DALLAS - Like a New Year's Eve reveler who enjoyed himself a little too much, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan might have looked at the Cotton Bowl scoreboard Monday afternoon and wondered, 'How did I get here?'
No doubt thousands of Cornhuskers shivering in the chilly north Texas wind were equally bewildered.
The Huskers held Auburn to 67 rushing yards. Nebraska allowed just 10 completed passes - none longer than 21 yards - and still lost, 17-14? How did you get there, indeed.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, whose Tigers overcame early morning lethargy to re-confirm their status as a top-10 football team, offered at least one theory.
"We were lucky to be in the game after the first half, and that's typical of Auburn," Tuberville said. "Win and win ugly – we did that today. But we found a way. That's how this team has done it all year long. They scraped, clawed and had great time management. I enjoyed watching our defense recover from stumbling out of the blocks."
The Tigers definitely followed a familiar pattern to post their 11th victory of the season. In each of Auburn's wins the defense has allowed 17 or fewer points.
But make no mistake, the result was affected more by Nebraska errors and curious decisions than anything Auburn did.
Callahan noted the three-point margin of victory and offered that, along with competitive losses to Texas and Oklahoma, as evidence that the once-dominant Nebraska football program is close to returning to national prominence.
"To close the gap against Texas, close the gap against Oklahoma, close the gap against Auburn … we're getting there," he said. "There's no question in my mind about that."
But some of his decisions prompted other questions.
Nebraska led 7-0 early and was driving again when receiver Terrence Nunn couldn't handle a pass from Zac Taylor. Auburn's Karibi Dede intercepted the deflected pass and returned it to the Nebraska 9-yard line to set up Auburn's first touchdown.
Those things happen on occasion. Nebraska's next pratfall rarely does.
The Huskers attempted an ill-advised fake punt from their 29-yard line early in the second quarter. Dane Todd's pitch to Andrew Shanle on a reverse was fumbled and Auburn took over at the Nebraska 14-yard line.
Four plays later Carl Stewart scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to stake Auburn to a 14-7 lead.
"It was my call," Callahan said. "It didn't work, obviously, but nonetheless, it was still early enough in the ballgame that if it didn't work and if it faltered we were still in a good position, we felt, to come back. But things got discombobulated there."
Nebraska came back to forge a halftime tie, but easily could have taken a 14-7 or 14-0 lead into intermission. The Cornhuskers outgained Auburn 157-46 in the first half.
"We felt like we had outplayed them even though the score was tied," Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker said. "But that's football. You've got to play as hard as you can on every play, and that's what we did."
It wasn't enough.
The 22nd ranked Huskers only allowed a 42-yard field goal by John Vaughn in the second half, but Nebraska could never mount a sustained drive.
Auburn switched from man coverage to zone in the second half and Nebraska couldn't adjust. Taylor completed just five passes to wide-outs the entire game - only two in the second half.
"Our game plan was a little off," said receiver Maurice Purify, who caught just one pass for 9 yards. "We thought they were going to throw us a lot of man coverage. In the SEC they played everybody man up, so we didn't think they would change on us. They played a little more zone."
Still, Nebraska had a final chance to at least force overtime when linebacker Stewart Bradley forced and recovered a fumble by Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox at the Tigers' 42-yard line with 5½ minutes remaining.
Nebraska, which ranks 18th nationally in offense, attempted just a shovel pass on its ensuing possession and eventually faced fourth-and-11 at the Auburn 30.
Callahan opted not to have Jordan Congdon, whose career-long field goal is 41 yards, try a 47-yard field goal. Instead, Taylor - under pressure - threw incomplete to end any chance of a Nebraska comeback.
"We felt it was out of his range," Callahan said. "We come out in the pre-game and we check the distances with and against the wind and the cutoffs, and decide where we feel we can make it or not make it. It was beyond our cutoff point, so we made a decision to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a field goal."
Callahan refused to say what the cutoff for Congdon was, but other coaches said he needed to be about five yards closer.
Afterward, Callahan bristled when reminded that he was critical of himself after Nebraska lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
"This is another game," he said. "This is the Cotton Bowl. I don't know if you realized it or not. We're in the Cotton Bowl."
Obviously, Callahan knew where he was. How he got there still might have been a mystery.