LINCOLN, Neb. — As far as Utah State coach Mick Dennehy is concerned, Saturday's loss to ninth-ranked Nebraska was a tale of two halves.
"I was very disappointed with how many times we shot ourselves in the foot in the first half," said Dennehy, whose team trailed 37-7 at the intermission. "But, I was proud of the way the kids hung in and competed in the third and fourth quarters."
Though the Cornhuskers outscored the Aggies in the second half, the margin was a scant 7-6. USU left Memorial Stadium with a moral victory of sorts. If nothing else, the experience was educational.
"Playing against a team like this is really going to help us in the long run," said quarterback Jose Fuentes. "Penalties and what-not messed us up in the first half. We've just got to be better at that. We can't make mistakes and get ourselves backed up."
Especially, as it turned out, against a team like Nebraska. Nine penalties and three turnovers doomed USU and allowed the Cornhuskers to build a 44-7 advantage before the fourth quarter arrived. Five of their seven scoring drives were 38 yards or less.
"Any team that puts itself in first-and-15 and second-and-20 situations is going to have problems," said Fuentes, who was intercepted three times and sacked on six occasions.
"He's going to be sore tomorrow," predicted Dennehy. "He's going to know he was in a football game. There's no question about that."
As challenging as the Cornhuskers proved to be defensively, the Aggies did manage to put together an impressive drive — marching 80 yards on four plays for their first and only touchdown on the season. The 26-yard scoring strike from Fuentes to Kevin Curtis came late in the first quarter when the score was already 17-0.
USU's only other scores came on field goals by Dane Kidman in the fourth quarter. He connected from 29 and 43 yards out to cap all scoring in the lopsided contest.
Another bright spot for the Aggies came on the ground. After finishing with minus-9 yards in the season-opening loss to Utah, USU wound up getting 70 (despite losing 40 yards on sacks) against Nebraska. James Samuel finished with a team-high 37 yards on nine carries in his debut as starting tailback.
"All in all he played pretty well. I thought he ran the ball hard," said Dennehy. "And I think he'll get better and better each week."
"I think we defended them well at times during the game and at other times we looked pretty bad, " said linebacker Robert Watts, who led the Aggies with nine tackles. "We put ourselves in some tough situations, being pinned down in our own territory."
Nebraska quarterback Jammal Lord was sacked just once while directing an offense that racked up 418 yards and seven scoring drives.
"The 0-line pushed people around. It gave everyone holes to run through and gave us time to throw. It showed in the score," said Lord. "It all goes back to the offensive line. They did a great job giving me time back there and I took advantage of that."
While pleased with most aspects of his team's play, Nebraska coach Frank Solich acknowledged USU applied more pressure late in the game and affected the Cornhuskers' game plan.
By then, however, the outcome had long been decided.