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SUGAR BOWL : Sundberg and Nebraska Stage Comebacks

Times Staff Writer

Craig Sundberg, who was ill the night before, didn’t show it Tuesday night, making like a one-man aerial circus.

Sundberg, who had completed all of 53 passes for four touchdowns this season, semi-exploded in the Sugar Bowl, completing 10 of 15 for 143 yards and three touchdowns.

No, they’re not staying up all night rewriting the record books, not with Bourbon Street so close at hand. All the same, any time a Nebraska quarterback passes for more yards than he pitches for, he deserves some attention. Especially if he was considered a no-show up to four hours before game time.

It was Sundberg’s passing, as much as anything, that led the favored Cornhuskers out of a first half slump to overcome LSU, 28-10, in the Sugar Bowl.

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Well, there was Jeff Wickersham’s passing, too. More on that later.

But first, about Sundberg’s two second-half touchdown passes to Todd Frain, which turned it all around for a nervous Nebraska.

The emergence of Sundberg as hero--he was the game’s MVP--is, of course, remarkable on a team that favors the option play over the forward pass. More remarkable is the fact that he was recovering, even as he passed, from a flu-like illness which he believed stole seven or nine pounds from him.

Sundberg felt the fever come on late Monday night, suffered through all manner of cramps and aches and sent at least one thermometer up to 101 degrees.

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“All I was eating were soda crackers,” he said, “anything to keep something down.” After an afternoon nap he felt somewhat better and, at the coaches 3:30 meeting, it was determined he would play.

A Superdome crowd of 75,608, mostly LSU fans, learned as much in the second half.

Trailing, 10-7, Nebraska (10-2) came out gunning instead of running. Sundberg lofted (John Elway he is not; his throws are fluttery, not unlike his stomach) passes of 21 yards and 16 yards to take the Cornhuskers to the LSU nine. Sundberg took it the rest of the way for as much lead as Nebraska required, but not as much as it would get.

Then, in the fourth quarter, in a span of slightly more than two minutes, Sundberg floated passes of 24 and 17 yards to Frain, his tight end.

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Not that it was all Sundberg. With the insertion of sophomore I-back Doug DuBose into the lineup later in the first half, the fabled Nebraska option began to click as well.

DuBose gained 102 yards (first stringer Jeff Smith had 84) to set up Sundberg’s passing situations. The reason, the slightly faster DuBose said, was that he was mad.

“I was angry at the way we were playing in the first half,” he said. “I told the line so.” Men who weigh 290 pounds evidently listened to the 185-pound DuBose.

But it was a lot Sundberg, a man who had a career’s worth of forward passing in just one night. He was hot, all right.

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Nebraska, which had been aced out of national championship contention by a season-ending loss to Oklahoma, might not have needed Sundberg’s help in beating LSU (8-3-1), not the way LSU was being so generous.

LSU, which surprised all in the first half with its impudence, settled back in the second half, doing a comic impersonation of itself.

Oh, there was some foreshadowing.

After taking a quick 10-0 lead just into the second quarter, LSU showed some signs of imminent departure. LSU quarterback Wickersham, who was doing a nice characterization of Bert Jones, drove his team down to Nebraska’s two-yard line. But LSU fell back a few yards and it was decided placekicker Ronnie Lewis would attempt a 28-yard field goal. He made it, but Nebraska was called for roughing the kicker. So, LSU declined the field goal and started anew on the six-yard line.

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They advanced to Nebraska’s 18-inch line but fell back to the two. Lewis, however, couldn’t make the 19-yard field-goal attempt. About taking three points off the board, LSU Coach Bill Arnsparger had this to say: “Next question.”

Still, a 10-7 lead was happily unexpected for LSU, underdogs by 7 1/2 points. Then Wickersham, who had passed for 212 yards in the first half, flat fell apart. Wickersham, a junior strong armer who already has LSU’s career passing record, should know how to deal with interceptions by now; he threw 13 this season, against 12 touchdown passes. But opening the second half with a ball thrown right at Nebraska’s Chad Daffer seemed to unnerve him.

“After that interception,” Wickersham said, “I tried to place the ball instead of throw.”

It was as if he had traded arms with Sundberg and self assurance with Woody Allen. He placed it mostly in Nebraska’s hands, although once he shot a nice grounder to a man open in his own backfield.

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On LSU’s possession following his interception, he placed the ball once more to a surprised Daffer. All together he threw four interceptions, a Sugar Bowl record. The most revealing statistic, however, is this: In the second half, Wickersham completed just 3 of 12 passes for 9 yards.

About the passing game, Arnsparger had this to say: “We made some errors there. Next question.”

Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, meanwhile, was hoping to answer that one big, final question. Who’s No. 1? In case there were any doubts in anybody’s mind, Osborne hoped to persuade that the Cornhuskers, despite losses to Syracuse and Oklahoma, might still just be the best. His lobbying was modest but heart-felt.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Osborne of a team that was ranked no higher than fourth after the season. “I just hope we end up pretty good, second or third, and we could have a slight chance to win it. It would be great if we backed into it.”

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In which case the voting for who’s No. 1 will have been even more interesting than the playing for No. 1.


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