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Auburn celebrates its 17-14 win over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
AP photo by Donna McWilliam
Auburn celebrates its 17-14 win over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

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Tigers dispatch Nebraska in Cotton Bowl for 11th win

By Bradley Handwerger· 340-2462

DALLAS — Long after Monday’s Cotton Bowl had ended, Courtney Taylor still held onto a football in the post-game interview tent behind the stadium, a grin still painted on his face.

Maybe he smiled because that was the ball he caught for the school-record-breaking catch.

More likely, he smiled because No. 10 Auburn found yet another way to win a football game despite having an offense that looked, well, offensive.

The Tigers took down No. 22 Nebraska 17-14 in the 71st Cotton Bowl Classic after sleepwalking through the first 13 minutes.

“It’s just what you call sloppy football,” said Taylor, who finished as the game’s offensive MVP with six catches for 70 yards.

“We didn’t play our best game, but at the same time, we got the ‘W.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Auburn gained 46 first-half yards and allowed 120 first-quarter yards, and Nebraska pushed the Tigers (11-2) around the field to take a 7-0 lead.

Then something changed.

Auburn’s offense stepped up, and while never resembling a potent attack, the Tigers finished with 178 total yards. And the defense allowed only 110 more yards the rest of the game.

“We were lucky to be in the game after the first half,” Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said. “It’s typical Auburn — win and win ugly. We did that today. We found a way.

“That’s how this team has done it all year long. We scrapped and clawed.”

Still, Nebraska (9-5) had its chances, none better than an opportunity to tie the game late in the fourth quarter on what would have been a field goal of about 47 yards. Even facing fourth-and-11 with 1:36 to play, Cornhuskers coach Bill Callahan decided against kicking one that far into the wind and went for a first down.

Auburn’s front four pressured Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor into a bad throw, and the Cornhuskers never threatened again.

“We come out in the pre-game and we check the distances, with and against the wind,” Callahan said. “We figure out where we feel we can make it and not make it. It was beyond our cutoff point, so we made a decision to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal.”

After allowing first-half touchdown drives of 80 and 72 yards, Auburn’s defense didn’t allow a point after intermission when the two teams were tied 14-14.

“They came out and they were running the ball, some of their guards and tackles were getting on our second level,” Auburn safety Eric Brock said. “At halftime, (Auburn) Coach (Will) Muschamp and his staff came out and made changes. We just made great adjustments.”

Will Herring earned the game’s defensive MVP award, finishing with seven tackles, including two for lost yardage.

Yet, it was a play by fellow linebacker Karibi Dede that changed the complexion of the game. Late in the first quarter, cornerback David Irons tipped a ball high into the air. Dede caught it and returned it 52 yards to the Nebraska 9. Two plays later, Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox hit Carl Stewart in the flats for a 9-yard touchdown pass.

The interception halted Nebraska’s attack and Auburn took momentum.

On Nebraska’s next series, it tried a fake punt. But Auburn’s special teams snuffed out the fake, forcing and recovering a fumble inside the Cornhuskers’ 20. Stewart capped that drive with a 1-yard plunge.

“We’re opportunistic because we’re not prolific,” Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “You’ve got to do something positive.”

As for Taylor, his biggest plays came in the second half. After catching only one pass for 12 yards in the first 30 minutes, he exploded for 58 yards on five catches in the second, including three in a row that helped extend a late drive.

He earned the game’s offensive MVP award and became Auburn’s all-time leading receiver with 153 catches, breaking the old record by three.

“He’s a guy that if a quarterback gets a look at him, he’s going to get open more often than not,” Borges said. “He’s a playmaker. It’s good to see him go out that way.

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