DALLAS — Bill Callahan said Nebraska just wasn't close enough as time ticked away Monday, and he could have been talking as much about the Huskers' football season as Jordan Congdon's field-goal range.
Roughly 5 yards kept Nebraska from trying a game-tying field goal at the 71st Cotton Bowl Classic. The Huskers went for it instead on fourth and 11, and they lost 17-14 to Auburn before a Cotton Bowl crowd of 66,777.
Roughly a dozen plays separated NU from a special season. But an 0-4 record against Top 10 teams gave the Huskers a 9-5 record to mull through the offseason.
"We're getting there," Callahan said. "And it won't be long, believe me."
No. 22-ranked Nebraska couldn't get there on New Year's Day, even with a defensive performance that limited No. 10 Auburn to 178 total yards. The Huskers all but handed 14 points to the Tigers — with a turnover and a fake punt that failed — and their offensive issues were so great that they couldn't overcome the charity.
"The fact of the matter is we gave them 14 points," NU offensive lineman Matt Slauson said. "If we wouldn't have done that, it could have been 14-3. But that's just the way it rolls."
All could have been rolled aside if Nebraska had squeezed out one last first down or had a kicker with a little more oomph.
Senior linebacker Stewart Bradley sacked Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox, forced a fumble and recovered it with 5:24 left. That allowed NU to take over at the Tigers' 42, and three runs by I-back Marlon Lucky produced a first down at the 29.
That would be the last time the Huskers moved the chains. And when they faced fourth and 11 from the 30, they didn't bother calling on Congdon to try a 47-yard field goal, which would have been 6 yards longer than his career-best kick as a Husker.
"We felt it was out of his range," said Callahan, declining to say what they considered Congdon's limit. "Jordan knew exactly what the cutoff was. The staff knew. Everybody was on the same page. That's a decision we live with as we went with it."
To kick, offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said, NU was looking to get at least 5 yards on a third-and-9 shovel pass from quarterback Zac Taylor to I-back Brandon Jackson. When Sen'Derrick Marks stuffed it for a 2-yard loss, NU elected to go for it, and Taylor was forced to try a tough pass that missed Frantz Hardy near the sideline.
"We completely expected to score there," Taylor said. "Our defense was making plays all game. They gave us perfect field position, and we just didn't make something happen. We couldn't get it done, and it was frustrating."
Kind of like selected other parts of the season.
Callahan reiterated Monday that Nebraska is closing the gap. He also said, "We weren't ready to be a Top 10 team just yet," which drew disagreement from Bradley.
"That's not how we feel," Bradley said. "That's where our record puts us, I guess. But we're a couple of plays away from having a really different season."
One play in particular Monday was self-inflicted. And, in retrospect, seemingly ill-advised.
Lined up in punt formation from its 29-yard line three plays into the second quarter, NU made a short snap to Dane Todd with the intent of having him pitch it to Andrew Shanle on a reverse. Auburn sniffed it out, Shanle never got the football and the Tigers took over on the Huskers' 14.
Auburn (11-2) scored four plays later, allowing it to take a 14-7 lead despite having just 28 yards of total offense.
Todd and Shanle said Nebraska had been practicing the play for almost two months. Shanle, NU's starting free safety, thought if he had gotten the pitch from Todd that it would have worked.
"It looked good," Shanle said. "It's what we wanted. Unfortunately, it just didn't work out."
It was the second trick play in two games that backfired on Nebraska, which had a charmed stretch with them late in the regular season. In the Big 12 final, the Huskers tried a reverse on the opening kickoff and were tackled inside the 10.
"It didn't work, obviously," Callahan said. "But nonetheless, it was still early enough in the ballgame that we were still in good position to come back from it."
Nebraska had started its first Cotton Bowl since 1980 with a 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive, capped by Taylor's 13-yard pass to Nate Swift. The Huskers added a second-quarter score on Jackson's 20-yard touchdown run for a 14-14 tie.
There were few other highlights offensively as Nebraska finished with a season-low 230 total yards. It notched only five first downs after halftime as the defenses took over.
"We just didn't execute very well," Norvell said. "It was an ugly offensive game on both sides of the ball, especially in the passing game."
Auburn's first touchdown came after a Taylor pass went off Terrence Nunn's hands and turned into an interception and 52-yard return for linebacker Karibi Dede. The Tigers used John Vaughn's 42-yard field goal midway through the third quarter for their winning points.
"Winning 11 games, it's huge," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said.
The Huskers were trying to reach 10 for the first time since 2003, the season before Callahan took over. If they hadn't put their defense in two tough spots, they could have pulled it off Monday. Instead, after dominating the first half, they went to the locker room tied 14-14.
"You've got to play with what you're dealt," defensive end Adam Carriker said. "Our team was playing well. The defense was playing well. We felt like we had outplayed them even though the score was tied. But, you know, that's football."
|Yards per carry||1.9||2.7|
Nebraska is 3-1 all-time against Auburn.
|Louisiana Tech||Sept. 2|
|Nicholls State||Sept. 9|
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 23|
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
|Texas A&M||Nov. 11|
Nebraska has played 27 games on Jan. 1. See them all »
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