PITTSBURGH — Bill Callahan almost sounded more like the mayor of this proud city than Nebraska's football coach following his team's 24-17 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

"They did a great job of putting the game on," he said, marveling over the smooth manner in which city officials dealt with a record rainfall on Friday that flooded areas around Heinz Field and caused alternate traffic routes to be utilized.

Had the Huskers handled the final five minutes of the game with anything close to that kind of efficiency, those words would have been appropriate for them, too.

As it turned out, they had to stick their fingers in the dike to avert a disaster. No wonder Callahan, though pleased to emerge dry, tempered his enthusiasm.

What looked like a situation that was under complete control became one in which Nebraska had to bat down a pass in its end zone on the game's final play to avoid a likely overtime session.

Maybe it's just as well, too, that Callahan's team had to work to the end, because with the Big 12 Conference season about to begin, it hardly looks like a team that can expect to achieve results easily.

NU is 2-1, should be 3-0 but could easily be 1-2. You talk about the fine line to winning? There can't be many better examples.

Nor can the Huskers find any better lessons in the value of ball security than they've received the past two weeks.

On Saturday, Callahan's West Coast offense didn't rack up ridiculous amounts of yardage like it had against Western Illinois and Southern Mississippi. And yet, with quarterback Joe Dailey treating the ball with the kind of care you'd expect of someone who just caught Barry Bonds' 700th home run ball combined with Nebraska's defense stealing it from Pittsburgh three times in the first half —  the Huskers were coasting 24-10 with five minutes to play.

Then, Dailey made the one play he'd like to have back.

With three defenders around receiver Grant Mulkey, Dailey threw a second-down pass that H.B. Blades picked off at the NU 39 and returned 5 yards. On the next play, wide receiver Greg Lee ran a corner route to the end zone and made a reverse-spin move while grabbing Tyler Palko's pass over cornerback Cortney Grixby to draw the home team within a touchdown.

Pittsburgh then got the ball back following a punt at its 24-yard line with 1:18 to go. After being backed up 10 yards because of a holding penalty, the Panthers — with Palko completing a 21-yarder on second-and-20, then a 17-yarder and finally a 31-yarder on fourth-and-10 — got to the NU 14 with six seconds left.

"I thought the game was nail-in-the-coffin," said NU defensive end Wali Muhammad. "It was almost like last week. It was pretty frightening."

Only after Palko's on-the-run-loft from the 19 into what resembled a group of rugby players in a scrum was knocked to the turf could Muhammad and the Huskers let out a major sigh.

"I have no problem with it," Callahan said of the end result. "Coming off the (Southern Miss) loss, you don't know how the kids are going to respond.

"… The frustrating thing is we had the lead and it dwindled."

That's just one of the problems Nebraska will have to solve if it plans on playing meaningful games in late November.

While Dailey bounced back from a four-turnover performance like a thick-skinned team captain, the Huskers have still yet to produce a fourth-quarter point against a NCAA Division I-A opponent.

They're still making blundering errors on special teams that, if continued, will definitely cost them a game.

They also better hope cornerback Fabian Washington has only a bruised knee, because it was only after he left Saturday's game that Pittsburgh was able to move through the air.

The good news for the Huskers is their nonconference schedule has supplied them with most of the scenarios they could have hoped to face heading into league play.

"It's preparing us," Washington said. "We'll do fine once we get into the Big 12 season. I think we're one of the tougher teams in the North."

Like this city, soggy, but without its spirit dampened.

Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or cmckeever@journalstar.com.