Huskers hold on for 36-28 win over Southern Miss
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With the help of a record performance by sophomore kicker Drew Brown, Nebraska was able to hold off a late Southern Miss rally and pull out a 36-28 victory on Saturday that saw an equal share of good and bad from the Huskers.
On the positive side, Brown ended up making a career-high five field goals in the victory, including tying an NCAA record with five field goals in the first half alone. Defensively, the Blackshirts held the Golden Eagles to just 19 yards rushing while forcing four sacks and two turnovers.
There were plenty of reasons for concern as well, however. In particular, NU gave up a 447 yards through the air on the day - the fifth straight 300-plus yard passing day by an opponent in a row going back to last year - and let a 22-point halftime lead dwindle down to as few as eight before finally pulling away in the fourth quarter.
After a very cold start last week at Miami, Nebraska came out firing right away in front of a sellout crowd of 89,899. A quick three-and-out by the defense was followed by junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong and junior running back Terrell Newby orchestrating a 71-yard drive that was capped off with a six-yard touchdown pass to junior wide out Jordan Westerkamp.
Southern Miss was able to move the ball into NU territory on its second drive, but running back Jalen Richard coughed up a fumble forced by defensive end Greg McMullen that was recovered by defensive tackle Kevin Williams at the Husker 40-yard line. From there, a 28-yard run by Armstrong set up a 29-yard field goal by Brown that made it 10-0 with 4:24 left in the opening quarter.
The Golden Eagles showed how potent its offense could be by reeling off a 50-yard pass from Nick Mullens to D.J. Thompson that looked to be a surefire touchdown. But sophomore cornerback Joshua Kalu was able to chase down Thompson at the six-yard line, and that effort proved to be a pretty significant play early on.
Southern Miss stalled on three straight plays after that and then shanked a 33-yard field goal to leave it at 10-0 going into the second quarter.
The Huskers then gave older fans a sight for sore eyes by calling a fullback trap to senior Andy Janovich, who barreled 25 yards into USM territory. Senior running back Imani Cross converted a fourth-and-one with a two-yard run, but Nebraska couldn't reach the end zone and had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Brown to go up 13-0 with 10:49 left in the second.
Brown would later knock in his third field goal of the day from 40 yards out after Janovich came up with his second big play of the game on a 53-yard catch. On NU's ensuing drive, a 49-yard reception by junior wide out Brandon Reilly led to Brown drilling his fourth field goal from 22 yards to bump the lead up to 19-0 with just under two minutes to go in the half.
Nebraska got the ball back with just 34 seconds on the clock, and with just one second remaining Brown booted his NCAA record fifth field goal of the half from 50 yards away to send the Huskers into halftime up 22-0.
Despite the lack of touchdowns in the first half, Armstrong was pretty dialed in through the first two quarters of the game, completing 13-of-17 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown while hitting his first eight attempts of the day. Southern Miss, on the other hand, managed just 119 yards of offense with minus-14 yards on the ground in the first half.
That strong start to the game quickly turned two plays into the third quarter, though, as Armstrong was picked off by D'Nerius Antoine deep in NU territory to give Southern Miss the ball at the 25. Two plays later, running back Ito Smith scampered in from 17 yards to get the Golden Eagles on the board at 22-7.
Brown was finally off target on his sixth field goal attempt from 51 yards out on the Huskers' ensuing drive, but Southern Miss returned the favor shortly after when kicker Parker Shaunfield missed his second field goal of the day from 44 yards.
The mistakes would continue for Nebraska immediately after that, as Cross was stripped of the ball on the first play of the next drive and USM recovered at the Husker 35 with just over 6:30 to go in the third. Facing a fourth-and-one at their seven-yard line, though, the Blackshirts came up big with a stop and turnover on downs.
Some key third-down conversions, two of which coming on passes to Westerkamp, helped NU march 93 yards down the field and finally get to the end zone again on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to receiver Taariq Allen to push the lead to 29-7 going into the final quarter.
Just when it seemed like Nebraska could exhale with a big lead, Southern Miss came right back to keep it interesting with a 53-yard pass from Mullens to Thomas and then a 21-yard touchdown toss to receiver Casey Martin that brought it back to 29-14 with 13:34 to play.
The Golden Eagles then recovered a surprise onside kick to get the ball back at their own 47. After a 28-yard pass to Thomas, Mullens hit Martin again for a 19-yard touchdown to cut the lead down to 29-21 with 12:26 still on the clock.
Nebraska finally caught a break a few minutes later when Southern Miss failed to convert a fake punt pass and gave the Huskers the ball at the USM 39. Janovich had a impressive nine-yard touchdown run called back on a holding penalty on receiver Alonzo Moore, but Armstrong got it right back with a 16-yard scramble up the middle to put NU back up 36-21 with 9:30 remaining.
Once again, Southern Miss came right back with a 39-yard pass to Smith and then a 25-yard pass to Richard to march right down the field to the Nebraska 11-yard line. The Golden Eagles had a touchdown pass called back on a holding penalty, but the Huskers had a fourth-down interception by Kalu negated by a pass interference call to set USM up with first and goal at the one. Richard then punched it in for a touchdown to bring it back to 36-27 with 6:55 left.
Facing a third-and-19 with plenty of time left on the clock, Armstrong came up with one of the biggest plays of the game by finding Reilly for a 41-yard pass down to the Southern Miss 22. The Huskers would grind the ball down to the eight, but the offense could not punch it in and Brown's 22-yard attempt was blocked to leave it an eight-point game with 29 seconds remaining.
Southern Miss would quickly move the ball into Nebraska territory, but with time ticking and USM out of timeouts, defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun sealed the victory with his second sack of the day to run out the rest of the clock.
With non-conference play now wrapped up, the Huskers will open their Big Ten schedule next week when they travel to take on Illinois for a 2:30 p.m. kick on BTN.
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