LINCOLN — On a day designed for seniors, Colorado largely neutralized Joe Ganz. Nate Swift was not a factor. Marlon Lucky didn't even play.
Thank goodness for Alex Henery and Ndamukong Suh. This was their day.
Henery, the sophomore placekicker, and Suh, the junior nose tackle, delivered on Friday in the final seconds as the Nebraska football team rallied from a big early deficit and a small late one to beat the Buffaloes 40-31 at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers' thrilling eighth win of the regular season denied CU its sixth victory and bowl eligibility, just as the Buffs had done to NU a year ago.
"I think this is one of the best that we've pulled out since I've been here," Suh said.
With 20 Huskers in uniform for their final appearances at home on Senior Day, Henery nailed a school-and stadium-record 57-yard field goal to win it with 1 minute, 43 seconds left.
His improbable kick inched over the crossbar in the north end zone to give NU (8-4, 5-3 Big 12) a 33-31 lead. Suh then stamped the afternoon by rumbling 30 yards to score on an interception return of Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins with 55 seconds to play.
Senior defensive end Zach Potter tipped the second-down pass into the hands of Suh, who flattened Hawkins en route to the end zone in front of a frenzied NU sideline and sellout crowd of 85,319 that minutes earlier had sensed Nebraska defeat.
"Never a doubt, was there?" NU coach Bo Pelini said upon the completion of his first regular season in charge. "We're 8-4. I wish we were better than that, but we've done a lot of good things. We've come a long way."
Nebraska likely punched its ticket to the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. An official invitation could come as soon as next week.
For a while on Friday, New Year's Day looked like a longshot.
"We made enough plays in the end to win," Pelini said, "but we definitely made it hard on ourselves."
Primarily, Nebraska failed to execute late in the game until the final few memorable seconds.
CU (5-7, 2-6) went up 31-27 on Demetrius Sumler's 4-yard, fourth-down plunge with five minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Huskers came up empty on a 14-play drive that reached Colorado's 3-yard line.
Quentin Castille's apparent easy TD run was negated by a false start on wideout Menelik Holt. Two plays later, CU defensive end Maurice Lucas recovered a Ganz fumble.
"We were beating ourselves," Ganz said.
The Blackshirts stiffened to stop Colorado twice, and Henery converted from 37 yards to make it 31-30 before the Huskers took over at their own 26-yard line with 4:35 to play.
Sophomore Roy Helu exploded for runs of 16 and 25 yards on consecutive carries to reach the CU 25. Helu rushed for a career-best 166 yards on 25 attempts in his first career start as Lucky sat injured.
But on second and 10, Colorado freshman Patrick Mahnke blitzed after a timeout from his strong-safety spot and smothered Ganz for a devastating loss of 15 yards. The senior QB then fired on third down to tight end Mike McNeill, who dropped the pass just inside the CU 30, leaving Nebraska to face fourth and 25 from the 40-yard line.
Pelini said he considered using strong-legged kicker Adi Kunalic for the game-winning attempt. But Henery, the former All-Nebraska punter out of Omaha Burke, expressed confidence he could make it.
"I just wanted him to look me in the face and tell me he had it in him, " the coach said. "It doesn't surprise me. The guy's a stud. He's been doing it since he got here."
Henery said he was "a little iffy" on the yardage.
"I don't remember watching it go through at all," he said. "I was pretty sure I made it. I hit the ball really well."
The kick eclipsed Nebraska's record of 55 yards, set by Paul Rogers, Billy Todd and, most recently, Chris Drennan in 1989.
"The kid stepped up and made a huge kick," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said. "That's the nature of it."
The game's other defining play also involved Henery.
The Huskers, after falling behind 14-0 in the first 4 1/2 minutes, responded with two quick touchdown throws by Ganz and led 24-17 late in the first half when Nebraska linebacker Mathew May recovered a fumble by Maurice Cantrell on a kickoff at the CU 36-yard line.
The Huskers couldn't sustain a drive but wanted more than three points. So on fourth and 7 with just more than a minute left in the first half, they tried a fancy fake like the one Jake Wesch and Henery had pulled Nov. 8 against Kansas.
The Buffs, though, had it sniffed out. Cornerback Jimmy Smith bolted through the line and picked clean Wesch's over-the-head toss before it reached the kicker. Smith raced 58 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
"I made a bad call," Pelini said. "I got greedy. I wanted to jump on them. If we would have lost that football game, obviously it would have been on my shoulders. It would have been hard for me to live with that.
"After all these seniors have done — the character they've shown, the things they've done — I would have hated for that to happen to them, especially if I'm the centerpiece for screwing them up. I tried to, but they bailed me out."
|Yards per carry||1.9||3.5|
Nebraska is 49-20 all-time against Colorado.
|Western Michigan||Aug. 30|
|San Jose State||Sept. 6|
|New Mexico State||Sept. 13|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 27|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 11|
|Iowa State||Oct. 18|
|Kansas State||Nov. 15|
Nebraska has played 15 games on Nov. 28. See them all »
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