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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - With Nebraska leading Georgia 10-9 at halftime in the Gator Bowl Nebraska found themselves in a similar position to where they were the last two years against SEC opponents.
Just like their previous two Capital One Bowl losses to South Carolina and UGA, the Huskers more than held their own in the first half against "SEC royalty," despite being a 9 point underdog. However, the biggest question at the half was if NU had what took mentally to get their first bowl win since the 2009 season.
The Bulldogs came at the Huskers with plenty of haymakers in the second half, and NU faced more than their fair share of adversity, but this team found a way to make plays with their backs against the wall and beat Georgia 24-19, giving head coach Bo Pelini his first bowl victory since the 2009 Holiday Bowl against Arizona.
"What we talked about, we said, Let's go win this thing," Pelini said when asked what his message was to his team at halftime. "Let's not go out there to worry about losing. Let's take control of this football game and go make plays. And they did.
"Our guys had a tremendous amount of confidence. They prepared well. Our guys, they had their fun, but the preparation both before Christmas and since we've been down here was good. When you have great preparation, you're going to execute well. That's what it came down to."
The other big difference was Georgia made the mental mistakes we've seen hurt Nebraska at times this season. The Bulldogs muffed a punt on the 14 yard line and the Huskers turned it into a touchdown two plays later.
Facing a third-and-14 inside the 1-yard line, quarterback Tommy Armstrong found Quincy Enunwa for a 99 yard touchdown to put NU up 24-12. When opportunities where there Pelini's team took them. They played to win and they made Georgia pay for their mistakes.
There was a time this season where that wasn't the case. Go back to the UCLA game when NU was up 21-3 or the Minnesota game when the Huskers held a 10-0 lead and lost. The Gator Bowl was different, because even when Georgia showed some fight this team found a way to persevere.
"It felt real good just 'cause we had a lot of situations this season with turning the ball over, sometimes playing the defense in a bad situation," senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. "When we have situations like that, we take advantage of it. It's not just to get off just to survive, we want to get the three and out, go and make some points."
"Yeah, we've had a pretty rough season in the turnover category," senior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said. "It was just nice to be on the other end. I was really proud of the defense, how well they played. Special teams, that was a huge play by I think it was Josh to go pick up that fumble. We were happy to go out there and try to make a play from their missed play."
Even though this senior class never captured that long eluded conference championship, going out with a win and finishing with 9 wins was the right way for them to end their careers after a season filled with emotion and injuries.
"It's awesome. There's no words to describe it just because of the fact the last bowl game we had was my redshirt freshman year and I didn't even get to play in it," Ankrah said. "So this game, the win, is the championship to us. This sends us out right, but also sends the young guys into next season full of pride.
"One thing the seniors wanted to do, we're not selfish, we want them to succeed just like we did. It feels real good. Thanks to coach, all the coaches and the players. We finished successful. It's all about sending these young guys into 2014."
On to the post game grade out…
What I saw on Wednesday
***Nebraska put in a few new offensive wrinkles for the bowl game they took from Auburn and Tennessee's offensive success against Georgia. NU used several different jet sweep motions they hadn't shown all season.
***Running back Ameer Abdullah said after the bowl game he has a "decision" to make about his future. My guess is if Abdullah is told by the NFL advisory board he's a second to third round pick, he'll lean towards going to the NFL. Running backs don't get picked much higher than that. The last player to declare early for the NFL at NU was running back Brandon Jackson, who left after the 2006 season and was a second round pick by the Green Bay Packers.
***It was fun to see the post-game celebration on the field for Nebraska. It's been a while since there's been a moment like that. Even quarterback Taylor Martinez and offensive lineman Spencer Long took part in the festivities. Offensive lineman Jake Cotton and tight end Jake Long handled the Gatorade shower on Pelini.
***The anti-Pelini crowd is going to scoff at the 9-win talk, but I don't care what anybody says. Winning 9 games or more six straight years is not anything to laugh about. Is it a championship or a BCS bowl appearance? No. But when you can say your worst season is a 9 win season that's stability. Stability Nebraska hasn't had since Tom Osborne was here.
***Nebraska's players showed a lot of toughness not backing down from Georgia's trash talking. Several of the Husker players told me UGA talked more than any team they faced all season. The biggest scuffle broke out when Bulldog running back Todd Gurley poked cornerback Josh Mitchell intentionally in the eye. Mitchell told me he wasn't scared a Gurley one bit, and went right back at him.
"My dad is a big guy too," Mitchell said. "I wasn't going to back down to him. I wasn't afraid of him."
***Armstrong will definitely have a leg up for the starting quarterback job in 2014, but do not count out Johnny Stanton or even Zack Darlington. This spring should be fun to watch. Darlington will go through spring drills, but he'll be restricted from contact. I know Pelini was very impressed watching Darlington throw the ball in practice when he went down to visit him in December.
The final grades
Rushing offense: B
Running back Ameer Abdullah finished with 122 yards on 27 carries. It was a steady diet of 4 to 5 yard runs from Abdullah that kept Nebraska's offense on schedule. When NU got into the red zone, Abdullah also scored on a big third down situation.
Passing offense: B-
Armstrong was just 6-of-14 passing for 163 yards, but his 99 yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa was one of the best throws in school history. It took a lot of courage to No. 1 make the call, but No. 2 it took guts for Armstrong to stand tall in the pocket and make that throw. Armstrong's lone mistake of the day was an interception that allowed Georgia to score their only touchdown of the game and make it 24-19.
Rushing defense: A
Nebraska held Georgia to just 96 yards rushing on 43 attempts, but most importantly they kept Gurley at 86 yards on 21 carries. Georgia tried to come right at Nebraska and the Blackshirts answered the challenge and controlled the line of scrimmage up front.
Passing defense: C
Give Georgia credit, they schemed Nebraska well and threw for 320 yards, but to NU's defense they kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone and forced them to kick short field goals four times. Georgia had a lot of success with pick routes and underneath throws to their tight ends. The key was NU's secondary never gave up that back breaking play like they did a year ago several times to the Bulldogs.
Special teams: B-
Nebraska gave up a 48 yard kickoff return to the Bulldogs, Stanley Jean-Baptiste had a costly block in the back penalty and Sam Foltz shanked one punt, but the Huskers recovered a key fumble on a muffed punt and Pat Smith kicked a career-long 46 yard field goal to make up for thos mistakes. Jordan Westerkamp also did a solid job of fielding punts on a wet and sloppy day.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.