Huskers come back, but fall 45-42 in Holiday Bowl
SAN DIEGO - Bo Pelini might not be Nebraska's coach any longer, but the streak of four-loss seasons lives on.
At least this time, the Huskers went down fighting.
Nebraska built a reputation for letting close games turn into blowouts, but the opposite happened in Saturday's Holiday Bowl against USC. Nebraska trailed by 18 points late in the third quarter, but battled back to 45-42 with 6:52 left. The Huskers got the ball back but failed on fourth down with less than three minutes left, leading to a 45-42 loss. Nebraska finished the season at 9-4.
"I thought it was a good battle out there," interim head coach Barney Cotton said. "It could have went either way at the end. I was proud of the way our guys fought back. It was a heck of a football game. My goodness, 45-42 and both teams fought to the end. It was a 60-minute football game. That's what we prepared our guys for and I think our guys showed their conditioning and their bowl prep with the way they fought this thing to the end."
USC scored with 2:03 remaining in the third quarter to give the Trojans a 45-27 lead. But instead of crumbling, Nebraska forced three consecutive three and outs and scored 15 unanswered points. Tommy Armstrong scored on a 15-yard run on fourth down with just under seven minutes remaining, then hit Kenny Bell for a two-point conversion to pull the Huskers within three.
Nebraska got the ball back, but a quick pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El on fourth and three on USC's 31-yard line with 2:31 left. The Huskers got one last stop and moved the ball to USC's 44-yard line with one second left, but Armstrong's Hail Mary attempt was batted away.
The Huskers outscored USC 15-0 and gained 140 more yards in the final quarter, but it just wasn't quite enough.
The game was the final effort under the Pelini regime with Barney Cotton serving as the interim coach. Mike Riley, who has been hired as Nebraska's next head man, watched the game from the stands and performed an in-game interview with ESPN.
Armstrong set career highs in completions (32), attempts (51) and passing yards (381). The sophomore tossed three touchdowns and one costly interception.
"I thought Tommy played his butt off," Cotton said. "It wasn't always pretty at times, but what I'm proud of Tommy - in the second quarter he tried to he tried to do too much, but he settled down in the second half and played a completely new ball game, like he did in the first quarter. I was really, really excited about the way that he reeled himself back in and competed and did so many things well in the second half."
Ameer Abdullah concluded his legendary Nebraska career with 88 yards and a score on 27 carries while adding another 61 yards on six catches.
After starting the game with a three-and-out, Nebraska got on the board first with a 34-yard field goal from Drew Brown on its second drive. But the Trojans immediately struck back, as Adoree' Jackson returned the ensuing kickoff for a 96-yard touchdown, the longest play against the Huskers this year.
Nebraska responded well, moving the ball to USC's eight-yard line, when it broke out a trick play. Armstrong rolled right, then threw back to his left to tackle Alex Lewis, who rumbled into the endzone. However, the officials ruled it a forward pass, negating the score. Luckily, Armstrong found Kenny Bell on the next play to give NU a 10-3 lead.
USC tied the game with a field goal, and after the teams traded punts, Nebraska put together a six-play, 39-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard scoring pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El. The Trojans immediately responded with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive of their own to knot the game at 17-17.
Nebraska's offense dried up from there as its next three drives resulted in three and outs. That allowed USC to complete a 12-play drive with a Javorius Allen touchdown run to retake the lead midway through the second quarter.
But Josh Mitchell picked off Cody Kessler on the Trojans' next drive, and the play seemed to energize the offense, which moved the ball to USC's 13-yard line. But Armstrong threw a boneheaded pick to Su'a Cravens in the flat with 1:17 remaining, leaving the Trojans with a 24-17 halftime lead.
The Trojans appeared ready to pull away when Jackson scored on a 71-yard touchdown reception early in the third quarter, but Armstrong led the Huskers on a 73-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 20-yard Abdullah scoring run. USC marched right down the field again for another touchdown and Nebraska punted again. But Keiron Williams blocked a punt that helped the Huskers tack on a field goal to close the gap to 38-27.
USC found the endzone in just two plays on their next drive, but Armstrong refused to go away, scrambling to find Jordan Westerkamp for a 68-yard touchdown that made it 45-34 at the end of the third. There were 38 points scored in the period, a Holiday Bowl record.
"We don't quit," senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. "The guys in the locker room, it was a scrappy bunch, it's a feisty bunch. That's what we hang our hats on. We don't have the biggest and the fastest and the strongest unit out there, but we play hard, we play for our coaches and we play for each other. That's all you can ask for, is to play for the love of the game and the people around you."