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COLLEGE FOOTBALL WEEK 3

Nebraska Holds Off Irish With Mix of Red and Green

September 10, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Frankly, it looked more like South Bend, Neb.

They came in waves and droves, scratching and clawing their way in a turf war that will be remembered in the annals.

How was Notre Dame ever going to stop . . . Nebraska's fans?

Proving anything can be bought, even choice seats in the house that Knute Rockne built, Cornhusker fans turned Notre Dame Stadium into a virtual sea-of-red home game Saturday and saw No. 1 Nebraska defeat No. 23 Notre Dame, 27-24, in overtime.

These crashers on a South Bender were rewarded with a game worth the inflated price of admission.

With at least 30,000 fans in support, quarterback Eric Crouch sprinted around left end on a seven-yard scoring run to give Nebraska the victory before 80,232.

How did they do it?

How did they slink through the defenses, seize control in enemy territory, gain the emotional edge?

How, indeed, did Nebraska fans pull it off?

"It was amazing," Crouch said. "It looked like there was a big fight outside for tickets and that Nebraska fans won."

Only 4,000 tickets were allotted the visitors, but scores of Cornhuskers with cold hard cash turned a football holy ground into the set of "Let's Make a Deal."

Longtime Irish legends were aghast at the invasion.

"In 40 years, I've never seen anything like it," former Notre Dame great Paul Hornung grumbled in the press box.

The sheer enthusiasm and unbridled arrogance of Nebraska's devoted legions would only be silenced by a major Notre Dame upset.

The Irish nearly pulled it off.

Trailing 21-7 in the third quarter, Notre Dame used two special-teams lightning bolts--a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Julius Jones in the third quarter and Joey Getherall's 83-yard punt return in the fourth--to force the game to overtime.

But not before Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie lifted a stormy page from Irish lore when, with 1:07 left from his own 30-yard line and two timeouts left, he elected to run out the clock in regulation and play for overtime.

The decision rekindled memories of the great 10-10 tie of 1966, when Irish Coach Ara Parseghian killed the clock from his own 30 against Michigan State, a move that inspired the Jim Murray line, "Tie One For the Gipper."

Davie had his reasons for not risking a turnover in his own territory.

He simply had no downfield faith in his quarterback, Arnaz Battle, who completed only three of 15 passes.

What did the Irish players think of their coach's decision?

"I didn't ask them," Davie said. "We had a quarterback who completed three passes. I don't think any magic was going to come out of the sky."

Notre Dame has not historically played for moral victories, but Davie had already taken his team further than anyone had expected against the nation's top-ranked team.

Davie would take his chances in overtime, and lose.

Nebraska won the coin toss and elected to play defense first, and when Jeremy Slechta sacked Battle for a seven-yard loss on third down, Notre Dame had to settle for Nick Setta's 29-yard field goal.

It gave Notre Dame a very tenuous lead, 24-21.

All the Irish had to do then was spot Nebraska the ball on the 25 and keep the Cornhuskers out of the end zone.

It seemed too much to ask, but it almost happened.

Notre Dame had Nebraska pinned at third and nine at the 24 when Crouch hit tight end Tracey Wistrom for precisely the nine yards the Cornhuskers needed.

From the 15, tailback Dan Alexander rammed ahead for eight yards on first down before Crouch ended the game with his scoring run.

"To me, the play of the game was the pass to Tracey," Crouch said.

Crouch completed only seven of 15 passes, but his third-down flick to Wistrom caught the Irish off guard.

"We're going to run the ball, and we're going to make sure you know it," said Crouch, who gained 80 yards in 16 carries and had three rushing touchdowns. "So when we do throw it, we put somebody in a bind."

Victory may not come without cost.

There was a time when a win at Notre Dame would have been worth something in the polls, but there is concern that heavily favored Nebraska (2-0) could lose its No. 1 national ranking this week, although No. 2 Florida State struggled to beat Georgia Tech.

In 1997, remember, Nebraska dropped from No. 1 after a miracle overtime victory at Missouri.

Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said polls don't matter.

"What matters to me is if people don't recognize what the quality of this game was," he said.

The near upset, which dropped the Irish to 1-1, should quell for now the pressure on Davie, whose future is pretty much a week-to-week proposition.

"All that talk is created by people on the outside, so I'll let you guys figure all that out," Davie said. "But I know it's a bottom-line situation. We didn't win the football game. That bottom line is we didn't win, and that's all that matters."

But at least Saturday was a start.

"We left it all out on the field today," said Battle, who rushed for 107 yards in 14 carries. "Things just didn't swing our way today."

The day wasn't a total bust, as scores of Irish fans hocked their tickets to carnivorous Nebraska fans willing to pay $500 and more to crash the party.

"This would never happen in Lincoln," Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Byrne boasted before the game.

When asked about the support, Solich just smiled.

"No matter where we go, they're there," he said. "I know Notre Dame did all they could to keep them out of the stadium, but somehow, some way, they got in there."

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