LINCOLN — Chalk one up for Nebraska pride.
With its streak of consecutive nine-win seasons and its self respect on the line, the Nos. 14- and 17-ranked Cornhuskers gutted out a 16-14 win over Colorado in Friday's regular-season finale at Memorial Stadium.
The victory before 75,958 fans gave Nebraska (9-3 overall, 5-3 in the Big 12 Conference) its 30th straight season with at least nine wins or more and put a positive spin on what has been a disappointing year for the Huskers. Colorado wrapped up its regular season 7-4 and 4-4.
Nebraska coach Frank Solich said he was pleased the team got its ninth win not for him, but for the players.
"I was certainly relieved that we were able to get nine victories for this football team," Solich said. "They certainly wanted that throughout the course of the year and certainly lately when it became obvious when you had to go back quite a ways — to my era almost — to find a team that didn't get nine wins.
"That was weighing heavy on them and of course they were reminded of that every time they turned on the TV or every time they read the paper, so it was not an easy deal."
When the Huskers lost 40-30 to Kansas State Nov. 14, it marked the first time since the 1976 season that NU had dropped three conference games. A loss against the Buffaloes would've tagged Nebraska with its first four-loss season since 1968.
"I think these guys wanted to get this one won for a lot of reasons," Solich said. "It's been difficult, but they still managed to keep a very proud approach in term of playing for this program and to me, 9-3 looks pretty good right now."
Like several Nebraska games this season, Friday's contest went down to the wire as a national ABC television audience looked on. It wasn't until Husker quarterback Eric Crouch converted on fourth down with a 3-yard sneak in the closing seconds that NU had the victory in hand.
"It's been some year," Solich said. "It was similar to many of them — it came down to the end and was a tough one all the way through. I was really pleased again and proud of our kids and the way they hung in there.
"We finally had one where things didn't go against us at the end and we were able to get it done."
Unlike in losses to Texas and Kansas State, this time the Nebraska defense held. Leading by just two points with 2:57 remaining, Colorado's offense took the field needing just a field goal to post its first win over the Huskers since 1990.
It was a situation that felt all too familiar for Nebraska. For Husker senior center Josh Heskew, it was too much to watch.
"When they got the ball with a little bit less than three minutes left on the clock, I don't think I watched a single play on the big screen," Heskew said. "I was sitting on the bench, just kind of hanging my head down and if I heard a big roar, then I knew we did something good."
The roar Heskew was waiting for came with 1:41 to play when Colorado quarterback Mike Moschetti's fourth-down pass attempt fell incomplete, and Nebraska took over the football at the Buffs' 26.
Husker senior rush end Mike Rucker said that on Colorado's last possession, the mission for he and his teammates was clear.
"We knew we had to stop them and they didn't have to get a touchdown — they just had to get into field-goal range," Rucker said. "We knew that could happen, so we just wanted to stop them and get off the field.
"I felt real great to hold them. With this being my last game in the 'Big House,' we wanted to go out with a 'W' and just knowing that you're one play away from maybe losing the game, it felt real great to get off the field and let the offense go in there and run that clock down."
After Nebraska got the ball back and with CU possessing just one timeout, all the NU offense needed to clinch the game was a first down.
And that's what the Huskers produced. Crouch carried on four straight plays, finally picking up the first down with the 3-yard sneak on a fourth-and-1 play from the Colorado 17.
It was a shining moment for the offense, which otherwise had a forgettable day. Nebraska managed just 254 yards of total offense — 131 yards rushing and 123 yards passing — and failed to produce an offensive touchdown for the first time since a 19-0 loss at Arizona State in 1996.
Crouch said the offense's struggles were frustrating, but the team played its best — and that was good enough to win.
"Whatever bowl game we got to our whoever we play, we're always going to give it our best shot," Crouch said. "We decided that just going out and being the best team we can be at the end of the year was the best way to show the Nebraska pride."
Despite taking a 10-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, the Huskers had to rally to post the win. Trailing 14-13, NU senior kicker Kris Brown drilled what proved to be the game-winning field goal from 25 yards out with 8:48 to play.
Brown said that even though a lot rode in the balance, he didn't feel any extra pressure on his final kick.
"I think I put a lot of pressure on myself personally, so I don't think there was any more added pressure on the last kick," Brown said. "I just wanted to go out there, hit it clean and put it through the uprights. Fortunately, it just barely slid through, so we'll take it."
Brown hit his second field goal of the day, a 30-yarder, with 11:29 remaining in the third quarter to put Nebraska ahead 13-7. However, the Buffaloes rallied to take their only lead of the game at 14-13 when Moschetti found Andy Peeke for a 15-yard TD pass with 2:11 left in the third period.
It wasn't pretty the rest of the way, but the Nebraska defense rose to the occasion three more times to stop Colorado drives, and the Huskers escaped with the win. Now, NU is apparently headed for a berth in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego Dec. 30.
"I was real pleased with the fact that they continued to battle throughout the course of the game," Solich said. "They didn't let a bad break here or there get them down or take them out of it to the point where they weren't ready to respond."
Nebraska's win was a crushing setback for Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel's team, which nearly came back to beat the Huskers last season before losing 27-24 in Boulder, Colo.
"We are extremely disappointed with the outcome of the ballgame," Neuheisel said. "I thought our kids gave everything they had. I thought they deserved to win, but yet we fell a little bit short."
The victory sent Nebraska's 21-player senior class out a winner in its final game on Tom Osborne Field. Husker senior Chad Kelsay said the victory was at least some consolation for a class that had been a part of three national championship teams before losing three times this year.
"This season hasn't gone the way a lot of us would've hoped," Kelsay said. "When you set your goals so high and then you have a couple or three losses, it does not really sit well with you. So to be able to come out and win this last game at home feels good."
Nebraska senior fullback Joel Makovicka said the Huskers certainly won't get any style points, but he was just pleased they got the job done."
"As a senior class, we knew we didn't want to go out losing that last game and I think the younger guys stepped up and realized they didn't want to send us out that way," Makovicka said. "Everybody kind of took it upon themselves to get ready to play in that second half and really not let the fans, the state and the Nebraska tradition down."
When the Nebraska offense struggled on its first possession of the game, the Husker defense took it upon itself to put some points on the scoreboard. Safety Clint Finley intercepted a Moschetti pass and returned it 42 yards for a score. Finley's third interception of the year game gave NU a 6-0 lead with 11:09 left in the first quarter.
"I just saw green right at first and then the quarterback was right there," Finley said. "He just came at me and I didn't know if he was going to tackle me or cut me — I didn't know what to do — so I just jumped."
Although it was partially blocked, Brown added the point-after kick to make it 7-0. The kick broke the NCAA career record for PATs with 217. Brown, who broke the record held by Fresno State's Derek Mahoney, also tied Mahoney's record for PAT attempts with 222.
The Colorado offense responded on the strength of running back Marlon Barnes, who rushed for 102 yards on 25 attempts, despite missing much of the third quarter with leg cramps.
Coming off a 237-yard rushing effort against Iowa State, Barnes carried eight times on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Moschetti 17-yard TD pass to Javon Green that tied the game at 7-7 with 6:17 left in the first period.
The teams then traded possessions before Nebraska gave the Buffs a golden opportunity to score when Husker I-back Correll Buckhalter couldn't handle an option pitch from Crouch. CU's Terrell Cade pounced on the ball at the NU 29.
But Colorado couldn't cash in as an offensive pass interference penalty and a sack by Jeremy Slechta and Kelsay forced a punt.
After forcing Nebraska to punt, the Buffs put together another strong drive into Husker territory. With the help of a running into the punter penalty flagged on Kelsay, CU marched to the Nebraska 37 on a 5-yard run by Barnes.
But again, the Blackshirts responded. Linebacker Eric Johnson sacked Moschetti for a 10-yard loss and forced Colorado place-kicker Jeremy Aldrich into a 52-yard field-goal attempt. Aldrich's kick was long enough, but missed wide right.
After rushing for minus-2 yards in the first quarter and struggling most of the second period, Nebraska's offense finally found its stride late in the first half. Two timeouts prior to a Colorado punt gave the Huskers possession at their own 42 with 1:18 remaining in the half.
Operating out of the no-huddle offense, Crouch completed passes of 12 and 6 yards to Shevin Wiggins and a shuffle pass to Buckhalter that moved the ball to the Buffs' 13 with 20 seconds to go.
Crouch spiked the ball to stop the clock, then took two shots at the end zone with pass attempts to Kenny Cheatham before Nebraska settled for a 30-yard Brown field goal. The successful attempt on the final play of the first half gave the Huskers a 10-7 lead at the intermission.