LINCOLN — By game's end, it was nowhere near 100 degrees on the floor of Memorial Stadium. The collars of Nebraska's football team were a lot hotter than that.
The Huskers were sweating — and wilting — late in the fourth quarter, watching a 16-point cushion against Wyoming dwindle to a field goal. And the Cowboys had one minute to go roughly 60 yards for a chance at tying the game.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis pulled his young, flummoxed, battered defense into a huddle on the sideline. We gotta get home, he told the Blackshirts. The nation's longest winning streak in home openers probably depended on it.
The Huskers never did sack slippery Brett Smith in that final minute, but they did draw two holding penalties. And they did chase him around for an eternity on the game's final play until finally Smith just flung the ball up the air and into his own sideline.
“We had to scramble our butts off at the end,” a weary-looking Papuchis said.
The Huskers won 37-34 in front of school-record 91,185 fans at newly-expanded Memorial Stadium. But the burning images from the aftermath were Nebraska's players glumly heading for the tunnel, with Husker defensive linemen sucking wind at midfield.
“There's nothing to celebrate,” wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “I felt like we lost this football game tonight. I'm hurting.”
“We never want to come out with a win that close against a team that you assume you'll beat,” captain Quincy Enunwa said.
However Nebraska arrived at that assumption, Wyoming's offense shot holes clean through it, amassing 602 total yards — 383 through the air — while moving the Huskers' defense around like a busted accordion. First the flanks, then the guts. Coach Bo Pelini said the Cowboys' offense was diverse and complex. The way it gamed NU, it looked elementary enough.
Foregoing the use of a tight end, the Cowboys would first throw a swing pass to a motioning running back for easy yards, counter that with a run right up the gut from Smith or running back Shaun Wick, and finally let Smith glide around NU's slow-to-go pass rush to find receivers sitting in front of the Huskers' coverage.
When Pelini called blitzes, they didn't get home. Smith, his white jersey stained faintly black by the rubber bits in Nebraska's new FieldTurf, would calmly shuffle away and fire bullets. He hit 29- and 47-yard touchdowns in what Papuchis called an “atrocious” fourth quarter.
“They caught us in a couple plays, and a couple things we didn't react very well to and a couple times we just didn't make plays,” Pelini said. “I think we'll learn a lot from it.”
NU's offense should be past growing pains, but despite running 85 plays and gaining 530 yards, it had sputters. Two false start penalties that killed first-half drives. A failed fourth-and-one. Two turnovers, both involving Taylor Martinez, who bruised his non-throwing shoulder but didn't miss a snap. While shuffling through his iPhone after the game, he wended his way through reporters and declined comment, though he said his shoulder was “fine” as he headed up the tunnel.
Nebraska (1-0) did score three straight touchdowns in the second half — mostly traveling on the ground with backs Ameer Abdullah (114 yards), Imani Cross (105) and Terrell Newby (76) — to take a 37-21 lead three minutes into the fourth quarter.
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That's when the Huskers hit what Pelini called “a lull.” The Huskers went scoreless on their final three drives. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck admitted he stayed conservative even as Wyoming piled one defender after another into the box, daring NU to throw. With Martinez and arguably the Big Ten's best receiving trio, Beck admittedly declined.
“I wasn't doing that on purpose,” Beck said. “I just wasn't doing it. I probably should have. I told the team I felt like I got conservative toward the end, trying to run the ball, eat up the clock.”
Said Enunwa: “I think it was a little conservative, especially when we were having a little bit of success throwing the ball. But I'm not the play caller, so I go out there and do exactly what I'm told. And there's no reason for me to dispute any call when we're out there and we're winning.”
When Martinez threw an interception with 6:26 left in the game — NU walk-on wide receiver Sam Burtch wasn't looking for the ball — the Huskers led 37-21. The Cowboys scored in two plays, but failed to convert the two-point play when Nebraska corner Josh Mitchell came on a late corner blitz and stuffed Smith.
That forced the Cowboys (0-1) to score a touchdown and field goal to tie. Wyoming cut the lead to three with 1:31 left. An onside kick try was knocked out of bounds by Husker receiver Jamal Turner. Nebraska still couldn't grind out a first down, and punted back to the Cowboys, who started from their own 8.
Throughout the night, Husker coaches and fans clamored for referees to call Wyoming's offensive line for holding NU's defenders, especially end Randy Gregory.
“A couple times the little yellow hanky should have come out and it didn't,” Pelini said. But the final drive, it did, twice, and it sucked enough life from Wyoming's last-ditch effort that Smith spent the last 11 seconds motioning, scrambling, searching for a 70-yard Hail Mary he didn't have in his arm. He threw it about 40 yards. It landed in a crowd of hands.
Pelini won't apologize for the win. He even found a few positives.
“By no means am I panicking,” he said.
The players and assistants wore different faces. Gregory said Abdullah gathered the team together in the locker room and broke it down.
“He said it the right way,” Gregory said. “We are better than that; we need to play harder and play more as a team.”
Bell's critique was even harsher.
“We can't walk on the field and say 'Oh yeah, we're Nebraska, we're going to win this football game,' ” he said. “Hats off to Wyoming, but we should have buried those guys when we were up by 16.
“When you get a team down like that, you've got to come out, and you've got to have the nastiness — you've got to have the edge to you — that, when they get down there, I'm going to keep you down there. We didn't have that tonight. ... Any guy that's in there smiling or laughing, happy we snuck out of our home opener — in front of 92,000 fans — should be embarrassed of themselves. No one should be happy.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story said "Pelini won't apologize for the loss." Nebraska won the game 37-34.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Quincy Enunwa at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference: