Shadows were beginning to spill onto the field Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium by the time the Utes had finally emptied their playbook . . . again. It was closing time at the Magic Kingdom.
The Utes didn't beat Nebraska - they lost 42-30 - but they did entertain the Huskers. Let's see. There was another appearance of the "Duck" offense. "You use the Duck in the Big Eight, they'lll think it's communistic football," observed Ute Coach Jim Fassel. There was a nifty snap through quarterback Scott Mitchell's legs, straight to the fullback. And there was the series where Mitchell faked an injury, scaring several years' life out of his mother."This offense looks like it was created by Stephen Spielberg," said a Nebraska radio announcer.
All in the spirit of self-defense.
Hopelessly outmanned by the No. 3-ranked Cornhuskers, the Utes brought out their bag of tricks. Some even worked. But as fatigue settled in through the second half, the Utes ran out of steam. Nebraska scored 21 straight points to put the game away early.
Utah answered with two touchdowns in the final four minutes to make the score respectable.
In the end, the Utes were left to muse over their day in the glare of national publicity. Having lost by a cumulative score of 86-9 in their only two previous encounters with the Big Red, they even appreared slightly relieved this time out. Nobody was injured for the season and nobody got embarrassed. But nobody was willing to declare the outcome a moral victory, either.
"I'm not real big on moral victories," said Fassel. "I will say that we were a lot better football team than we were in our other road game we played this year." (That game was a 52-22 loss to Fresno State.)
From the onset, the Utes were determined to keep the Huskers off balance and keep Nebraska's offense off the field. "They're a machine on offense. They just come at you and come at you and come at you," said Fassel.
But at first, it was the Utes coming at people. After the defense held Nebraska on the first series, Mitchell took his team 59 yards to the first score of the game, wrapping up the drive with a five-yard throw over the middle to Dennis Smith.
Utah went with an inordinate number of running plays early, most of them directed to running back Clifton Smith, who finished with 82 yards rushing. But eventually Nebraska solved Smith and took the lead as the Utes went back to their bread-and-butter material - passing.
Nebraska tied the score at 7-7 with 4:00 to go in the first period, with quarterback Gerry Gdowski keeping around the right end for an eight-yard scoring run.
However, the Utes weren't finished yet. Mitchell completed a highlight-film pass to Dennis Smith, good for a 43-yard scoring play. But a bad snap cost Utah the PAT and held the score to 13-7.
In the second period, the Huskers scored on their first two possessions, the first time on a Gdowski keeper from the eight for a 14-13 lead. Then the Utes, pressed deep into their own territory, coughed up an interception to linebacker Mike Croel, who ran six yards into the end zone for another touchdown and a 21-13 Nebraska lead.
The half ended with Utah's Wayne Lammle kicking a 45-yard field goal, bringing the Utes to a 21-16 deficit.
Some of the Ute plays worked, and others merely entertained. Early in the second quarter, after giving up the lead, Utah went into its "Duck" formation. The Huskers failed to get nervous; they looked mildly amused. That play ended in an incompletion. Later in the game, the Utes completed a pass off the Duck but lost yardage.
They shelved the Duck. But there were more theatrics to come.
Only moments after the first Duck appearance, Mitchell was sacked by Nebraska middle guard Mike Murray, and left the field holding his million-dollar left arm. He stood mournfully on the sidelines for one play before returning to the field. While calling the signals, he began complaining about the arm and moving toward the sidelines again. As he did, the ball was snapped directly to running back Smith.
"To be honest, it was part of the game plan. There was no injury. It was kind of a cutesie thing," said Mitchell.
But cutesie didn't go over that well. Smith lost two yards on the play and Mitchell's relatives - who thought he had actually been hurt - saw their lives pass before them. "It scared his mother to death," muttered his father, Bill.
Later still, the Utes snapped the ball through Mitchell's legs to Steve Abrams, but it went for only three yards.
In the second half, Nebraska wore the Utes away. Mitchell, facing increasing pressure from the Nebraska defense, threw two lame interceptions. Heisman candidate Ken Clark ran two yards for a score in the third period and fullback Bryan Carpenter went 29 yards up the middle untouched, boosting the lead to 35-16.
Gdowski added a four-yard run to build the lead to 42-16 with 10:48 to go in the game.
Utah came back with Mitchell finding Darell Hicks on a one-yard scoring toss, but the two-point conversion failed. Then, as the clock ran out, he completed a 20-yard pass to Bryan Rowley. A conversion pass to Abrams ended the scoring.
Mitchell was 26-of-44 for 297 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Utah's offensive total of 402 total yards were enough to prompt Husker defensive coordinator Charlie McBride to proclaim his team's tackling to be miserable. "It's pathetic," he said. "I saw guys ducking their heads and turning their feet away. It was really bad."
Nebrska's Clark rushed for 130 yards and Carpenter 102.
The Cornhuskers ended up with 459 total offensive yards, 442 of them on the ground.
Utah fell to 1-2 and Nebraska improved to 2-0.
Following the loss, the Utes busied themselves with planning their entrance into the WAC race, which begins next Saturday in Hawaii.
"If we can't win in the scorebook, then you have to take the next best thing," said Mitchell. "I wanted to win, and I was disappointed we lost. But I think we can look at it as a positive experience. We weren't intimidated by the crowd or playing Nebraska. We just made too many mistakes."