Sept. 9, 2000
By RICHARD ROSENBLATT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Eric Crouch is well versed in Notre Dame football lore, especially the part about No. 1 teams coming to town and leaving with a loss.
After his third touchdown run of the game - a 7-yarder in overtime - gave the top-ranked Cornhuskers a nerve-racking 27-24 victory over the 23rd-ranked Fighting Irish on Saturday, the quarterback knew his team was lucky to escape.
"It was something that I'll never forget, especially at a place like Notre Dame," Crouch said. "Just the aura that this place has. ... It's real hard for any team rated No. 1 to come in here and beat these guys."
Nebraska (2-0) found out how difficult as Notre Dame (1-1) nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in its storied history. In 1993, the Irish beat No. 1 Florida State 31-24, and in '88 the Irish defeated No. 1 Miami 31-30.
The Huskers, in their first visit here since 1947, won despite a valiant effort from an Irish team trying to return to national prominence after finishing 5-7 last season.
"We knew it was not going to be easy coming in, in this stadium and getting
out with a win," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "It was a great ball game.
I think it lived up to all the expectations the fans had."
Not for the Notre Dame players.
"I'm not big on that moral victory stuff. We're Notre Dame," linebacker Rocky Boiman said. "We played hard. We poured put our hearts and souls into this game, and my guts are torn up inside."
The Irish took their first lead at 24-21 when Nick Setta kicked a 29-yard field goal on the opening OT possession. The Huskers' Jeremy Slechta sacked Arnaz Battle for a 6-yard loss on a third-and-goal from the 4 before the kick.
"That's the kind of play we live for," Huskers linebacker Carlos Polk said. "That's why we're Nebraska."
Then it was the Huskers' turn.
They faced third-and-9 from the 24, but Crouch hit tight end Tracey Wistrom with a 9-yard pass to keep the drive alive. Dan Alexander burst up the middle for 8 yards, and then Crouch took the next snap, rolled left and ran into the end zone untouched for the winning score. Nebraska players ran onto the field to celebrate.
"You know Eric's got some wheels," Wistrom said. "Anytime he can get to the corner, he's going to stick it in that zone. And that's exactly what he did."
Added Crouch: "That play is our bread and butter. We use it on the goal line and use it for big plays. There's no other option on that play but for me to run."
Nebraska was involved in the last OT game played by a No. 1 team. The No. 1 Cornhuskers beat Missouri 45-38 on Nov. 8, 1997.
Notre Dame fell to 8-14-1 in games against top-ranked teams.
Crouch scored on runs of 62, 1 and 7 yards, and finished with 16 carries for 80 yards. He hit on 7-of-15 passes for 103 yards and an interception. Alexander carried 24 times for 112 yards and a TD.
For Notre Dame, Battle had an erratic day, rushing for 107 yards on 14 carries but hitting just 3 of 15 passes for 40 yards.
"To have the opportunity to beat the No. 1 team in the nation in your stadium it's disappointing not to come out with a win," Davie said. "We had our opportunities to win, particularly because of the kickoff and punt returns."
While Nebraska improved to 3-0 in OT games since they were reinstated in 1996, Notre Dame fell to 0-3 in overtime.
The Irish, 13 1/2-point underdogs, were given little chance to upset the powerful Cornhuskers, college football's winningest team the past two decades with 211 victories. But even though Notre Dame appeared to be outmuscled, they were not outplayed.
Trailing 21-7 with 8:47 left in the third quarter, the Irish came up with two electrifying plays to wake up the crowd.
First, Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD with 8:30 left. The run occurred just after the Huskers scored on Alexander's 28-yard run. Jones broke to his left and outraced the Nebraska defense.
Early in the fourth quarter, Getherall fielded a punt at the 17, then took off up the middle, faked out punter Dan Hadenfeldt and finished off an 83-yard punt return with 12:48 left in the game.
Neither team was able to muster a scoring chance in the final 12 minutes, although the Irish moved to the Huskers' 30 but Battle threw incomplete to tight end Dan O'Leary on fourth-and-1 with under seven minutes left.
"We tried to get it all," Davie said. "I think it was a good decision at the time. Obviously, any time something doesn't work, you go back and second-guess yourself. But we were in a position where we had them a little offbalance and tried to get it all."
The Irish got the ball back with 1:07 left in regulation, but clearly opted for the OT as Battle ran for short yardage on two plays as the clock ran out.
"I would do the same thing 10 out of 10 times again," Davie said. "I wanted to get that game into overtime and give our team a chance to win."
Nebraska opened the scoring in dramatic style on Crouch's 62-yard run - the longest TD run against the Irish since 1984, when LSU's Dalton Hilliard went 66 yards.
Crouch went right on the option, weaved his way through the defense and then outraced the secondary into the end zone with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
But the Irish came back on their next possession and Tony Fisher capped an 82-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run 4:16 into the second period.
Then Nebraska went on one of its patented drives - 14 running plays, one pass - that resulted in Crouch's 1-yard TD run on a fourth down play with 2:24 left in the half.