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Nebraska's 2013 season opener certainly didn't get off to the greatest start, and it almost ended in near disaster. But in the end the Huskers did barely enough to hold on for a 37-34 victory over Wyoming on Saturday night.
After taking just a three-point lead into halftime, Nebraska (1-0) looked as is it had started to wear down a feisty Cowboy defense in the third and fourth quarters, but Wyoming (0-1) definitely went down swinging into the final second. Despite leading by 16 early in the fourth quarter, Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith threw two late touchdown passes to cut the lead to three with 1:32 remaining, and UW had a chance to tie or even win the game on the last possession.
Luck and time were on Nebraska's side when all was said and done, but the game was nonetheless closer than anyone could have expected. The Cowboys put up a staggering 602 yards of total offense and 35 first downs, including 475 combined yards from Smith. The yardage was the eighth most allowed in school history, and the most allowed at home since Ball State put up 610 in 2007.
The 602 yards were the fourth most ever given up in Memorial Stadium, and the 35 first downs were the most ever allowed by Nebraska.
"We're one and zero and I'm happy we're one and zero," Pelini said. "Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do. I just said to our team, 'Whether you win by three or you win 65-0, it's never as good as you think it is and it's never as bad as you think it is.' I thought they did some good things to us. They caught us in a couple things. They hit us in the right calls defensively early on. I think we settled down a little bit for a while there and started to play better football on both offense and defense, then we hit a lull there at the end.
"Like I said, there are some good things that will come in this game. There are a lot of things that we need to get fixed.
It wasn't a total surprise that Wyoming was able to the move the ball with success against Nebraska's young defense, but the Huskers' struggles with the football were definitely unexpected hurdles in the first half.
The Cowboys struck first on their second drive of the game after a 37-yard run by running back Shaun Wick set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Jalen Claiborne with 8:48 left in the first quarter. Wick rushed for 78 of his 101 yards in the first half and Smith followed up with 75 on the ground, as Wyoming ended up surpassing its 2012 average game rushing total (125.2) within the first two quarters with 174 on 21 attempts.
Nebraska responded on its ensuing possession with a 24-yard field goal by Western Illinois transfer kicker Pat Smith. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste then prevented a near Wyoming score with an interception at the goal line, and the Huskers quickly took their first lead on a pretty 17-yard pass from Taylor Martinez to Jamal Turner in the left corner of the end zone with 1:20 remaining in the opening quarter.
Later in the second quarter, Smith took a draw up the middle and ripped off a 47-yard run that sparked a five-play, 76-yard drive that was finished off by Wick's second TD run of the night from 6 yards out, giving Wyoming a 14-10 lead with 11:38 left in the half.
Having been unable to break a big play, the Huskers finally got the spark they had been looking for when junior running back Ameer Abdullah got free along the right sideline and scampered 62 yards to the Wyoming 28-yard line. Sophomore Imani Cross finished it off two plays later with a 1-yard touchdown to reclaim the lead at 17-14.
Abdullah led the Huskers with 114 yards on 19 carries, while Cross followed up 13 rushes for 105 yards and two scores.
That score would hold on into halftime, but the feeling among the Memorial Stadium record crowd of 91,185 was far from comfortable with the three-point advantage. Wyoming ended up with 300 total yards, including 173 on the ground, while Smith was 14-of-20 passing for 127 yards.
"There were a couple things we didn't react very well to and a couple times we just didn't make plays," Pelini said of his defense. "I think we'll learn a lot from it. I haven't changed my assessment of what this team needs to be defensively. I still think we're gonna be just fine. It wasn't like we just got overpowered at times. There were just some things that we didn't react to, which was an experience thing. Maybe an understanding thing.
"It's hard to put them through all the possible things they're going to see. Especially when we've started the game. We were making different things happen and different calls. All it takes is for one guy not to react the right way and it makes you look bad. It makes you look worse than you are."
After the slow start to the game, Nebraska picked things up right away to open the second half, marching right down the field on five plays with Cross spinning his way 31 yards for a touchdown run to increase the lead to 24-14.
Wyoming missed a 50-yard field goal attempt on its first possession of the third quarter, and the Huskers continued to put the throttle down. Martinez found Quincy Enunwa in the corner of the end zone on NU's next drive, and Enunwa pulled off a catch and toe drag for a 3-yard touchdown that was originally ruled incomplete prior to review. The ruling was overturned, and Nebraska went up 31-14 with just over four minutes left in the third.
Just when it seemed the Huskers were in the clear, though, Smith came right back out firing and led an eight-play, 83-yard drive that took just 1:57 and hit running back Brandon Miller on a 22-yard touchdown toss to cut the lead to 31-21.
"I don't think they did anything different," Jean-Baptiste said of Wyoming's offense. "We just got more relaxed. On the sideline we kept playing around and weren't taking everything seriously. We just lost focus and they battled back."
With a heavy dose of true freshman running back Terrell Newby - who rushed 15 times for 76 yards in his college debut - NU quickly got back on the board its very next drive. Martinez found Enunwa again for a 7-yard touchdown pass, making it 37-21 with just under 12 minutes to play.
Nebraska was able to control the ball for the bulk of the fourth quarter with a pounding running attack, but Martinez made a late mistake and was picked off with 6:26 to go, giving Wyoming the ball its 47 and only down two scores.
Smith capitalized on the opportunity, hitting Claiborne again for a 29-yard touchdown strike with just over six minutes left. A failed two-point conversion attempt kept the score at 37-27, but Nebraska failed to do anything with its next drive and gave the Cowboys the ball back.
Once again, Smith made the Huskers pay for their mistakes, finding Robert Herron down the sideline for a 47-yard scoring strike with just 1:32 remaining. A failed onside kick attempt gave NU the ball back with a chance to run out the clock, but it was unable to get a first down, and Wyoming used two timeouts to get the ball back inside its own 10 with a minute and a half left on the clock.
It wasn't until a desperation pass from Smith fell incomplete as time expired that Nebraska could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
"We just didn't finish," senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. "We talk about being a dominant offensive team, and we didn't come out there and put on the show that we wanted to put on today. It comes back to just earning it during the week. I thought we had a good week of practice, but it just shows that we need to keep working because we're nowhere near where we need to be to go out there and win them all. Because that's the ultimate goal."
The Huskers will try for a less stressful performance next week when Southern Miss (0-1) comes to town. The Golden Eagles fell to FCS Texas State on Saturday, 22-15.