Nebraska led Northwestern 52-17 late in the third quarter of the 2000 Alamo Bowl when senior split end Matt Davison brought the play, as he remembers now, to a disbelieving huddle.
The Huskers were lined up at their 31-yard line, first down.
Wingback Bobby Newcombe went in motion, left to right. Quarterback Eric Crouch took the snap and threw a backward pass to Newcombe, who pulled up and threw the ball downfield. Davison, without a defender close to him, caught that ball at about the Northwestern 40-yard and ran untouched to the end zone. The touchdown was his second of the quarter, the first coming on an 11-yard pass from Crouch. Josh Brown added the extra-point kick to make the score 59-7.
It was the only pass Newcombe, a converted quarterback, threw that season.
The remaining Northwestern fans in the crowd of 60,028 booed.
And ESPN television analyst Mike Golic was quick to criticize the play call.
“I had to talk him into it,” Davison said of Coach Frank Solich. “You work on a play like that for a month or whatever, and it was my last game. We didn’t have a chance to run it in the first half because we were running the ball so well, we didn’t need to run it.”
Nebraska rushed for 476 of its 636 total yards, including 240 by Dan Alexander.
When Davison asked Solich to call the play, “he was like, ‘No Matt, look at the score, we can’t do it,’” Nebraska’s Associate Athletic Director for Football said, looking back 18 years.
“So I had to talk him into it.”
There was time for discussion. An injured Northwestern player had to be attended to and then helped off the field. Davison pointed out not only the work they had put in on the play during practice but also that the game was his last as a Husker. Solich finally, if reluctantly, agreed.
There was more to Solich’s agreeing, however.
At the dinner for the teams prior to the game, Northwestern players began talking trash, something that continued during the game, even as the score mounted. Afterward, Nebraska players talked about the Wildcats constantly taking cheap shots in pile-ups.
“They were playing dirty football,” Husker All-America linebacker Carlos Polk said during post-game interviews. “They were doing a lot of cheap maneuvers, taking out some frustration I guess, trying to cut you. They were throwing punches and grabbing our facemasks.”
Northwestern players “started running their mouths,” All-America and Rimington Award-winning center Dominic Raiola said. “We just blasted them, and they kept talking.
“Then they started with the cheap shots, no class at all.”
Solich tried to be more diplomatic. “I thought there was more activity unrelated to football than I had seen for a while,” he said. “I think our players felt that way. Maybe their players felt that way, too. It was a physical football game. We did address it throughout the game.
“We addressed it at halftime. We addressed it in the second half.”
Nebraska led 38-17 at halftime, when Raiola told Davison he would bypass his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. To that point, it had appeared Raiola would return.
“He said, ‘Matty, I’m going to the league, baby.’ I said, ‘All right, man,’” said Davison. “The score was such that we could talk about something else; the outcome wasn’t going to change.”
Northwestern led briefly, 10-7, early in the second quarter, but the Huskers scored 24 unanswered points, beginning with a 50-yard touchdown run by Crouch 20 seconds after Nebraska had fallen behind. Crouch capped the 31-point quarter with a 58-yard touchdown pass to Newcombe.
Senior I-back Dan Alexander, the game’s offensive MVP, rushed for 240 yards and two touchdowns on only 20 carries. Senior rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the defensive MVP, had 1½ sacks.
Nebraska had been ranked No. 1 nationally for three weeks in 2000 before losing at No. 3 Oklahoma 31-14, after leading 14-0, and then dropped from No. 4 to No. 9 after losing at No. 16 Kansas State 29-28 two weeks later. “That was a heartbreaker right there,” Davison said.
With a victory, the Huskers would have played the eventual national champion Sooners again in the Big 12 Championship game. Instead, they were relegated to a lower-tier bowl.
“We kind of felt like we should’ve been in a bigger bowl,” said Davison.
Then Nebraska got to San Antonio and “Northwestern was talking a lot, so the guys that were seniors that year, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s send a message here,’” he said.
“So we did. I mean, we could’ve scored 85 points.”
As it was, the 66 points were an NCAA Division I-A bowl record.
After the teams’ dinner, “I remember telling Coach Solich . . . I threw my arm around him and said, ‘Coach, we’d better put one on these guys. They kind of deserve it,’” Davison said. “Then we get into the game and they were chippy. They were doing some weird stuff under the piles and talking a lot.”
If not for that, he probably couldn’t have persuaded Solich to call the wingback pass.
“It’s too bad the score was what it was, now that I look back,” said Davison.
His image of Northwestern has changed markedly since then.
“It’s weird since we’ve been in the Big Ten I’ve really gained a lot of respect for Northwestern, in basketball and football. They have great kids and great coaches. I love Pat Fitzgerald,” he said, echoing what Scott Frost said of the Wildcats’ football coach during his Monday news conference.
“But that day, with that team . . .”
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.