A sliver of daylight was all he needed. Breaking free of his
last pursuers, Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch broke into the
clear and rushed into the arms of his mother, Susan. Their
embrace took place outside the wrought-iron gates of Notre Dame
Stadium on Saturday amid a scarlet sea of autograph-seeking
Cornhuskers fans. In overtime an hour earlier, Susan's oldest
son used his trademark burst to beat a pair of Irish defenders
to the left corner of the end zone. His third touchdown of the
day made the final score 27-24, averting a stunning upset and
ending one of the best games of this young college football
The 15th meeting of these two teams, both steeped in tradition,
took place in an atmosphere rich in humidity and cupidity.
Despite the admonitions of Irish coach Bob Davie, who had
tut-tutted in the days before the game that real Notre Dame fans
would never stoop so low as to sell their tickets to Nebraska
fans, a solid third of the 80,000-plus in attendance arrived in
red. As Nebraska tuba player David Franzen gazed at the dense
concentrations of Huskers faithful in the south end
zone--reserved for Notre Dame faculty and staff, among
others--he said, "Maybe they should pay their professors a
If their mass migration from Lincoln to South Bend did not
reflect a near-certainty among members of Husker Nation that
their top-ranked team would make short work of the No. 23-ranked
Irish, their behavior on campus tended to. Typical was this
exchange, overheard outside the Grotto between one
thirtysomething guy and his buddy in a DA CORN T-shirt:
"Wanna stop and say a prayer?"
"Nah. We don't need to pray."
Several Cornhuskers were similarly self-assured, foremost among
them senior middle linebacker Carlos Polk, who told the Omaha
World-Herald, "As far as I know, Touchdown Jesus is a Nebraska
Teams dismiss Notre Dame's moss-covered mojo at their own risk.
The Irish have made a habit of knocking off No. 1-ranked teams.
(Their eight victories in such situations are more than any other
team's.) Indeed, after Nebraska took a 21-7 lead early in the
third quarter, the field--its grass left long to slow the speedier
visitors--seemed to tilt in favor of the home team. Notre Dame's
Julius Jones took a kickoff back 100 yards, and Joey Getherall
hauled a punt 83 yards to bring the Irish even and force
Notre Dame's defeat was the result, in part, of its failure to
execute its defensive game plan, reducible to two words: Stop
Crouch. While he throws (albeit sparingly) a nice ball, the
quicksilver junior from Omaha is lethal as a runner. On an
innocuous-looking belly option late in the first quarter, Crouch
exploded into the secondary and was gone for a 62-yard score. His
second touchdown came on a one-yard sneak with 2:24 left before
halftime and capped a more typical Cornhuskers possession, a
15-play geological epoch of a drive. Nebraska coach Frank Solich,
explaining his decision to keep the ball in Crouch's hands in
crunch time, said, "He's a guy who does not get excited, does not
Well, not usually. There was that time in August of last year
when Crouch left Lincoln in a huff and drove home to Omaha, where
he contemplated quitting football. He had spent the preseason in
a dogfight with Bobby Newcombe for the starting job. To the
surprise of many in Huskerland who thought Crouch had
outperformed his teammate, Newcombe got the nod. Crouch got out
"I have a lot of respect for scout-team guys who stick it out
five years and never play," says Crouch, "but that's not me. I
need to be on the field. Even if it's Division III, I just want
to play. So I went home. I was frustrated. I needed to step away,
to evaluate what I wanted from my life."
"What he needed," says Susan, "was his mommy." Eric agrees. He
values his mother's counsel above anyone else's. Theirs is an
extraordinarily strong bond. Eric's parents divorced when he was
a toddler, and Susan raised him and his brother, Kyle, on her
own. When Eric was old enough to babysit, Susan would go to
school during the day--she has since become a certified
ultrasonographer--and work nights as a cocktail waitress, not
returning home until 2:30 in the morning.
Eric became the man of the house while still a boy. Before he
could tell time, Susan used her son as a human snooze button,
telling him at, say, 6:10 in the morning, "When the big hand gets
to the five, wake me up." He recalls the night that he and some
pals left their Popsicles on his kitchen table. The treats melted
all over the carpet. "I remember thinking, I've got three hours
to clean this up," Eric says. He was in luck: His grandmother had
left her Regina Steamer Carpet Cleaner in the closet. "I pulled
that baby out, read the instructions, got the stains up," he
says. "I had to. I knew how much she wanted to come home to a
clean, quiet house."
Crouch's obsessive need to be perfect, his willingness to
shoulder responsibility and his 10.34 speed in the 100 made him
an ideal candidate to run Millard North High's "wingbone"
offense. "His speed into the mesh is incredible," says his high
school coach, Fred Petito, lapsing into option lingo to describe
a handoff. "And when he disengages from the fullback, he's at top
speed so darn quick."
Petito, an old friend of Susan's--he tended bar in the same joint
in which she waitressed--was something of a father figure for Eric
during his high school years. It was Petito who called Solich a
year ago and told the coach it would behoove him to get in his
car and come talk to the distraught young quarterback. It was
Petito who told Crouch to keep his chin up. "When you do get on
the field, kid," he said, "they won't be able to get you off it."
Petito got that right. Solich drove to Omaha. Although he did not
reverse his decision to start Newcombe, he vowed to get Crouch on
the field and made good on his promise. In an eight-minute span
in the second game of last season, against Cal, Crouch ran for a
one-yard touchdown, threw a 70-yard scoring pass to tight end
Tracey Wistrom and caught a 60-yard scoring pass from Newcombe,
who had struggled at quarterback. The following week Crouch
replaced Newcombe, who moved to wingback.
The heartwarming story out of Lincoln that week was that Newcombe
had approached the coaches and, for the good of the team,
voluntarily relinquished his starting role. Several Huskers
insiders suggest that Newcombe was nudged. So does the disgusted
look that crosses Newcombe's face when the subject of his
competition with Crouch is broached. "I've answered this question
about a hundred times," came Newcombe's acid reply last week.
When Solich was asked who initiated the change, he refused to
Regardless of who pulled the trigger on that move, it worked:
Crouch led the Cornhuskers to a 12-1 record and a No. 3 final
ranking. He rushed for 889 yards and 16 touchdowns and threw four
interceptions. "He's incredibly fast and really smart," says
senior wide receiver Matt Davison, "and if we can't run, we'll
put it up. We have good receivers. It's just that no one knows it
The Cornhuskers' aerial capabilities remained a secret after last
Saturday's ground-bound affair. Crouch didn't evoke memories of
Joe Montana; he completed 7 of 15 passes and threw one
interception. Next to the numbers put up by Notre Dame junior
quarterback Arnaz Battle, however, Crouch's performance looked
downright Elwayesque. Making his second start, Battle completed 3
of 15 and threw an interception. He was so erratic that when
Notre Dame took over on its 30 with 67 seconds left in
regulation, Davie ran out the clock and sent the game into
overtime rather than risk a turnover on a pass play. The fans
booed him, but Davie defended his decision. "I would do the same
thing 10 out of 10 times again," he said. "We've got a
quarterback who's completed three passes on the day and had
several others batted. I wanted to get that game into overtime
and give our team a chance to win."
Nebraska won the coin toss before overtime and opted to give the
host team first crack at the end zone. Starting at the 25, the
Irish were forced to settle for a field goal. Now it was the
Huskers' turn. Crouch completed a critical third-and-nine pass to
Wistrom that put the ball at the 15. Two plays later, with the
ball on the seven and his mother telling anyone who would listen
that there was no way her son would not call his own number,
Crouch called 35 Quarterback Keep. Faking the handoff to the
fullback--now that you mention it, his speed into the mesh is
incredible--he took one step back, then bolted for the corner of
the end zone, bringing sudden death to Notre Dame's hopes for an
More poignant than the Cornhuskers' elation was the sight of the
Irish players' lifting their helmets to the Notre Dame student
section--the only rouge-free zone in the entire stadium--which had,
in defeat, taken up the chant: We are! ND!
Their pride was justified. In scaring the bejesus out of the
Cornhuskers, the Irish had announced that they are nothing like
the team that lost seven games last season. However, they'll have
to prove it without two of their best players. Senior defensive
end Grant Irons separated his right shoulder and is out for the
season, and on Sunday, Notre Dame learned that Battle had broken
his left wrist on the team's first play; he will be sidelined
indefinitely. For his part, Solich announced that his
kick-coverage teams would be coming under intense scrutiny.
Having completed his broken-field run through the throng of fans,
Crouch stood with his mother and her husband, Corey Sanchez, to
whom she was married in August. As Susan and Eric chatted,
admirers interrupted them, asking for his autograph. Finally,
flashing a maternal temper, Susan said to no one in particular,
"Do you think he might want some rest?"
Eric smiled. She is the one who needs rest. He needs to be on the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Crouch, Baby! Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch scores in overtime to defeat Notre Dame 27-24 in South Bend. (For the reverse view of this play, turn to page 38.) [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER RED MENACE With Notre Dame Stadium awash in scarlet, Crouch outran the Irish D for the decisive score.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BULL'S-EYE Crouch hit Newcombe (above) with a 36-yarder on their first possession, and the Huskers hit Battle (opposite) all day.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER SOUTH BENDING Nebraska I-back Dan Alexander never broke loose for a big run, but he rushed for 112 yards on 24 carries.
Said middle linebacker Carlos Polk, "As far as I know, Touchdown
Jesus is a Nebraska fan."
In scaring the bejesus out of the Cornhuskers, the Irish
announced that they are back.