LINCOLN - Mariano Rivera doesn’t blow three-run leads. Roger Federer doesn’t let triple match point slip away and Tiger Woods doesn’t miss five-foot putts with a championship on the line.
If you want to be considered among the nation’s best, you find a way to win. When you have the defending national champions on the ropes, you deliver the knockout punch. If you don’t, then maybe prime time isn’t for you.
Nebraska let fifth-ranked Texas slip out of Lincoln Saturday with a 22-20 victory. A moral victory of sorts, but Huskers’ coach Bill Callahan isn’t interested in that type of ‘W” these days.
“We had an opportunity to close the game, and misfortune occurred,” Callahan said. “Then victory was more or less swept away.”
That was a polite way of saying, “We had the game, but we blew it.”
After basically getting outplayed for three quarters, Nebraska still only found itself down 16-7 heading into the final 15 minutes. A shuffle pass from quarterback Zac Taylor to Brandon Jackson went for a 49-yard touchdown and basically jumpstarted an offense that had been struggling.
After the Nebraska defense limited Texas to a field goal with 6:33 left to make it 19-14, Callahan dipped into his bag of tricks. He caught Texas napping when I-back Marlon Lucky threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nate Swift with 4:54 left.
The Lucky pass — a tight spiral that would’ve rivaled a Dan Marino effort — put NU ahead by a point. The Huskers wisely elected to go for two points, but Taylor — who didn’t have one of his better days — failed to see an open receiver early in the play. He forced a throw to the end zone that was broken up leaving NU ahead 20-19.
The Nebraska defense did its job by forcing Texas to punt on the Longhorns’ next possession. Nebraska got the ball back and was looking to run out the clock when “the misfortune” occurred.
On third-and-three, the Huskers crossed up the Longhorns with a pass play. Taylor put the ball in the hands of big-play performer Terrence Nunn. The Texas native, who had earlier cost the Huskers precious field position by not catching a couple of punts, saved his biggest faux pas for last.
He had enough yardage for the first down, but fumbled. It wasn’t entirely Nunn’s fault. Cornerback Aaron Ross laid a hit on the Nebraska receiver that would’ve made Ronnie Lott or John Lynch proud. The ball squirted free and one of Texas’ seemingly endless line of Griffins — this one named Marcus — fell on the freebie before Nunn could.
Until Nunn’s bobble, Texas chances for victory were — at best — on life support. The Longhorns had used all of their timeouts before the pass and NU could’ve probably ran out the clock.
"It’s not Terrence’s fault,” Callahan said, sounding like a disappointed but understanding version of Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady. “This is a team game. We had opportunities to win the game sooner than that. I don’t fault anybody. I really don’t.”
Those opportunities weren’t abundantly clear, however. Sure, receiver Nate Swift dropped a wide-open pass that would’ve gone for 20-plus yards in the third quarter. Maybe Callahan was talking about Texas’ troubles. The Longhorns had five fumbles, but lost only one. Texas also misfired on two field goals and had an extra-point blocked.
Walk-on Ryan Bailey didn’t miss on the Longhorns’ final kick. After quarterback Colt McCoy drove Texas from the NU 45 to the 5, Bailey didn’t let the October snow or a noisy NU crowd bother him. He drilled the field goal to send the Longhorns home with a win.
It was the second year in a row that the Huskers appeared to have a key Big 12 Conference game wrapped up at home only to lose it. Last year, defensive lineman LeKevin Smith intercepted a pass and just needed to fall down for the Huskers to beat Texas Tech. He instead tried to run with the pickoff — kind of like Fat Albert on roller skates — and fumbled it away. Tech recovered and won in the final minute.
Nunn’s bobble isn’t in the same galaxy as Smith’s head-shaking goof. Nunn made a play, but a Texas defender made a better one with a hard hit. It is still discouraging, however, that the Huskers haven’t come up with the confidence and play-making abilities to seal the deal against quality opponents.
Great teams or players don’t take their foot off of a giant’s throat when they have it down. After an absence of about six years, Nebraska is getting closer to being a major player again at the national level.
“Nebraska is back,” Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Callahan and the Huskers, though, have to prove they can knock off a top 10 opponent - at home, on Mars or (possibly against Texas again) in Kansas City in the Big 12 championship game. Until that time, they’re just an also-ran that can talk about close calls and bemoan missed opportunities.