Nebraska got what it desperately wanted Saturday - a stern test from a solid, courageous football opponent.
But by passing their first big exam of the season with a 35-21 win over Washington State, the No. 2-ranked Cornhuskers left the Cougars with something they were desperately trying to avoid - a bunch of post-game talk about the merits of a moral victory.
“They’re a good team, no doubt,” WSU offensive tackle Scott Sanderson said of the defending national champion Cornhuskers after the defeat. “They won and there’s a reason for that. But I thought we played a good game and I’m disappointed with the outcome because we came here to win. This was not a moral victory.”
“This is a tough loss, a real tough loss,” added slotback Jay Dumas, who caught nine passes, but could not get into the end zone, “especially since we came in here with every intention of winning.”
Such comments speak volumes to how far the WSU program has come in the past several years. No longer is enough to just come close, even to a national power like Nebraska.
The Cougars talked all week about venturing into Memorial Stadium, one of the legendary environments of college football, and beating Nebraska in front of its loyal followers.
And they had their chances to do just that, despite some crippling personnel losses on defense, a critical defensive holding call midway through the fourth period when the outcome was still in doubt and all of the problems created by 75,777 vocal fans - most of whom were there to witness a Nebraska blowout.
“Our goal going into this game was to win,” coach Mike Price said after watching the non-conference loss drop his team to 2-2. “We certainly came up short, but we didn’t come up short on effort, pride or desire.
“We wanted to be in position in the fourth quarter to win the game. We had that, but we just came up short.”
Freshman I-back Ahman Green rushed for 176 yards and one touchdown and senior quarterback Tommie Frazier darted for two more scores as Nebraska (5-0) turned back WSU’s inspired upset bid.
The Cornhuskers rolled up 527 yards of total offense and won the first-down battle 27-17 in beating the Cougars for the first time in four tries.
“We’ve finally beaten Washington State,” said Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who lost to WSU and his former assistant Warren Powers 19-10 in 1977. “It wasn’t easy. I think they really played well and I think they’ve got a good team.
“I don’t know if they’re going to win the Pac-10 or not, but I think they’re going to be really competitive against everybody they play.”
WSU, which returns to Pac-10 play at home next Saturday against Oregon State, shocked Nebraska’s 205th consecutive sellout crowd with Frank Madu’s 87-yard touchdown run on their second possession of the game, managed to hang around until midway through the final quarter before being done in by the crucial holding call.
The Cougars had scored early in the period on the first of Chad Davis’ two touchdown passes to backup wide receiver Shawn Timms and cut Nebraska’s lead to 28-14.
It looked like they were going to get the ball back again with plenty of time remaining when a third-down pass thrown by Frazier from his own 30-yard line fell woefully short of its intended receiver.
A late flag floated to the ground, however, and the ensuing holding call on WSU cornerback Brian Walker gave the Huskers new life and a first down at the 40.
Three plays later, Frazier lofted a 35-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Gilman and made all of the late-game craziness that would follow rather meaningless.
Defensive Coordinator Bill Doba said Walker was trying to prevent Nebraska split end Reggie Baul from beating him deep.
It was one of Doba’s few disap pointments on a day when some of his younger defenders came up big for fallen starters.
Junior linebacker Johnny Nansen left the game in the first period with a concussion and Doba lost end Dwayne Sanders to an ankle injury and tackle Gary Holmes to a concussion early in the second half.
Defensive back Greg Burns didn’t play because of a shoulder injury sustained in last Saturday’s 24-15 win over UCLA.
That forced sophomores Phillip Glover and Todd Nelson into duty at linebacker and gave freshman Delmar Morais a rare stint at defensive tackle. Senior Robert Booth filled in for Sanders at defensive end and all played well, according to Doba.
Still, it was a little unnerving for James Darling, who calls the defensive signals.
“There were people in the huddle that I’ve really never seen in the huddle before,” said the junior linebacker, who made 11 tackles and forced a fumble.
Darling gave WSU a last chance to make things interesting when he recovered an onside kick following Davis’ second scoring pass to Timms - a 30-yarder with 3:38 left.
But the Cougar offense, which had generated 350 yards up to that point, was unable to move and turned the ball over on downs. And one last Nebraska scoring threat died near the WSU goal when the Cornhuskers fumbled the ball away just before time ran out.
Davis completed 20 of 37 passes for 278 yards. Most of his production came in the second half after the Cougars shook off their early field-position problems.
The Cougars started only one drive from outside their 17-yard line in the first half and stayed conservative to a fault offensively. They threw the ball only 13 times prior to intermission, despite getting nothing from their running game following Madu’s long scoring run.
“Field position was what killed us,” Davis said. “We felt, coming into the game, that we could throw the football effectively and we did. But they were so good on the defensive line it was hard for us to get any kind running game going except for that one long run with Frank.”
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