Huskers survive tough tuneup for Big 12 title game
BOULDER, Colo. (AP)—This is why Bo Pelini didn’t want his team even thinking about Texas until next week.
With the Big 12 North title already wrapped up, he forbade the Nebraska Cornhuskers from so much as mentioning the Longhorns, whom they’ll face in the conference championship next Saturday.
Sure enough, the Colorado Buffaloes gave Nebraska all it could handle before the Huskers left Folsom Field with a sloppy 28-20 win Friday.
Nebraska had just as tough of a tuneup for the Big 12 championship game as the third-ranked Longhorns did one day earlier when they beat Texas A&M 49-39 to keep their national championship hopes alive.
“I thought we took a step back today,” Pelini said after the Cornhuskers (9-3, 6-2) struggled on offense and only pulled this one out because of touchdowns on a punt return and an interception.
“It was a very average effort,” agreed Nebraska nose tackle Ndamukong Suh. “I think we were playing hard but there were aspects of the game where we definitely made a lot of mistakes. We shouldn’t allow that. It was just a collective game of small plays where we were right there to make the play and we didn’t do it.”
The Buffaloes (3-9, 2-6) put up a good fight one day after learning their embattled coach would return next season.
Dan Hawkins is 16-33 with four losing seasons, a 2-20 record away from home and a 10-22 mark in conference play since bolting Boise State in 2006 to clean up a program tarnished by scandal under Gary Barnett’s watch.
Although he’s succeeded in that regard, Hawkins has lost games and fans by the bunches.
Many alumni and fans figured the failure to come anywhere close to the double-digit wins and a bowl berth that Hawkins set as his goal this season would cost the coach his job. But athletic director Mike Bohn decided to give him another year rather than a pink slip and a $3.1 million buyout.
“Well, in this economy, there’s a lot of people who are out of a job, so I think anytime you stay employed, that’s pretty good,” Hawkins said. “But, yeah, I felt fortunate to be named the head coach here and I feel fortunate to remain the head coach here.”
After the Cornhuskers punted on their first two possessions, Niles Paul’s 59-yard punt return TD straight up the middle put Nebraska ahead 7-0, and Zac Lee made it 14-0 when he hit tight end Ben Cotton with a 24-yard touchdown toss.
The Buffs cut the deficit in half with Tyler Hansen’s 2-yard TD strike to fullback Jake Behrens. But on Colorado’s next drive, Hansen was picked off by safety Matt O’Hanlon, who scooted 30 yards for the score and Nebraska took a 21-7 lead into halftime.
Scotty McKnight’s 6-yard TD catch made it 21-14, and the Buffs were driving for the tying score late in the third quarter when Suh, the anchor of the Huskers’ defense, pressured Hansen into an intentional grounding call on third-and-2 from the 18.
The penalty backed the Buffs up to the 35-yard line and Aric Goodman missed a 52-yard field goal.
Goodman missed again, this time from 37 yards, after defensive tackle Eugene Goree recovered a fumble by Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr., at midfield early in the fourth quarter.
After that, the Huskers put together their best drive of the day, a 13-play, 80-yard march that culminated with Rex Burkhead’s 7-yard TD run with 6:43 left that made it 28-14.
Hansen threw a 56-yard TD pass to McKnight on the final play of the game, but the Buffs didn’t get to attempt the extra point. Austin Bisnow, a senior, ran onto the field for his first college play and was set to snap the ball until the officials huddled and waived off the try, citing NCAA rules that no PAT will be attempted with the outcome decided and time expired.
“It’s just a culmination of how we played all day,” Pelini said of surrendering the last-second TD. “We played sloppy football. We didn’t play to our standards.”
Still, Suh said the Huskers couldn’t help but be satisfied.
“I don’t feel it’s a letdown at all,” he said. “We expect Colorado to come out here tough. Their coach stated that they were going to put everything on the line, so we expected everything in the playbook. We expected every last bit of their energy.”
So, now it’s on to Texas.
“We’re not ready yet,” Paul said. “But we’ll start working tomorrow and get ready.”