- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska came back from a pair of first-half deficits and survived a late Wyoming rally to win its NCAA-record 28th straight season opener, 37-34 on Saturday night.
The Cowboys, of the Mountain West Conference, showed surprising resolve, gaining 602 yards before a Nebraska school-record crowd of 91,185 in the 326th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
The 18th-ranked Huskers rebounded from a sluggish start to score 21 consecutive points in the second and third quarters.
But Wyoming never went away as quarterback Brett Smith hurt the Huskers with both his arms and feet. Smith threw for 383 yards and rushed for 92. He fired a pair of late touchdown passes to nearly erase a 16-point deficit. His 29-yard strike to Jalen Claiborne with 6:02 to play made it 37-27, and a 47-yard dart to Robert Herron with 1:32 left sliced the lead to three points.
Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell sacked Smith on a two-point conversion attempt after the first of Wyoming's fourth-quarter TDs, and the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick after the second.
Wyoming stopped the Huskers quickly in the final two minutes to regain possession, but its final drive ended short of midfield.
It was over when: Smith scrambled wildly, using all of the final 11 seconds to throw across midfield as time expired at the end of a frantic fourth quarter. A pair of holding calls stymied Wyoming’s last possession, but it converted a fourth-and-11 to its 31-yard on a 14-yard strike to Claiborne before the errant heave fell to the turf, allowing the Huskers and their record crowd to sigh deeply.
Game ball goes to: Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste came up big several times -- none more important than an interception of Smith late in the first quarter. With the Cowboys already up 7-3, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste outwrestled freshman Tanner Gentry at the goal line, ending Smith’s streak of passes without a pick at 183. On the next Wyoming possession after Nebraska went up 10-7, Jean-Baptiste delivered a big hit on Gentry. Jean-Baptiste then fought through a block to corral receiver Claiborne for no gain on a third-and-2 reception to force the Cowboys’ only three-and-out series of the first half.
Stat of the game: Eight. The number of consecutive running plays Nebraska called on scoring drives midway through the second quarter and early in the third. The eight runs totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns, turning a 14-10 Wyoming lead into a 24-14 Nebraska edge. Against a rush defense that ranked 117th nationally a year ago, the Huskers, before turning to the run, called passes on six of seven plays in the first half, resulting in two incompletions, three receptions for 14 yards, a 3-yard Taylor Martinez scramble and two punts. The turnaround began with Ameer Abdullah’s 62-yard scamper and ended with a bruising 31-yard TD burst by Imani Cross.
Unsung hero: One man cannot replace the excellence in the kicking game provided over the past seven years by Alex Henery and Brett Maher, both of whom handled place-kicking and punting duties. So Nebraska went with three guys, and they all showed well. Sophomore Mauro Bondi consistently blasted kickoffs deep; senior Pat Smith, despite missing an extra point, connected on his lone field goal try from 24 yards; and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz boomed four punts for an average of 49.2 yards.
Best improvisation: It was a bit early to say Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, but the Huskers, down 7-0, had already muddled through one unproductive possession when, on the third play of their second series, Martinez fumbled the snap on third-and-5. The senior QB chased it down, bought some time with his legs and threw downfield. His pass sailed long, but tight end Jake Long caught the deflection to extend the drive with a 26-yard gain. The drive ended with Pat Smith’s field goal.
What Nebraska learned: The Huskers aren't ready for UCLA, who will visit Lincoln on Sept. 14 with QB Brett Hundley, a better version of Brett Smith. Wyoming’s third-year starter tormented the Blackshirts for much of Saturday. He ran effectively and used his feet to avoid pressure in the pocket. Hundley will inflict more pain if the front seven can’t dial up additional pressure. When the Huskers got to Smith, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for roughing the passer to negate a sack. Offensively, it went about as expected until the final minutes. Martinez showed nice composure. The backs ran well, and the receivers were sure-handed.
What Wyoming learned: If it can find a way to slow opponents’ running games, the Cowboys ought to improve significantly on their 4-8 finish of a year ago. Wyoming unexpectedly controlled this game for much of the first half and simply ran out of time at the end. It features a nice group on offense, with the multitalented Smith, running back Shaun Wick and several capable receivers.
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney