Big plays tell tale
NU succeeds in clutch.


Story ran on Sunday, September 30 2001

The day started with Eric Crouchís name as one of the top three Heisman Trophy candidates for my ballot, which must be submitted in November.

Jenna Isaacson photo
Above, Nebraska's 36-3 victory over Missouri left MU coach Gary Pinkel disappointed. Below Shirdonya Mitchell drops a pass in the first quarter, one of several drops for the Tigers.

Mark Schiefelbein photo

Then he threw a pass that appeared to be aimed at Missouri defensive back R.J. Jones, and a line went through his name.

When Missouri safety Marcus Caldwell leveled Crouch one-on-one at the line of scrimmage, Crouchís name was erased from the ballot.

Then Crouch took a hard hit from the MU defense and still pitched the ball to Darrhan Diedrick for a touchdown. His name reappeared.

When Crouch pulled off the historic 95-yard run that obliterated four records, a bright red circle and a gold star appeared by his name.

Thatís what big-time players are supposed to do, even when they arenít having the best of days. They lift others around them to excel and change the course of games with one effort.

Yesterday, No. 4 Nebraska made the plays. Unranked Missouri didnít. The final score - Nebraska 36, Missouri 3 - told how many plays were made and how many werenít.

"You have to throw and catch and block and tackle," MU head coach Gary Pinkel. "Itís not magic out there."

Nebraska made it look otherwise.

Crouch threw a wobbly pass toward the sideline late in the first half, and Wilson Thomas stopped and out-jumped MUís Antoine Duncan for the football. The 37-yard gain got Nebraska out of hole and set up a score to give the Cornhuskers a 13-3 halftime lead.

"Thatís the last thing you ever, ever want to do is give them momentum there," Pinkel said tersely.

Missouriís Kirk Farmer, meanwhile, had Shirdonya Mitchell open for a first down in the third period on a third-down play and overthrew his target. The Tigers turned the ball over and put their worn-out defense back on the field for Crouch and the Cornhuskers to pick apart.

"I didnít throw the ball that well, so Wilson gets a lot of credit for coming back and making something big happen," Crouch said.

"That was probably another time when Missouri thought they had us pinned against a wall, and we came back and made something big happen."

Farmer couldnít say that about his passing. He was off target in the second half, missing on 11 of 14 passes, and when he was on the mark, his receivers didnít help him. Although Dwayne Blakley and Justin Gage combined for nine catches, there were at least four chances for them to make highlight plays that would have helped their cause.

All-conference players need to make those plays. While Nebraskaís Thomas came down with the ball, MU receivers came down without it.

"Boy, could we have used a couple of those," Pinkel said. "That was one of the most disappointing things, we had chances to make plays downfield."

MUís defensive lineman Nick Tarpoff was a sad sight in the interview room. He was the Tiger who had a grip on Crouchís feet in the end zone before he started on his long-distance journey down the field. It was an opportunity the downcast Tarpoff would like to have back.

"That was all my fault," he said. "I just didnít wrap him up."

He wasnít alone. Several MU players had chances to hit Crouch during the game, but before they could pull the trigger they hesitated, took in a fake and missed an opportunity.

Nebraskaís Dion Booker knew he was beaten on a pass play from Farmer to Thomson Omboga, but at the last second he stretched out and slapped the pass away.

A big play averted.

It was something Pinkel and MU saw too much yesterday.

"This was not fun," Pinkel said. "But itís my job to fix it."

His mission was never more apparent.

Reach Kent Heitholt at (573) 815-1782 or