DALLAS — Nebraska football coach Bill Callahan spoke with conviction Monday after his team’s 17-14 loss to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl.
The Huskers aren’t quite ready to be a top-10 team, he said. However, “We’ve closed the gap on a lot of people.”
Nebraska, ranked No. 22 nationally, fell just short of a coveted breakthrough victory against No. 10 Auburn. The Huskers’ hopes essentially ended with 1 minute, 40 seconds remaining in the game, when Zac Taylor’s pass toward wideout Frantz Hardy along the sideline sailed high-and-wide on fourth-and-11 from the Auburn 30-yard line.
Callahan elected to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a field goal. The Huskers needed to be five yards closer to be in sophomore place-kicker Jordan Congdon’s field-goal range, said NU offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. Congdon would have had to connect from about 47 yards into the wind to forge the tie. He hasn’t made a field goal longer than 41 yards in two seasons at NU.
Callahan said Nebraska coaches try to determine Congdon’s range for a given game by watching him in warm-ups.
“It was beyond our cutoff point, so we made a decision to go for it on fourth down,” Callahan said.
Said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville: “They went for the win. This is a bowl game; you come here to win the game, and they thought that was the best way to do it. Fortunately for us, we made some plays and got the ball back.”
After Auburn was forced to punt on its final possession, Nebraska took over at its 23-yard line with 10 seconds left. Taylor’s Hail Mary pass fell incomplete, and Auburn improved to 11-2.
Nebraska completed the season with a 9-5 record, with four of its losses coming against top-10 opponents. The Huskers have dropped seven consecutive games to top-10 foes dating to 2001.
In the aftermath Monday, Callahan wasn’t second-guessing the decision to bypass the late field goal.
“It was what we decided as a staff,” he said. “Jordan knew exactly what the cutoff was. The staff knew. Everybody was on the same page. That’s a decision we live with.”
Said Nebraska wideout Maurice Purify: “I thought we were going to kick it. I was hoping we were going to kick it to force overtime. It was only a 47-yarder. I believed in him (Congdon) and thought he was going to make it.”
Nebraska, coming off a 21-7 loss to Oklahoma in the Dec. 2 Big 12 title game, outgained Auburn 230-178 and recorded 17 first downs to the Tigers’ 12. The Huskers recovered two fumbles and had five sacks.
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Callahan expressed pride in his team’s overall performance.
“We’ll break through at some point,” he said. “We’re getting there; it won’t be long, believe me.”
Nebraska was left to lament two first-half blunders that led to Auburn’s only touchdowns.
Late in the first quarter, Taylor fired a pass into double coverage, and the ball was tipped into the air. Linebacker Karibi Dede snatched the pigskin and sprinted 52 yards to the Nebraska 9-yard line.
Two plays later, Brandon Cox’s play-action pass to running back Carl Stewart went for a 9-yard touchdown, pulling the Tigers into a 7-7 tie.
After Nebraska’s ensuing possession stalled at its 29-yard line, Callahan called for a fake punt. With NU lined up in punt formation, the ball was snapped to upback Dane Todd, but he botched a pitch to safety Andrew Shanle while under pressure.
Tristan Davis recovered the loose ball at the Husker 14, and Auburn took a 14-7 lead four plays later when Stewart dived into the end zone from the 1.
Callahan said the failed fake punt was no reason for panic.
“It was still early enough in the ball game that if it didn’t work, and we faltered, we were still in good position to come back,” Callahan said.
Nebraska began the game with a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive and put together a 72-yard scoring drive in the second quarter to forge a 14-14 tie.
However, the Huskers, after racking up 157 first-half yards, managed only 73 yards in the second half.
“We did some things to neutralize them early,” Callahan said. “But in the end, their speed kind of caught up with us a little bit.”
Auburn place-kicker John Vaughn’s 42-yard field goal with 6:20 left in the third quarter turned out to be the game winner.