NEBRASKA FOOTBALL

For decades, underdogs have whimpered off the Memorial Stadium turf after a demoralizing loss and found Nebraska fans waiting for them. Cheering. Applauding. Shouting, "Great game, great game."

This time Husker fans meant it.

Among them was a Lincoln man named Al Chambers, leaning against a metal fence, patting McNeese State Cowboys on the shoulder pads.

"Great game, great game."

Chambers had just descended from section 24, where he witnessed his Huskers flirt with the biggest upset in school history. He kept thinking about the Appalachian State-Michigan game in 2007. His description of Saturday's scene:

"91,000 people crapping their pants."

Yup. Nebraska's offseason honeymoon is over. There's no kitty cat to ease the dismay of a 31-24 thriller against a McNeese State team with 63 scholarships; a McNeese State team that last played a game last Dec. 7, losing to Jacksonville State 31-10 in the FCS playoffs; a McNeese State team with only 13 seniors and a first-time starting quarterback.

"It's gonna teach me for skipping church last week," Chambers said.

Said NU cornerback Josh Mitchell: "When you go out and play like that, I just see 9-4 all over again."

Sorry Josh, this performance was more befitting of a 6-6 team. A 5-7 team. Al Chambers had flashbacks to Appalachian State-Michigan? I was having flashbacks to Nebraska-Ball State, September 2007.

The Huskers survived a thriller that day, too, but they couldn't fix their weaknesses. They won twice the rest of the year. Bill Callahan got fired.

Was McNeese State an early-season hiccup? Or the beginning of season-long stomach illness? Anybody who says they know for sure is lying.

One thing we do know: The Huskers haven't fixed their old ways. The offensive collapse in the second half — one first down in six possessions prior to Ameer Abdullah's touchdown dash — was downright stunning after a 784-yard opener.

"We just started playing flat," senior guard Mike Moudy said. "A lot of guys went kinda inward, just kinda shut down and went into the cave and shut down. The thing is, you gotta understand, it's resilience under negative circumstances that we really, really need to work on.

"Something goes negative, people are yelling at you, you've got to take that play and remove it. That's the thing I've learned in five years here. You cannot let a bad play carry over into the next one. Because it's a snowball and it'll just keep rolling and you can't stop it. We've got a lot of young guys, a lotta guys who need to work on their maturity and with maturity comes letting that play go."

Kudos to the big man for honesty and self-awareness, but it's not exactly what you want to hear in week two.

You can blame Saturday on the absence of Randy Gregory and Kenny Bell, two All-Big Ten performers. But Nebraska should be deep enough to overcome a few injuries.

McNeese badly outplayed the Huskers in the final quarter, which is why Tyler Bolfing kept telling his teammates on the sideline, "We will win this game."

Bolfing, who didn't receive a single scholarship offer aside from McNeese State, had never started a college game before Saturday. He realized quickly the Cowboys weren't overmatched. (No wonder Bo Pelini wants to stop scheduling FCS teams.)

"We had every expectation when we were going on our last drive to win the football game," Bolfing said. "It was so incredible to see nothing but red cheering against us. Just an incredible atmosphere."

Coach Matt Viator had seen it before. He brought McNeese State to Lincoln in 2002 and lost 38-14. He told his assistants last Sunday the Cowboys had a chance this time. They had the necessary speed to compete.

Meanwhile, the Huskers' apparent advantage - strength at the line of scrimmage - proved no advantage at all. NU established no consistent ground game. Second-and-9 is no way to live and Tim Beck found no answers.

Against Florida Atlantic, Tommy Armstrong converted 7 of 9 third downs, including 6 of 7 on third-and-6 or more. After a 3-for-4 start on third down Saturday, Armstrong missed his next eight, most in long-yardage situations.

The ninth life? That was the touchdown pass to Ameer Abdullah.

A1 Chambers celebrated the touchdown, then rushed down to the south tunnel to comfort the Cowboys. His black T-shirt said:

"Devaney. Osborne. Solich. Mistake. Pelini. Go Big Red."

Nebraska narrowly avoided the biggest mistake of all Saturday, a loss that would've jolted the fan base and thrown 2014 into chaos. What's it mean long term?

"I don't know," Chambers said. "I don't know."

Contact the writer:

Nebraska avoids an embarrassing Appalachian State-Michigan moment, but still has much to fix

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