I've never much cared for Nebraska.
In the '80's, the Cornhuskers played a big role in creating the current media-darling "powerhouse" mold: play in a weak conference, run up the score on outmanned opponents, only play one or two real games a year, and rack up the accolades from a press corps that only sees the box scores (or today, ESPN highlights) from most games. Sure, there were occasions when Nebraska was every bit as good as their billing--just ask Steve Spurrier--but there were at least as many years when the Children of the Corn were exposed as ridiculously overrated during bowl season. Like, say, 1983.
Besides all that, Nebraska has been an Auburn "bugaboo team" for way too long. Everybody has those bugaboo teams that they can't ever seem to beat: since the 80's, Georgia can't beat Florida. FSU hardly ever beats Miami. Alabama can't beat Texas (or Auburn, lately), and prior to yesterday, Auburn had never beaten Nebraska.
Suffice to say, I was not unhappy with Monday's outcome in the Cotton Bowl. It won't be recalled as a thing of beauty, but any win on New Year's Day is a good one, and a win over a bugaboo team is better still.
The early part of the game really did look like same song, different verse for Auburn as Nebraska unloaded a gangbuster first quarter. I'd had a bad feeling about the game going in, and that first NU scoring drive didn't do much to improve my mood. Fortunately, AU's defensive effort went up a notch after that score, and not unlike in the Florida game, several notches further in the second half. The secondary turned in a bravura performance after the poor first series, with David Irons in particular putting the lie to Tom Dienhart's sneer of last week ("Aubie can't cover").
This last game meant plenty to both of the Irons brothers. David had a great day, tipping up the ball for Karibi Dede's big interception in the first half and swatting away one third-and-long pass after another in the second. Kenny never got the big run we'd all been looking for since the early season, but he was still tough enough to get the critical yardage Auburn needed, and he did it against a very big defensive front without much help from an ineffective AU offensive line.
Auburn's overall offensive performance has taken a beating in the post-game coverage, and with good reason. A net gain of 178 total yards is not going to go down as a memorable day. Even so, after a terrible first half, and again echoing the Florida win, Brandon Cox and his offense did what they had to in the last two quarters, holding the ball, moving the chains, and keeping the other guys on the bench. It was especially heartening to see senior Courtney Tayor having the kind of game he hasn't had much over the last couple of seasons. Going out as AU's all-time receptions leader is one hell of an accomplishment for a "project" recruit who was snatched out from under UAT's trunk five springs ago.
The biggest drive of the game has hardly been remarked upon in the postgame coverage, but when the Tigers drove the ball off its own one-inch line to well past midfield late in the third quarter, the game was as good as in-hand. That extra breathing room turned out to be all a rejuvinated defense needed to shut down the Cornhuskers for the duration.
Nebraska was an interesting team to watch. They were as big and strong as advertised up front, but I thought they got visibly tired in the second half on both sides of the line. Quarterback Zac Taylor was great for most of the game, but like almost every other signal caller out there, he wasn't able to do nearly as much once the pass rush got heavy, and NU's running game lost its spark as Auburn started to dominate the front line in the second half. Bill Callahan's play-calling reminded me a little of Tommy Tuberville's early years at Auburn; he was trying to do too much a lot of the time. "Cute" calls like the botched fake punt cost you a lot more often than they pay off, especially in big games. Still, Nebraska had a solid game plan, and they were obviously ready to play at kickoff, and neither of which could be said about Auburn when the game started.
Going beyond the two teams on the field, it's hard to figure out which was worse, the Fox network broadcast of the game, or the Big 11 officiating.
I'm almost never bored enough to watch the No Fun League on television, but if Fox's NFL coverage is anywhere near as awful as Monday's bowl telecast, they ought to just run Simpsons marathons instead of football on Sundays. If Pat Summerall is a "legend," I'd hate to have to listen to a "washed-up empty suit." Neither Summerall nor his colorless color guy (I'm not even going to bother looking up his name) did any homework before the game, and neither knew much of anything about either team. The camerawork was lousy, and the sound was embarassingly bad, with random yaw-yaws from a coach too close to a microphone popping in at odd moments.
And don't even get me started on the televised replays--or rather, the lack therof, particularly in the case of Cox's late fumble, which wasn't replayed even once. Fox must have had their fifth-string director in the trailer for this one; after the mis-called Lee Guess touchdown play, the network bizarrely popped up a shot of fans eating pizza instead of a replay (although they did show the play plenty of times after it didn't matter any more). A bush-league performance all around; Fox has a very long way to go before they can get up to the rather bad level of CBS's SEC coverage. It was that bad; call it JP in HD.
I'm tempted to think that the less said about the Big 11 referees, the better, but next time we need an third-conference crew, let's go with the Mountain West, or maybe the Big South or a decent high school division. Described as an "all-star" squad by Summerall, the Big 11 crew did what I didn't think was possible, making SEC officiating look pretty good by comparison. It was obvious by the second quarter that holding and blocking in the back aren't actually penalties in the Midwest, and if anybody can explain how you don't review Guess's miscalled touchdown but do review the spot of a ball at the end of the game (the one and only time I've ever seen or even heard of such a review), please drop me a line.
Ah, well. As stated before, any win on New Year's Day is a good one. More on the team that's past and the team to come later.