Work in Sports
What We Learned
They might not throw that much, but these QBs rule
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was a classic battle at one of football's classic venues. There was much we knew about Nebraska and Notre Dame going in. But here are three things we learned from the Huskers' 27-24 overtime victory Saturday.
1. Eric Crouch is the country's most underrated quarterback
Having just lived every football player's wildest dream, having stared into a third and 9, his No. 1-ranked team down 24-21 in overtime and an obscenely loud Notre Dame student section ringing in his ear, and completed a first-down pass to set up his own winning touchdown run, a freshly showered Eric Crouch remained calm, quiet and almost pensive as he talked to a fellow student on his way out of Notre Dame Stadium.
"It's amazing how these things can work out," the Nebraska quarterback said. "After I got in the end zone, all I remember was looking up and seeing everyone around me."
There is no official Crouch for Heisman campaign at Nebraska. The only magazine covers he graced this summer were those regionalized preview editions.
Perhaps that's because the junior from Omaha, like his performances, is chronically understated. He may not have the feet of Michael Vick, the arm of Drew Brees or the ring on Chris Weinke's finger. But it could easily be argued that Crouch, leader of the country's most productive offense and nation's No. 1 team, is the most important quarterback in America.
And yet, when reminded that the entire country's football fans had likely tuned in by the time he crossed that goal line to notch his third touchdown of the day, Crouch was almost baffled by the thought it may have improved his chances at the coveted Heisman Trophy.
"The Heisman and all those things are postseason awards," Crouch said. "All I know is I have another game in two weeks."
Many, of course, would scoff at the thought of Crouch being named the best anything. How hard can it be to hand off to Dan Alexander or Correll Buckhalter? Who wouldn't excel behind Nebraska's offensive line?
But among those who wouldn't argue are the Notre Dame defenders whom Crouch kept guessing all day Saturday. From his 36-yard pass to Bobby Newcombe on the Huskers' first play to his 62-yard touchdown run to any of his perfectly executed option plays, there was no way to tell what Crouch would do next. For awhile in the second half, the Irish had managed to quiet him. But they couldn't do it again in overtime.
"Anytime you have No. 7 out there, you know he can take it to the house," Irish coach Bob Davie said. "Our goal was to keep it out of his hands. We we're going to make the fullback beat us. And other than the belly option he broke, where we were mis-aligned, I thought we did a pretty good job."
Of course, that belly option went for 62 yards. And though Davie's defense did play exceptionally, it wasn't enough to keep Crouch from gaining 106 yards, excluding sacks, on 13 carries, and completing 7 of 15 for 103. The overtime drive typified his ability to adapt, completing the third-down strike to tight end Tracey Wistrom at exactly the right mark despite having gone much of the second half barely throwing a pass.
"I think it says the world about him in terms of his athletic ability," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "He's a guy who doesn't get flustered, a player you can count on when you need a big play. As I look at it, when you put the ball in Eric's hands coming down the stretch, you're probably giving yourself the best opportunity to get the job done."
2. Irish have a pretty good one of their own
Two long touchdown returns may have been what literally brought Notre Dame back from 21-7. But neither would have mattered without Arnaz Battle.
Davie would lament afterward his junior quarterback's 3-of-15 passing day. Yes, he was erratic. But at least some of the incompletions could be attributed to receivers who either dropped the ball or fell over.
And did we mention he ran for 107 yards on the vaunted Husker defense?
The fact is, Battle is ideally suited to be the Notre Dame quarterback. Predecessor Jarious Jackson wasn't bad himself, but Battle takes it to another level with his ability to improvise. Though not as fast as Michael Vick, Battle's "escapability" is straight from the same book. His Allen Iverson-like spin move left more than a few oncoming Huskers flat-footed.
And quite appropriately, Davie afterward found himself making comparisons to the Huskers' more established Crouch.
"At this point in his career, there's no question he can beat you with his legs better than with his arm," Davie said. "But give Nebraska some credit. They play great man to man, give you a lot of different looks. He's a young quarterback going up against the No. 1 team in the country."
The 11 play, 82-yard second-quarter drive that produced Notre Dame's first score would have ended much earlier without the junior QB from Shreveport, La. That despite not a single pass attempt.
Facing third and 6 at his own 35, Battle looked to pass but was quickly pursued. He took off running and netted 14 yards. Three plays later, using a wicked play fake, Battle would go 19 yards to the 5. After one unsuccessful rushing play, Nebraska jumped offside, putting Notre Dame on the 2. Battle, sensing the defense was sagging off, audibled at the line of scrimmage, Nebraska jumped offside again, but it was no matter. Fisher dove in for the score.
Battle would surely like back Notre Dame's fourth and 1 play at the Nebraska 30 in the final seven minutes, when he dropped back, rolled and eventually missed an open receiver. But to even get there, Battle had run for 44 yards on a keeper when the Irish lined up an unlikely five-receiver formation.
Battle's biggest problem is his receivers -- mainly, they're not very good. With a little more consistent play, Battle will be very deadly when the Irish line up their multiple-receiver sets.
3. Nebraska needs special teams help -- ASAP
Fortunately, the Huskers have two weeks of practice before their next game. And when they do play next, it will be against a dreadful Iowa team that lost Saturday to Western Michigan.
But as was painfully obvious Saturday when Notre Dame's Julius Jones sprang for a 100-yard kick return and Joey Getherall an 83-yard punt, drastic improvements need to be made on kick coverage. Think Kansas State and Colorado weren't drooling as they watched?
The worst thing for Nebraska about both plays was that the return men hardly had to do anything. The only defender they even had to bother to juke was the kicker, Dan Hadenfeldt.
"We'll know better when we look at it on film, but standing on the sideline, it pretty much looked like a complete collapse," Solich said.
One factor may have been that Hadenfeldt did not play in the opener against San Jose State. The sixth-year senior was granted an extra year of eligibility over the summer but had to sit out one game to compensate for playing in last year's Hula Bowl, a postseason game reserved for seniors. He was apparently a bit off in practice during the week.
"We were for the most part a very good special teams team last year," Solich said. "But it was an area of concern over the summer and coming into fall, and obviously that area of concern is still there."
Stewart Mandel is CNNSI.com college sports producer.