Third-ranked Nebraska broke open a close game by scoring on 96- and 99-yard drives in the second half tonight to win its 11th consecutive bowl game against a Southeastern Conference opponent, a 31-21 victory over No. 6 Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl before 71,526 at Sun Devil Stadium.
Cornhuskers quarterback Eric Crouch, who completed 9 of 15 passes for 148 yards, connected with reserve tight end Aaron Golliday on a 13-yard touchdown pass to give Nebraska a 24-14 lead with 4 minutes 44 seconds left in the third quarter. Correll Buckhalter scored on a two-yard run with 12:01 remaining to cap the 99-yard drive.
"Any time a team can take it 96 and 99 yards on you after you have closed to 17-14, they're something special," Tennessee Coach Philip Fulmer said. "I'm sure someone has taken it 99 yards on us, but not like that. That was a very impressive drive. They both were."
After the Volunteers (9-3) scored on an option pass from wide receiver Cedrick Wilson to Donte Stallworth to get within 10 points, the Cornhuskers (12-1) ran off the final 7:23 with 13 running plays. After Crouch's touchdown pass to Golliday, the Cornhuskers finished the game with 23 straight running plays.
Nebraska had 469 yards of total offense, including 321 on the ground.
Tailback Dan Alexander had 108 yards rushing and a touchdown, and fullback Willie Miller had 87 yards on eight carries. Miller's 47-yard run up the middle set up Crouch's pass to Golliday.
The Volunteers could muster only 44 yards rushing. Quarterback Tee Martin, 22-3 as a two-year starter after replacing Peyton Manning, completed 19 of 34 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw two interceptions.
Nebraska needed less than a quarter to reiterate its dominance of the Volunteers, who had lost two games by a total of six points this season after capping their undefeated national championship 1998 season with a 23-16 victory over Florida State here a year ago.
The Cornhuskers scored on their first offensive series, when Alexander ran seven yards for a touchdown after Crouch went 30 yards on an option play on third and six.
Nebraska made it 14-0 when converted quarterback Bobby Newcombe, who lost his job to Crouch in the third week of the season and was moved to wingback, returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown with 3:21 remaining in the first quarter.
To that point, Tennessee had run 12 offensive plays. Four lost yardage, and two passes were incomplete. The Volunteers also missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.
Martin had one more completion (three) than interceptions in his first 10 attempts before orchestrating a 65-yard touchdown drive late in the first half following Josh Brown's 31-yard field goal for Nebraska with 1:37 remaining in the half.
Martin completed 6 of 7 passes for 66 yards in that drive, finding Stallworth on a nine-yard pass with 18 seconds left, making it 17-7.
Tennessee tailback Travis Henry ran four yards for a touchdown on the sixth play of the second half to tighten the game further, making it 17-14.
Volunteers defensive end Will Overstreet forced Alexander to fumble on the first scrimmage play of the second half, and teammate Dominique Stevenson recovered at the Nebraska 25 to set up Henry's score. It was Nebraska's 50th fumble of the season, its 26th lost.
The Huskers drove 96 yards for a touchdown on their next possession to regain control, with Crouch finding reserve tight end Aaron Golliday on a 13-yard scoring pass with 4:44 remaining in the third quarter. Golliday, playing in place of injured all-Big 12 tight end Tracey Wistrom, had two receptions tonight, one fewer than he had in the regular season.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride announced after the game that he was retiring after 23 seasons with the Huskers, the last 18 in his current position.