LINCOLN, Neb. – It was a classic Big 12 matchup between Texas and Nebraska, and it was decision time for the Cornhusker coaches. The Huskers were leading the Longhorns 20-19 on their own 36-yard line with 2 minutes and 24 seconds left and facing third-and-3.
Nebraska passed to Terrence Nunn, who caught the ball for the first down. But before he could cover up the ball he was hit by Aaron Ross, causing a fumble that Texas recovered. With the short field, Texas then proceeded to drive to the Nebraska 6 and kicked the game-winning field goal with 23 seconds left.
Wasn’t that the wrong call in that situation? As I sat in the radio booth, I couldn’t help but believe that Nebraska would have had a much better chance to win if it had just run the football and punted if it came up short. My play-by-play partner, Kevin Kugler (a Nebraska graduate), asked me before the play was called what the Huskers needed to do. I didn’t hesitate saying it then and I don’t hesitate now – they needed to run the ball and then punt if necessary to have the best chance to win the game.
Texas had just called its final timeout to stop the clock. The Nebraska players and coaches had plenty of time to huddle up on the sideline and decide what was best. If they completed a pass for a first down the game would be over. However, an incomplete pass would keep a lot of time from running off the clock; Texas had no timeouts. Worse yet, the pass could be intercepted or caught and fumbled.
That's why you run the football. I would have grabbed my most dependable running back (Nebraska rotates four) and tell him to try for the first down – but whatever he does to keep two hands on the ball and do not fumble.
If you get the first down the game is over, but, if you don’t – which is more likely – at least the clock is running. If everyone slowly gets up off the pile, a running play takes off about 15 to 20 seconds before the 25-second play clock even starts. You would be able to run about 45 seconds off the clock before you have to punt it back.
The Huskers had the wind at their backs, and the wind had been a huge factor on punts and kickoffs. They would have had a chance to pin the Longhorns deep in their own territory with only about a minute and a half left and no timeouts.
I know Texas needed only a field goal to win, and if the wind had not been a factor all day or if the Longhorns' kicker had been having a good game, I might have decided Nebraska needed that first down and should throw on third down. But the wind was howling at around 20 mph and the snow was swirling. Texas kicker Greg Johnson already had a PAT blocked and had missed two relatively easy field goals – with the wind at his back.
Almost everyone in the stadium, especially the coaches, knew that the Longhorns likely needed a touchdown or to drive the ball down inside the 10- or 15-yard line for a chance to make a field goal into the wind. On Texas’ winning drive, head coach Mack Brown even took a big chance of getting the ball intercepted on third-and-goal by throwing a fade route instead of just lining up and kicking the chip shot. Why? Because I don’t think he felt real sure about making the kick.
Now, the Huskers had some masterful play-calling throughout the day, especially on their go-ahead touchdown drive when they called a beautifully executed double reverse and then a halfback pass that caught the entire defense off guard. But with a chance to have a huge come-from-behind victory that would have been the biggest win of the Bill Callahan era, they just didn’t make the right call.