Nebraska won the football game. A scoreboard said so. Everything else suggested otherwise.
Husker players wore vacant expressions while leaving the field. Fans filed quietly out of Memorial Stadium trying to make sense of what they’d witnessed.
The Huskers defeated Wyoming 37-34 Saturday night, but it required survival tactics, a last-minute defensive stand necessary to preserve what was once a 17-point second-half lead.
“That, to me, was a really bad dream,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “It was close to being a nightmare.”
Had you walked into the Husker locker room after the game, you might have momentarily confused it with a funeral parlor.
"There was nothing to celebrate,” said junior wide receiver Kenny Bell. “I felt like we lost this football game tonight. I'm hurting.”
Added Papuchis: “It looked like a bunch of guys who got humbled in a lot of ways, and learned some lessons in a lot of ways.”
Husker head coach Bo Pelini said he expected “a lot cleaner performance” from his team.
“But by no means am I panicking.”
The 18th-ranked Huskers had hoped to open the new-look Memorial Stadium in style. A record crowd of 91,185 packed the old gray lady, and it’s fair to say she looked as splendid as she ever had dressed in red.
Even as fans wiped sweat off their brows — it was 90 degrees at a 7 p.m. kickoff — they arrived at the stadium in good humor, as evidenced by the sign in the upper deck of the new East Stadium that read: WE CAN SEE WYOMING FROM HERE.
They soon saw something else: Trouble.
When the game mercifully ended with Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith throwing a desperation pass from his 31-yard line out of bounds, the stat sheet was full of frightening data.
Wyoming piled up 602 yards of offense and an incredible 35 first downs. A team that rushed for an average of just 125 yards a game a year ago put up 219 Saturday night.
And Nebraska’s hyped offense? Better than the defense certainly, but it was not near as dominating a debut as the Huskers had hoped.
Granted, the offense seemed to take over the game with three straight touchdowns to begin the second half, opening a 37-21 lead with 11:38 left in the game.
Nebraska’s running backs were particularly impressive. Ameer Abdullah ran for 114 yards, Imani Cross for 105, and true freshman Terrell Newby was as advertised, toting the ball 15 times for 76 yards.
But the Husker offense put up no points on its final three possessions. That explains the disgust from Bell.
“It’s humbling. It’s a humbling sport,” Bell said. “We can’t walk on the field and say, ‘We’re Nebraska, we’re going to win this football game.’ Hats off to Wyoming, but we should have buried those guys when we were up 16 (points). When you get a team down like that, you have to come out and you have to have the nastiness, you've got to have the edge to you that says now that you’re down, I’m going to keep you down there. And we didn’t have that tonight. That’s everybody. That’s every single one of us.”
While NU’s offense was stuck in neutral, the Cowboys put their boots on the pedal.
After a Ciante Evans interception — Nebraska’s second pick of the game — snuffed out one fourth-quarter Wyoming drive in the red zone, the Cowboys put on a speed rush that had them in position to win a game in which they were considered at least 30-point underdogs.
The Cowboys drove 52 yards in just two plays, a pass to Jalen Claiborne making it 37-27 with 6:02 left.
Next possession: Three plays, 62 yards, a 47-yard touchdown strike to Robert Herron to cut it to three points with just 1:32 left.
Wyoming still had all three timeouts.
Nebraska was limping to the finish line, and when Wyoming got the ball again at its 6-yard line — faced with a long field thanks to another dynamite punt from Sam Foltz — anything seemed possible with 67 seconds left.
“The biggest thing I was emphasizing to them was, ‘Forget about what’s happened to this point. It's time to bow up and go play,'” Papuchis said. “I mean, you can feel sorry for yourself tomorrow. We can correct the things that already happened tomorrow. But now it’s time to play. And we have to get off the field and make sure that this doesn’t turn into a nightmare.”
The nightmare didn’t arrive. Not this week, at least.
But certainly it was clear on a night when Nebraska played four true freshmen on defense — Nathan Gerry, Josh Banderas, Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice — that the Huskers are on the ground floor of this project.
“There are a lot of things that we need to get fixed,” Pelini said. “I told our team, ‘I hope this serves as an example for you that what I’m saying is true. That every single day is important for this football team.'”
Papuchis said there were some positive moments for the defense to take from the third quarter, but the final period was “atrocious.”
“We made that game that really shouldn’t have been close to a game where we had to scramble our butts off at the end just to keep the lead,” he said. “Now, it’s a win, and the objective of the sport is to win. But that wasn’t good enough.”