florida State 31-24 in 1993. Overall, Notre Dame owns eight victories against No. 1-ranked teams.
And the No. 23-and 25th-ranked Irish were four defensive stops from adding to their giant-killing reputation after Nick Setta's 29-yard field goal gave Notre Dame a 24-21 lead after their offensive series in overtime.
Notre Dame, which came into the game as a two-touchdown underdog, appeared headed for a possible touchdown before Jeremy Slechta's 7-yard sack of elusive Irish quarterback Arnaz Battle, on a third-and-goal play from the 4-yard line, forced Notre Dame to settle for three points.
"I came outside and it was me, Battle and grass," Slechta said. "That made me a little nervous. He's a dangerous player when he gets out in the open. Luckily, I got enough of him to bring him down."
Setta's field goal gave Notre Dame the lead, and the Fighting Irish turned matters over to a defense that had gotten stronger as the game went along. After Nebraska had scored midway through the third quarter to take a 21-7 lead, the Huskers' final five possessions ended with four punts and a Crouch interception.
"As the game went on, Notre Dame started to shut down our base offense," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "We weren't able to establish the consistency that we showed earlier in the ballgame. Notre Dame played well throughout the game, and it got better as the game went on."
Trailing for the first time this season, Nebraska started its overtime possession at the 25-yard line. I-back Dan Alexander, who finished with 112 yards, got one after taking a first-down option pitch from Crouch. The Husker quarterback threw incomplete on second down, leaving Nebraska facing third-and-9 at the 24-yard line.
On the Notre Dame sideline, the Irish coaches figured Nebraska wouldn't put the ball in the air again.
"I thought they were going with a quarterback draw or to the fullback," Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie said.
Instead, Solich called for spread, 71-2 option pass, a play designed to go to Wistrom.
"I'm supposed to go out about 8 yards, and I either sprint out and hook up if they're in a zone," Wistrom said. "They were in a soft zone, so I looked up and Eric hit me."
The completion was the final of Crouch's seven, which produced 103 passing yards. In retrospect, it might be one of the most important in his Nebraska career.
"To me, that's the biggest play of the game," Crouch said. "It's one of those plays we've been working hard on, and it came at time when we really needed to make a play. It's a big down.
"Tracey did a great job of getting the ball. I wasn't sure if he was going inside or outside, but I saw him look out and I just got him the ball."
Wistrom stretched for the first down, extending the Huskers' possession. Alexander followed with an 8-yard run to the 7-yard line. The Huskers then put the ball in Crouch's hands one last time, and he took an option play into the end zone, following a crushing block by Alexander on cornerback Brock Williams.
"Getting 112 yards is nothing compared to getting someone down on that play and helping Eric get into the end zone," Alexander said. "I had messed up a couple of times on that same play. In overtime, I told myself I really needed to focus and buckle down.
"I knew I had to get someone blocked or pushed or something. I knew with Eric's athletic ability and his speed that it was going to be a touchdown once we got the ball in his hands. I had all the faith in him."
Crouch's run left him with 80 yards rushing. He had scored Nebraska's first touchdown late in the first quarter on a 62-yard run. His 1-yard sneak capped the Huskers' methodical 15-play, 65-yard drive in the second quarter that put the Huskers' ahead 14-7 at halftime.
Nebraska then went ahead 21-7 with 8:47 left in the third quarter on a 28-yard touchdown run by Alexander. The Huskers had moved 59 yards in four plays, with Correll Buckhalter chipping in an 18-yard run and Crouch hooking up with Wistrom for a 17-yard gain on the play that preceded Alexander's scoring run.
"I don't know if you ever feel like you're in control in a game like this," Solich said. "But after we scored that third touchdown, if we could have stopped them on their next drive and come back with another score, we might have been dealing with a little different ballgame."
Instead, the Huskers found their 21-7 lead sliced to a touchdown in the dozen or so seconds it took Julius Jones to carve up Nebraska's kickoff coverage unit with an 100-yard return. It was the first time since the 1996 Fiesta Bowl that an opponent had returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
A little more than 10 minutes later, Notre Dame's Joey Getherall put together a return of even greater historical significance as he brought back a Dan Hadenfeldt punt 83 yards for the score that tied the game at 21-21 with 12:48 remaining in regulation. Getherall's return was the first punt return for a touchdown against Nebraska since UCLA's Darryl Henley returned one in a 1988 game against the Huskers.
"We're pretty disappointed because we know we're better than that," said Hadenfeldt, returning to the Huskers' special-teams play. "Thank God, we were able to come out of here with a victory."
Notre Dame racked up 317 yards in returns, almost 100 more than the Fighting Irish offense produced against Nebraska's defense. Battle gained 107 yards rushing but missed 12 of his 15 passes and finished with 40 yards passing.
Overall, the Huskers limited Notre Dame to 224 yards, an average of 4.1 yards per snap. A week ago, San Jose State gained 346 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per play against the Nebraska defense.
"I thought our defense played very well," Solich said. "Notre Dame is a good offensive football team. They're big up front, they have skilled receivers and they have an excellent quarterback in Battle. We did not play as well as we would have liked to have played last week.
"Today, we showed some excellent improvement. We still have areas to work on, in all three phases of the game. But I was proud of how our defense responded in this game."
Nebraska finished with 377 yards, an average of 5.1 per play. But the bottom line of this game wasn't the numbers amassed by either team. It was about the spirit Nebraska showed in overcoming adversity in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.
"You have to give a lot of credit to Notre Dame," Solich said. "They played hard, and they played four quarters of football. We knew it would not be easy coming into this stadium and leaving with a win.
"I really like the character of our players. They believe in themselves and they're a team that will never quit."
The Huskers' refusal to give in allowed them to leave Notre Dame with a prized victory.
"The heart of the guys on this team," said Kaiser, pointing to a famous campus landmark, "is about as big as that Golden Dome over there."
|Yards per carry||4.6||4.6|
Nebraska is 8-7 all-time against Notre Dame.
|San Jose State||Sept. 2|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 9|
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 14|
|Kansas State||Nov. 11|
Nebraska has played 9 games on Sept. 9. See them all »
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