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November 12, 2006

Division title brings normalcy to Nebraska

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Nebraska 28, No. 25 Texas A&M 27
Coach Fran on thin ice | Notes: Huskers wrap up Big 12 North
Game Story | Box score

COLLEGE STATION, Texas As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, euphoric Nebraska football fans no doubt were digging Prince and partying like it was 1999.

Nebraska's thrilling 28-27 victory over Texas A&M on Saturday clinched the Big 12 North Division championship, which in turned ensured the Cornhuskers' appearance in the Big 12 championship game for the first time since 1999.

"Somebody brought it to my attention that we haven't won the North since 1999," said Nebraska receiver Maurice Purify, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with 21 seconds remaining. "That's real big. It's great to be a part of that."

The ensuing celebration only got better later in the day, when first-year Kansas State coach Ron Prince devised an imaginative game plan and took bold chances in guiding his Wildcats to an upset of Texas - one of three teams that have beaten the Cornhuskers this season.

Normalcy, it seems, is being restored.

Nebraska, which played in three of the first four Big 12 championship games, is playing for the crown again. The Cornhuskers just might win it, as they've done twice before.

"It's a great step for us and this program," said Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson, who hired coach Bill Callahan three years ago. "I'm so proud of our coaches and proud of our kids. It's exciting. The first step towards success is to start achieving successful goals, and winning the North was a goal for this team. I'm excited about it and excited about the way they did it.''

It wasn't long ago when Nebraska was college football's premier program. The Cornhuskers won national championships in '94, '95 and '97, but finished 7-7 in 2002 and 5-6 in 2004. Hopes of national championships were replaced by hopes of regaining national prominence.

That seemed within reach on Oct. 21 when the then-No. 17 Cornhuskers were on the brink of upsetting then-No. 5 Texas. A late fumble by Terrence Nunn led to a last-second field goal and a 22-20 win for the Longhorns.

Perhaps predictably after such an emotional loss, Nebraska was upset 41-29 by Oklahoma State the next week and dropped out of the top 25.

Nebraska came back the next week to post a victory over Missouri, and then pulled off its come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M.

"We came back from behind and that's what championship teams are all about," Callahan said. "Coming back from behind late in the fourth in the two-minute to win the game, that's a thing of beauty.

"It was a great win for our program and our state. I'm just so proud of our players."

Callahan obviously has a lot of good players. Zac Taylor is an exceptional quarterback, there is a stable of four solid running backs and Purify is better than most of the country realizes.

The defense is respectable, although it does have some holes. A&M exploited a few of those weaknesses to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including one on a 57-yard run by quarterback Stephen McGee in which he called an audible to beat a maximum blitz up the middle.

"They showed that blitz and we knew they usually run it once or twice at the most every game," McGee said. "We knew we would get one opportunity to exploit that and caught them at a good time."

However, there was still plenty of time remaining when Bobby Turner blocked a potential game-clinching field goal and Nebraska, trailing 27-21, took over at its 25-yard line with 1:57 remaining.

Taylor - who on Saturday established Nebraska records for career passing yards and single-season touchdown passes - completed five passes in a 75-yard drive which ended with his game-winning 9-yard touchdown throw to Purify.

"When we were in the huddle Zac told me, 'I'm going to throw the ball up to you,' " Purify said. "When the quarterback has that much confidence in you, you just have to believe in yourself and have confidence."

That's the kind of clutch play Nebraska didn't make against Texas, but now the Huskers will have confidence they can win the Big 12 championship in a second-meeting with the Longhorns.

That is, if the Longhorns can get to Kansas City.

After losing to Kansas State, Texas must defeat Texas A&M on Nov. 25 or hope Oklahoma loses to Baylor or Oklahoma State to secure a place in the Big 12 title game.

The last time the Longhorns lost to Kansas State, they also lost in the Big 12 championship game.

To Nebraska.

That was in 1999.

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