JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One game won't define Shawn Eichorst's decision to retain Bo Pelini as head coach after the Iowa debacle. But Nebraska's athletic director looked like a pretty smart man Wednesday.
Eichorst kept the faith with Pelini when so many were calling for his head, a gamble that paid off as Nebraska won its first bowl game in four years. After building a lead, the Huskers relapsed with their old foils, a seemingly killer penalty and a turnover. It looked like the beginning of a sad story NU fans have watched play out all too many times.
But this time, the Huskers didn't crumble. Instead they became more resilient, holding the Bulldogs off just long enough to win their first postseason game since 2009.
Yes, this was a wounded Georgia team without its record-setting quarterback that had questionable motivation after beating Nebraska last year and suffering through a disappointing campaign. But don't try and tell that to the Huskers. This win took some weight off their shoulders, as their joyous reactions after the game clearly showed.
As Pelini accepted the Gator Bowl trophy on the podium postgame, he kept his usual deadpan expression as dozens of cameras captured the moment. That wouldn't stand for linebackers coach Ross Els, who called out, "Come on, give us a smile!"
Pelini's poker face broke and he unleashed a beaming grin, a look that became far too foreign this year.
This was a trying season for Pelini, almost certainly the most difficult of his career. There was an embarrassing audio leak, a bevy of injuries to crucial players and never-ending speculation about his job status, all of which threatened to sink NU's season. But while the Huskers didn't accomplish all their goals, the Gator Bowl win gives them a shot of momentum heading into the offseason for the first time in years.
As Georgia drove down to Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than a minute left, Eichorst stood on the sidelines, his back against the wall and a hat on his head, ever content to remain in the background. After the Bulldogs' last-ditch effort fell short, Eichorst embraced in a hearty hand clasp with the security guard standing next to him. Then he headed back up the tunnel, not needing to watch the Huskers cap off the victory with a pair of kneel-downs.
There's a lot of work for the Huskers left to do, and the true impact of Eichorst's decision won't be known for years. But for this day, Eichorst knew he made the right call.
On with the rewind…
Five defining moments
The final defensive stand: All the frustrations and ugly feelings from the Blackshirts' early-season showings are long gone now. Trailing 24-19, Georgia got the ball back with 3:18 remaining and marched down to Nebraska's 23-yard line. But the Huskers held and the outcome became final when Hutson Mason's fourth-down pass bounced off Arthur Lynch's hands.
Quincy Enunwa's 99-yard touchdown: Backed up at his one-yard line and facing third down, offensive coordinator Tim Beck originally called for a quarterback sneak, content to punt the ball away and avoid a safety. But after Georgia called timeout, Beck went for the kill, sending Enunwa deep. Tommy Armstrong hit the senior in stride and Enunwa raced in for a score that gave Nebraska a commanding 24-12 edge.
Armstrong's interception: With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Nebraska had a 24-12 lead and looked to be in complete control. But Shaq Wiggins jumped in front of an Armstrong pass, setting Georgia up at NU's 39-yard line. The Bulldogs would score seven plays later, but instead of folding as they have in the past, the Huskers responded by stonewalling the Bulldogs for the remainder of the game.
Josh Mitchell's third-quarter interception: On the opening drive of the second half, Mason overthrew his receiver and the junior cornerback took advantage. Mitchell snagged the pass, his first pick of the year, and returned it to the UGA 38-yard line. The sideline exploded in excitement and the Huskers scored a touchdown seven plays later to extend their lead to 17-9 and grab the momentum.
Any time Georgia got near the red zone: The Bulldogs actually outgained Nebraska 416-309, but the Huskers converted their long drives into touchdowns while the Blackshirts forced Georgia to settle for field goals. Kicker Marshall Morgan was called upon four times, and though he made all his attempts, the Huskers were able to hold Georgia to three points instead of seven.
Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah: The senior duo has taken some flak this year for their lack of statistical production, but both played a huge role Saturday. Ankrah tallied two sacks and Randle finished third on the team with a career-high eight tackles.
Quincy Enunwa: The passing game never really got going and he did drop a pass, but Enunwa was the one player that forced UGA to respect the throw. He had four of NU's six receptions and scored two touchdowns en route to winning the game MVP award.
Corey Cooper: The safety led the Huskers with 10 tackles and made one of the biggest plays of the game. On Georgia's final drive, Cooper brought down Todd Gurley in the open field after a seven-yard gain, forcing a fourth down. Had Cooper missed the tackle, Gurley surely would have picked up the first down and might have scored.
By the numbers
12: Touchdown receptions by Enunwa this season, breaking Johnny Rodgers' school record for a single season. The senior caught at least one touchdown in nine of Nebraska's 13 games this year.
64: Passing yards for Armstrong outside of the 99-yard touchdown pass. Armstrong played very well at times and a Jamal Turner drop robbed him of another scoring toss, but the Nebraska passing game remains a work in progress.
0: Fumbles lost by the Huskers, the third game this season they didn't lose one. Armstrong did fumble a snap, but he quickly recovered it to avoid disaster.
They said it
"Coach was under scrutiny all year and the fact that he can come out here and lead us to a victory is awesome. I wouldn't want to play for any other guy. I'm so happy that I came here five years ago and had him as my second father. Like I said after the Iowa game, I would do anything for that man and he would do anything for me."
Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles on winning the game for Pelini
"I think it's just the leaders on the team coming together and just saying, 'Hey offense, let's just calm down. We're right where we want to be. Let's go out and do us. Let's not freak out over every little thing. Let's just go out one play and one series at a time.'"
Center Cole Pensick on why the Huskers were able to pull this bowl game out after falling in the second half each of the two previous years
"I'm here. I'm behind Bo and I think with what we have coming back and what we have coming in, we have something special."
Defensive end Randy Gregory on if he has a decision to make regarding the NFL
Biggest question/concern: Can the Huskers build off the momentum gained from this game?
The excitement from this win will linger, but the Huskers have higher goals in mind. To win conference championships and put themselves back in the national title hunt, they must build off of this momentum. Signing day will be here in a blink and the NU coaches need to finish strong on what looks to be an impressive class. The offensive line must be rebuilt, Armstrong needs to refine some holes in his game and the defense has to build off the second half of the year. If Nebraska can accomplish those goals, the impact of this win will go far beyond putting another trophy in the case.