So what if the kid watched a little TV during the game? He had
some downtime. Nebraska freshman wideout Mike Stuntz was on the
field for all of two snaps against Oklahoma last Saturday.
Standing on the sideline, hopping up and down every so often to
ward off the chill, he would sneak occasional peeks at the giant
HuskerVision screen in the southeast corner of Memorial Stadium.
It hadn't occurred to him, as he watched highlights of past
Nebraska victories over Oklahoma played during breaks in the
action, that he might soon find himself in the starring role of a
play to be shown at future meetings between the two schools.
On the field his teammates were clawing for yards against the
best defense they'd faced all season. Although the Cornhuskers
came into the game 8-0, and were rated No. 2 in the Bowl
Championship Series rankings and No. 3 in the Associated Press
poll, it wasn't clear how good they were. In beating up on weak
opponents, Nebraska had rung up its usual big numbers: 38.8
points and 339.7 yards rushing per game. What the Cornhuskers
hadn't had a chance to do was prove that they were good enough to
deserve a shot at the national championship. As the game
approached, Huskers and Sooners alike held these truths to be
self-evident: 1) second-ranked Oklahoma (7-0) would give Nebraska
its first test of the season, and 2) for the Cornhuskers to
prevail, their quicksilver quarterback, senior Eric Crouch, would
have to beat the Sooners with his arm. He beat them, instead,
With 6:48 to play and Nebraska facing third-and-two while nursing
a 13-10 lead, Oklahoma defensive end Cory Heinecke appeared to
have made a crucial stop when he tackled Crouch for a seven-yard
loss. In making the play, however, Heinecke had inadvertently
grabbed Crouch's face mask and was assessed a five-yard penalty.
First down, Nebraska. In the huddle before the next play Crouch
glanced at Stuntz, who had been sent in with the latest entry in
the Cornhuskers' playbook--41 Flash Pass. On the Monday before the
game, the apple-cheeked, Opie-like freshman was joined at lunch
by quarterbacks coach Turner Gill, who asked him, "How do you
like your play?" To which Stuntz replied, "What are you talking
about?" Gill filled him in.
Mindful that Stuntz had been an All-State standout quarterback at
St. Albert's High in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and that Nebraska was
unlikely to snap Oklahoma's 20-game winning streak without at
least a smidgen of trickery, the Huskers' coaching staff
concocted 41 Flash Pass, in which I-back Thunder Collins would
line up wide left, go in motion to the right and take a handoff
from Crouch; instead of carrying the ball around the end, Collins
would pitch it to Stuntz, who, having lined up wide right, would
appear to be running a reverse. That's just how the play unfolded
With the ball in his hands and the Sooners in hot pursuit, Stuntz
took an extra moment (and a year or so off the lives of his
coaches) to find the seams on the ball as he rolled out. Then he
hummed a sweet spiral through a stiff wind and into the arms of a
wide-open Crouch, who had sneaked out of the backfield
undetected. Crouch easily outran Oklahoma's defense for a 63-yard
touchdown, nailing down the win and avenging a crushing 31-14
defeat in Norman a year ago.
While watching Crouch streak down the sideline, "I had to
half-chuckle to myself," said Sooners coach Bob Stoops after the
game. "I said, 'I'll be a son of a gun. Theirs worked, and ours
Oklahoma had attempted its own version of 41 Flash Pass in the
second quarter. With a clear path to the end zone, quarterback
Nate Hybl tripped and fell while reaching for a pass from wide
receiver Mark Clayton. (Hybl was playing in relief of starter
Jason White, who had sprained his left knee after completing a
pass earlier in the quarter.) The Sooners settled for a field
goal on that possession--the last points they would score.
Stoops made no excuses for Oklahoma's first defeat since Dec. 31,
1999. Instead he complimented the Cornhuskers and their fans
before adding, "Wish we could've won." Stoops then flashed a
quick smile, knowing that the Sooners are likely to get another
shot at Nebraska, in the Big 12 title game, on Dec. 1 in Dallas.
To beat Stoops, Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich had to emulate
him. One ingredient of the defending national champion Sooners'
20-game winning streak was a willingness to take risks--a boldness
that has seldom been a hallmark of Nebraska football. There's
little need for deception when you're putting the wood to Troy
State, as the Huskers did in their second game this season.
Solich's willingness to take a chance at a critical moment in a
huge game was a measure of the growing comfort he feels in his
fourth season in this job. It may not be fair, but last
Saturday's game was a defining one for Solich, whose most notable
win had been against Tennessee in the meaningless 2000 Fiesta
Bowl. Yes, he won nine, 12 and 10 games, respectively, in his
first three years after succeeding Tom Osborne in December 1997.
Yes, his 31-7 record tied him for the fourth-best three-year
start in Division I-A history. All that, though, wasn't
sufficient to keep Nebraska fans from grumbling. Remember, in the
five seasons before Solich took over, the Cornhuskers had gone
60-3 and won three national titles.
Did the grumbling get to the 57-year-old Solich? Please. This is
a man whose son Jeff is an American Airlines pilot. When asked if
in the wake of Sept. 11, he wishes Jeff would find a different
line of work, Frank says, "Not at all. I'm enormously proud of
him. People are up and flying again. You've got to get back to
Walking off the practice field four days before taking on
Oklahoma, Solich rejected the notion that this game might define
his career. "It appears that whenever you're in a ball game, that
game, at that moment, is as big as it gets," he said. "No one
game defines what kind of coach, or team, or program you are."
Perhaps so, but a loss to the Sooners would have more clearly
defined the sort of coach Solich wasn't: the kind who wins the
big games. As it turned out, Solich, who also serves as offensive
coordinator, was congratulated for having the nerve to call 41
Flash Pass. Moments after the touchdown senior linebacker Jamie
Burrow, who made a game-high 16 tackles, went over to him and
shouted, "You crazy son of a gun!"
That's Solich, all right. A real madman. Asked for an example of
what Solich might do if he was feeling particularly zany, a
colleague thought for a moment and then offered this: "Maybe have
an extra handful of M&Ms while he breaks down video."
The size of the smile on Solich's face in the postgame locker
room contradicted his contention that this victory was routine.
"He was beaming," said Crouch. "Everyone was really happy for
The other Cornhuskers were no less thrilled for Crouch, whose
touchdown reception--his second at Nebraska--further enriched his
already amazing career as a four-year starter. For jaw-dropping
appeal, however, last Saturday's catch didn't compare with his
95-yard touchdown run against Missouri on Sept. 29. Dropping back
to pass in that game, Crouch was nearly sacked in his end zone,
but he escaped the clutches of a defensive end, juked a safety at
the 11, hip-faked a cornerback at the 22 and went the rest of the
A week later, against Iowa State, he rushed for four TDs in the
first half of a 48-14 win, in the process breaking the NCAA
record for career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (51). He is
also one of four players in NCAA history to exceed 3,000 yards
rushing (3,117) and passing (4,059). All that arguably makes him
the best quarterback Nebraska has ever had, but he still doesn't
measure up to the likes of former Cornhuskers signal-callers
Tommy Frazier and Scott Frost in one category: He hasn't won a
national championship. He has time.
With the meeting with the Sooners still four days away, he had
stood fidgeting under the bleachers of Memorial Stadium. "I'm so
excited, I want to play the game right now," said Crouch, who had
off-season surgery to repair a ligament in his right shoulder.
Unlike last year, he said, this season the shoulder does not hurt
when he throws. The numbers back him up: Crouch went into the
Oklahoma game leading the Big 12 in passing efficiency, with a
quarterback rating of 143.7 compared with 121.6 in 2000.
Nonetheless, the Sooners weren't petrified by the prospect of
facing a healthy Nebraska passing attack. Linebacker Rocky Calmus
identified his defense's main goal as "getting Crouch to try to
beat us with his arm."
After watching Oklahoma take a 7-0 lead on Hybl's four-yard pass
to tight end Trent Smith, Crouch obliged. On the Cornhuskers'
ensuing 80-yard touchdown drive, he completed four passes for a
total of 58 yards. Each completion had the added benefit of
forcing the Sooners' defensive backs--superb strong safety Roy
Williams in particular--to soften their run support. By keeping
Williams honest, Crouch could hand off to I-back Dahrran
Diedrick, who broke through the interior of the Oklahoma defense
for an 18-yard run before scoring on a two-yard plunge.
Give the Sooners' defense credit, though. After Nebraska took a
13-10 lead early in the third quarter, Calmus & Co. dug in and
held the Cornhuskers to three-and-out series on three consecutive
possessions. It appeared that the momentum had swung in
Oklahoma's direction, when Stuntz jogged onto the field.
Were the Sooners suspicious? "I took a look at their sideline,
and one of their coaches was making a passing motion," said
Stuntz, who had lined up as a receiver in his only other
appearance on Saturday. "I got a little worried."
On the play that cost them the game, the Sooners called an
ill-timed stunt. Jimmy Wilkerson, the speedy right defensive end,
slanted inside, while 6'2", 266-pound right defensive tackle Kory
Klein looped outside--leaving the latter as the only player in
position to try to run down Crouch. Afterward Nebraska
upperclassmen looked on with amusement as Stuntz dealt with the
sudden attention. His father, Wendell, is an orthodontist, Stuntz
told a throng of reporters. His brothers, Ryan and Tony, are
students at Iowa. Concluding the family rundown, he said, "My
mom, Lyn, well, she's my mom."
"We're going to be watching this guy on HuskerVision for the next
40 years," said senior left tackle David Volk.
Said Diedrick, "We'll be seeing that play when we're old men."
As will the Sooners.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER GAME-BREAKER Crouch closed the door on the Sooners with his 63-yard touchdown reception on a pass from Stuntz.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES BIG RED MACHINE Chris Kelsay and Nebraska kept the pressure on Hybl (8) and White, who completed only 22 of 59 passes.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO THAT'S HIS OPTION Known for his running ability, four-year starter Crouch this season is also the Big 12's top-rated passer.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES STRAITLACED A hit by Oklahoma's Derrick Strait (2) sent Kyle Ringenberg for a loop, but the Cornhusker tight end held on to the ball.
Crouch might be the best quarterback Nebraska ever had, but he
still hasn't won a national championship.
Linebacker Jamie Burrow went over to his coach and shouted, "You
crazy son of a gun!"