Game Story: NU vs. Southern Miss Sept. 18, 2004
Momma said there’d be days like this, there’d be days like this my momma said. Or if she didn’t say that, she probably would have, given an opportunity.
As the final 37 seconds ticked off the clock, Memorial Stadium was silent, save for the chants of “USM, USM” emanating from the lower stands in the southwest corner.
Such were the sounds of change.
This time, they were painful sounds, celebrating a 21-17 Southern Miss victory against Nebraska. Just one week before, the stadium was filled with the joyful sounds of new era.
But no pain, no change. It’s that simple, really. “This is a game that was there for the taking, and we gave it away,” said coach Bill Callahan. “There’s nobody to look at but ourselves.”
Callahan’s words were more than coach-speak. One could say Nebraska gave away the game without being accused of editorializing, really. The Cornhuskers nearly doubled the yardage, controlled the time of possession by almost 11 minutes and ran 88 plays to 61 for Southern Miss.
But those were empty numbers because Nebraska turned over the ball five times, three interceptions and two fumbles. “We beat ’em in all phases of the game except turnovers,” quarterback Joe Dailey said. “You know what? That starts with me under center. Stats don’t lie; they sure don’t.
“It was no different than last week. We did everything you had to do.”
Everything except protect the ball in critical situations. Southern Miss converted the turnovers into 18 points, just enough to win. And those 18 points didn’t reflect what might have been.
Dailey’s third interception occurred on the final play of the third quarter, with Nebraska holding what, given the play of the defense, was beginning to look like a comfortable, 17-9 lead.
But whatever comfort there might have been in that score quickly dissipated when weakside linebacker Naton Stewart returned the interception 49 yards for a touchdown.
Still, Southern Miss failed on a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game. And after the Blackshirts forced a three-downs-and-punt on the next Southern Miss possession, there was an undercurrent of optimism that Nebraska might be able to escape the scare.
The optimism grew, if only for a few seconds, when Tierre Green sprinted 17 yards up the field on a second-and-10 from the Cornhusker 34-yard line with less than 9 minutes remaining.
The ball came loose, however, and Southern Miss recovered at its own 49-yard line.
One play later, Golden Eagles quarterback Dustin Almond, who finished 12-of-28 with one interception, teamed with Marvin Young on a 46-yard touchdown pass. At that point, midway through the final period, desperation began to emerge from the shattered shell of optimism.
The remainder of the day was a roller coaster of emotion. Nebraska responded by moving from its 27-yard line to the Southern Miss 21, from where Dailey ran for a gain of 9, only to lose a fumble.
Barely a minute later, the Cornhuskers had the ball again, at their 41-yard line, with 3:18 remaining but no timeouts. They would have had one, but they used it before the first play of the series, attempting to get the right players on the field before the 25-second clock wound down. Even so, they were able to move down the field, reaching the Southern Miss 12-yard line, first-and-10 with 1:17 remaining.
Again, poor clock management cost the Cornhuskers, in the form of a 5-yard, delay-of-game penalty, which left them facing an all-or-nothing, third-and-15 at the Southern Miss 17. Dailey’s pass, intended for tight end Matt Herian in the end zone was incomplete. One play and 47 seconds remained.
On that final play, Dailey ran to his right for 10 yards. Under the circumstances, the play probably should have been a pass. But “you know what, I didn’t think it should have come to that,” said Dailey. “We beat those guys in all phases of the game, all phases of the game. Like I said, stats don’t lie.”
The turnovers, in particular, told a brutal truth. “When you turn the ball over the amount of times that we did today, you are going to lose in any game,” Callahan said.
Nebraska played well enough defensively to win. And the special-teams breakdowns that plagued the Cornhuskers against Western Illinois were nowhere in evidence.
Dailey’s first two interceptions, both late in the first quarter, translated into only six points because of Nebraska’s defensive play. Southern Miss managed only 239 yards, including 97 rushing.
The Cornhuskers began the second half the way they began in their opener, scoring quickly on their first two possessions, on Dailey touchdown passes of 9 yards to Grant Mulkey and 13 yards to Herian, who tied a school single-game record for tight ends with eight catches.
Only 1:29 separated the touchdowns, which gave Nebraska the lead, 17-9.
“Our defense set the tone for the second half with a big pick,” said Callahan.
The interception, Daniel Bullocks’ second of the season, set up the second touchdown.
“I felt we improved in certain areas of our play, and it’s just really disappointing and unfortunate to see our players have a game taken away by themselves,” Callahan said.
Some in the crowd of 77,887 began heading for the exits before the Cornhuskers’ final two possessions, frustrated by the inconsistent play that probably should have been expected, if not against Southern Miss then against someone else. That’s the nature of sweeping change.
Now, Nebraska must go on the road for the first time, to Pittsburgh. The goal there will be to “create more turnovers and put the defense in a better position,” said Bullocks.
“First it starts in practice, then it carries over to games.”
Just a week earlier, euphoria had been the order of the day, or in that case, the night. No one was willing to acknowledge the growing pains that Nebraska was bound to endure.
Had he taken better care of the ball, “we would have been up on those guys 31-9,” Dailey said. “That should have been the score of the game, 31-9.”
Shoulda, woulda, coulda . . . you can guess what momma said about that.