ORLANDO - The effort and execution were significantly better for Nebraska than it was a month ago, but the final score of Tuesday's Capital One Bowl was just as heartbreaking.
After leading by eight in the third quarter, the Huskers surrendered 22 unanswered points to No. 7 Georgia in what eventually ended up a 45-31 loss. Quarterback Aaron Murray was named the game's MVP after setting bowl passing records with 427 yards and five touchdowns, and NU simply couldn't keep up with number of big plays he delivered down the stretch.
Nebraska ended the 2012-13 season at 10-4, but it was hard to find much to feel good about after suffering back-to-back lopsided losses in what could have been golden opportunities to take the program to the next level.
"I'm proud of our team. They played hard," head coach Bo Pelini said. I thought they played their tails off to a man; every guy. They left it out there on the field. We just didn't make enough plays. I give credit to Georgia. That's a good football team. At the end of the day, we had our opportunities, and there were a lot of situations where you have to make plays. They made them, we didn't. It cost us the football game."
You couldn't have planned out a much wilder first quarter, as the two teams traded one big play after another from the opening possession of the game in front of a crowd of 59,712.
Nebraska struck first when safety P.J. Smith ended a promising Georgia drive to start the game with an interception at the 2-yard line. However, a quick three-and-out forced NU to punt, and the Bulldogs blocked Brett Maher's kick out of the back of the end zone for an easy safety to take the first lead at 2-0 less than four minutes in.
Georgia came right back on its ensuing possession with a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a 29-yard touchdown pass from Murray to tight end Arthur Lynch, who was wide open and ran into the end zone untouched.
Things were definitely looking bleak for the Huskers, but they got just the answer they needed on their next possession with one of their most impressive drives of the season. Nebraska marched 75 yards on seven plays and never faced a third down, and Martinez found Jamal Turner over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown pass to cut it to 9-7 with just under five minutes left in the first quarter.
Two plays into Georgia's next drive, linebacker Will Compton snagged a Murray screen pass out of the air and ran it back 24 yards for a score to give the Huskers their first lead of the game. The pick was Compton's first career interception and NU's defensive touchdown in a bowl game since Jason Peter had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the 1996 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech.
Murray rebounded nicely from his costly mistake, though, as on his very next pass he hit Tavarres King for a 75-yard scoring strike to reclaim the lead at 16-14. King beat cornerback Andrew Green one-on-one on the play despite Green being in solid position, but Green just missed batting the pass away.
The score marked three total touchdowns in a span of just 38 seconds off the game clock.
Maher missed a 47-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the first, and the momentum stayed with Georgia on into the second quarter. Martinez was intercepted by Damian Swann for Nebraska's first turnover of the game, and the Bulldogs capitalized on a 29-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley to increased their lead to 23-14.
"We had some opportunities, especially on some of the early drives, to get off the field on third down, and we missed some tackles in some situations in that game that allowed drives to extend," Pelini said. "That hurt us big time, I thought. Between that and obviously the deep balls, it cost us."
Once again, Nebraska was able to find a way to answer. Maher connected from 39 yards out to make it 23-17 with 8:48 left in the half, and then Martinez hit a wide-open Rex Burkhead over the middle for a 16-yard touchdown pass to give NU the lead at 24-23 with 4:43 remaining in the half.
Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan shanked a 47-yard field with 1:26 to go, and Huskers were able to hold off Murray and the Bulldogs in the final seconds to take a one-point lead into halftime.
The Huskers ended up giving up 318 total yards in the first half, but 109 combined yards (70 rushing, 39 receiving) and two touchdowns by Burkhead helped Nebraska keep pace.
The second half couldn't have started out any better for NU, as its offense came out and punished Georgia's defense on its opening drive to put another touchdown on the board. The Huskers marched 75 yards on 13 plays, with 10 of those being runs, and went up 31-23 on a 3-yard touchdown run by Burkhead.
Of course, just as it was the entire first half, any momentum the Huskers picked up was quickly erased only a few plays later.
Murray hit receiver Chris Evans for a 49-yard touchdown five plays into Georgia's first drive of the second half, and then Murray found Rhett McGowan for a two-point conversion pass to tie the game up at 31-31 with 7:26 to go in the third quarter.
"When it comes down to it, they just made more plays than we did," Compton said. "It came down to third down a lot, and we just gave up big plays. I don't really recall them driving on us consistently. We'd get them in third down, and they'd make a play. They made more plays than we did today."
Nebraska avoided disaster temporarily after the Bulldogs recovered an Ameer Abdullah fumble near midfield, but Georgia eventually got back in the lead with a beautiful 24-yard touchdown pass to running back Keith Marshall on the first play of the fourth quarter.
A few minutes later, the Bulldogs delivered the dagger of the game. Facing a third-and-12 from its own 13, Nebraska sent a full blitz and left Conley wide open over the middle. Murray calmly dumped the ball over the blitz, and Conley sprinted 87 yards into the end zone to push the lead up to 45-31 with 11 minutes remaining.
The play was the longest touchdown pass in Capital One Bowl history and Murray's fifth of the game, tying his career-high.
"They ran an out screen, and (Daimion Stafford) jumped his guy," Pelini said. "We passed that off, and he's done that a number of times, but he missed it. We were free, we were coming off the edge and we got aggressive. Turns out it was a bad call by me. I wanted to take our shot right there. I thought we had it backed up. We took a shot, and it didn't work."
The Huskers got a bit of a drive going to try and answer, but Swann picked off Martinez on a deep pass at the goal line for his second interception of the day. The Bulldogs chewed the clock down to just over two minutes to play before turning it over on downs, and NU's fell well short of mounting another miraculous fourth quarter comeback.
The Bulldogs ended up with 591 yards of total offense, including 125 yards and a score on 23 carries by Gurley. Burkhead finished with 24 carries for 140 yards and two total touchdowns, while Martinez was 16-of-26 passing for 204 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
For the third year in a row, Nebraska is now left trying to figure out how to bounce back next season and finally take that next step as a program.
"We need to get better," Pelini said. "We need to get better to get into that position... We beat a lot of good football teams this year. We need to keep working to get better, and we have to make those plays when the time comes. And to me, it falls on my shoulders to make our football team that much better."