ORLANDO, Fla. — Picture a dime at midfield of the Capital One Bowl. For most of Tuesday’s game, the on-field differences between Nebraska and Georgia fit on the head of one. A predicted pounding had become a barn burner, the Bulldogs back on their haunches.
Picture, now, a hump. No. 16 Nebraska had climbed it far enough to see across to an offseason comprised more of validation than worry.
First came the fumble. Then came the swoon. Followed by the boom of an ill-timed blitz that led to a long, back-breaking touchdown.
The dime turned. The hump grew. All the little things the Huskers didn’t do turned a dead heat into a 45-31 loss.
“Everybody’s mad,” receiver Jamal Turner said.
Said offensive coordinator Tim Beck: “It’s just weird.”
“It’s one of those days,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I’ve been there before.”
Yes. In the same stadium.
Unlike last year’s 30-13 loss to South Carolina, Pelini, assistants and players didn’t seem disgusted. The defense gave up 589 yards and 12 third-down conversions, the offense gave up five sacks and three turnovers, and special teams made a mess of things with a blocked punt and missed field goal, but there was no rage. That’s because NU led 24-23 at halftime and took a 31-23 lead after a long touchdown drive to start the third quarter.
But the Huskers were frustrated by how quickly they got sidetracked in a game where they had the momentum and No. 7 Georgia’s defense gassed enough to take uncommon second-half timeouts. Though the Bulldogs tied the game 31-31 with a 49-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion, Nebraska (10-4) bolted back to the Georgia 39, where it had a third-and-1.
Instead of riding Rex Burkhead — who finished his Husker career in style with 179 total yards and two touchdowns — on that play, Beck chose to put Burkhead under center so he could pitch the ball to Ameer Abdullah. The play had worked, Beck said, every time NU had run it.
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Abdullah gained 2 yards. He had the first down. But as he reached out, he fumbled. And Georgia (12-2) recovered. Or so the stat sheet says. Abdullah said he was down before he fumbled. And five Husker players claimed that sophomore guard Jake Cotton recovered the fumble, but let go of the ball when a referee blew his whistle. Georgia hopped on the ball and was given credit for the recovery.
“The most mind-boggling thing ever,” Abdullah said, shaking his head. “I was expecting a quick challenge and getting back on the field. There was no challenge. There was no review. Man, I thought every play was going to be challenged in college football. For them not to review that, they made a big mistake.”
Said Pelini: “Why that didn’t get reviewed or — I don’t — that’s beyond me. But it was par for the course on how that game was called.”
Turner called the play “a stab in the heart,” and Nebraska’s offense acted as if it had been wronged, gaining 59 yards in four possessions the rest of the game.
“It ate at us,” Beck said. “It sat in our craw. We weren’t able to get past it ... That’s where the wheels kinda came off.”
In front of 59,712 at the Citrus Bowl, Georgia had a six-play, 74-yard touchdown drive to take a 38-31 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After a Husker punt, the Bulldogs then faced a third-and-12 from their own 13. Quarterback Aaron Murray — the bowl MVP who threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns on just 18 completions — had burned NU on third down repeatedly.
Pelini chose to dial up a casino blitz. It’s his signature call, his most famous at LSU. Late in the 2007 Alabama game, on the same down with the same yards to gain, he called that seven-man blitz. The Tigers got a sack, forced a fumble and won 41-34 because of it. They later won the national title.
But the Huskers didn’t get a sack or a fumble. Instead, Murray calmly pivoted and threw a wide receiver screen to Chris Conley, who ran 87 yards, untouched, to the end zone.
“I wanted to take our shot right there, and I thought we had him backed up,” Pelini said. “I took a shot and it didn’t work.”
In NU’s intricate, complex defense, safety Daimion Stafford was supposed to pass off coverage of his regular man and take Conley, but he didn’t.
“It’s the ultimate risk,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Husker fans started to head for the exit after that touchdown.
If Pelini and Papuchis could second-guess themselves so easily, it points to what critics might do in the offseason, considering the Huskers’ most experienced defense gave up 115 points and 1,229 yards in its past two games.
Nebraska’s top-ranked pass defense struggled to cover Georgia’s receivers in any quarter, and the only bright spot — linebacker Will Compton’s 24-yard interception return for a touchdown — was negated by a 75-yard touchdown pass from Murray to Tavarres King on the Bulldogs’ next play from scrimmage.
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The Huskers’ creative, varied offense got Burkhead 28 touches and some mileage out of the play-action passing game. Nebraska ran eight more plays than Georgia and generally shoved around a defensive line filled with NFL talent.
But the Bulldogs’ pass rush eventually overwhelmed Taylor Martinez, sacking him five times, hurrying him seven more and forcing two bad throws that Georgia intercepted. Linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree were particularly active and unblockable, combining for three sacks and three hurries. Beck even kept extra blockers in to help ward them off. Too often, it didn’t work.
“Like sharks smelling blood in the water,” Beck said.
“You guys saw it,” Martinez said when asked about Georgia’s pass rush. When asked if NU’s pass protection was good enough, Martinez said, “Yeah. I don’t know. You’re kinda putting me in a bad situation.”
Martinez — along with 17 of the other top 22 players on offense — comes back next year, Beck said. And because Nebraska’s been using young players for years, they’ll also be experienced. Beck said his unit has to make “the jump” to one that doesn’t turn the ball over in key spots and keeps its poise after mistakes.
Nebraska loses eight seniors who played prominent roles on the defense, forcing Pelini and his protégé, Papuchis, to retool with young players. Pelini, always knee-deep in the defense’s DNA, said he’s “excited” about the talent coming up, especially on the defensive line.
He was upbeat in general Tuesday. Pelini credited Georgia and the plays it made, even if the game flipped on two plays that the Huskers could have chosen, through play calling, to avoid. He said his guys “played their butts off.” He thanked the seniors. He said he was proud.
“One thing I can say is — and I told our team this — there’s no question we can play with any football team in the country. And I think we showed that in how we played up front, how we ...”
Pelini stopped for a half-second.
“But like you say, we want to make that jump,” he said. “We want to win them all. We want to compete for the national championship.”
Nebraska is 0-3 in its past three conference title games and 0-3 in its past three bowls — with the past four losses coming by double digits. The Huskers left the field briskly Tuesday, a red sea of players parting for a group of Capital One Bowl officials and corporate suits heading toward the trophy podium.
“See there!” one of the officials said to his son, pointing at a fat white bulldog with brown spots, panting. “That’s Uga!” The dog was as tired as Georgia’s defense the second this game flipped, and Nebraska tumbled back down the hump. Nine months until another climb.
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>> Video: Postgame press conference with NU coach Bo Pelini:
>> Video: Capital One Bowl game highlights:
>> Video: Postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust: