SAN DIEGO - In a season that seemed like one big disappointment for Nebraska, Thursday night's Holiday Bowl was the perfect ending.
Facing a Washington team they had blown out by 35 points on the road just three months earlier, the Huskers couldn't produce any semblance of offensive consistency or find a way to contain UW quarterback Jake Locker or running back Chris Polk, as the Huskies got their revenge in a 19-7 victory.
After completing just 4-of-20 passes for 71 yards and two interceptions in the first meeting, Locker overcame an equally bad first half to put on one of the more heroic bowl performances of the year thus far. He ended the night just 5-of-16 passing for 56 yards, but he rushed 13 times for 85 yards and a touchdown.
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Polk was arguably the most consistently productive player in the game, as he rushed for a game-high 177 yards and a score on 34 carries. The Huskies racked up 268 rushing yards on the night.
On the other side, Nebraska amassed just 189 yards of offense and one touchdown, the lowest team score in Holiday Bowl history, while committing two turnovers and 12 penalties for 102 yards. Both penalty totals were team bowl records.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez had another rough showing for the Huskers, passing for just 53 yards with a touchdown and an interception while rushing for 43 yards and getting sacked four times.
"We just didn't make plays," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Bottom line. We didn't execute consistently, and when that happens you're not going to win a football game. We didn't play well. We didn't play to our standards.
"I'm embarrassed. I obviously didn't get them ready to play. I thought we were ready to play. I liked our plan. We just didn't execute very well. Obviously we didn't play our best football, and it starts with me."
The same problems that plagued Nebraska's offense during the second half of the Big 12 Championship game carried over to the first half of the Holiday Bowl, as turnovers, sacks and penalties kept the Huskers from doing anything with much consistency offensively.
After a promising start to the opening drive, a fumble on a Wildcat pass play by sophomore running back Rex Burkhead gave Washington the ball at the NU 21-yard line.
A 19-yard pass to Locker and late hit personal foul on the Huskers on UW's first play set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Polk to give the Huskies the early lead.
"We were moving the football in the first series," Pelini said. "Obviously it was just something that's crept up all year, another turnover. That's hurt us all year… I thought that was a big point in the game. We were driving, I thought we had some momentum, and we couldn't finish the drive and they got momentum."
Nebraska failed to convert a first down on its next two possessions, and Washington added a 39-yard field goal by Erik Folk to increase its lead to 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.
It looked as if things would go from bad to catastrophic on NU's ensuing drive, as the Huskers were flagged for back-to-back delays of game to put them at a 3rd and 13. Then they finally got a break.
Martinez ran a quarterback keeper 20 yards for a first down and then was hit well out of bounds for a personal foul on Washington and another 15 yards, setting up a first-and-10 at the UW 17. Two plays later, Martinez threaded a lob pass in the corner of the end zone to tight end Kyler Reed to cut the deficit to 10-7 with 10:24 left in the half.
While that score held into halftime, the biggest drama of the half was still to come. With 8:20 left in the second quarter, Locker took an apparent blow to the head on a 3-yard run and laid motionless on the ground for a couple minutes.
Freshman Keith Price took his place for the rest of the drive, but despite the apparent severity of Locker's injury, he was right back on the field for the Huskies on the next possession.
The difference in the first half was definitely Polk, who rushed 18 times for 86 yards and a touchdown. Locker, on the other hand, was 0-of-6 passing.
While Locker was essentially a non-factor in the passing game in the first half, he wasted no time leading the Huskies right back into the end zone to start the third quarter. After another personal foul penalty by Nebraska on the kickoff started UW at its own 46, Locker completed his first pass of the night on a 26-yard strike to D'Andre Goodwin.
The very next play, Locker ran right through the NU defense for a 25-yard touchdown run to put Washington back up 17-7 with 13:18 to go in the third.
"Washington came out with a good game plan to run the ball down our throat, and they executed on a lot of plays," junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said. "They came out and kicked our butts."
On the other side of the ball, Martinez and the Huskers continued to struggle against the Huskies' aggressive defense. Martinez was sacked on third down on two straight possessions, and it seemed the Huskies were getting though NU's offensive line at will.
"(Martinez) didn't play well," Pelini said. "We didn't play well around him. We didn't play well front to back. It was just a ridiculous performance."
Later on in the third quarter, Washington drove all the way down to the Nebraska 1-yard line and it looked like the Huskies were on their way to delivering the knockout blow. However, the Huskers were able to stuff them on four straight plays and get a turnover on downs.
With Martinez shaken up on the previous possession, sophomore Cody Green took over with the Huskers backed up at their own 1-yard line. Green made a nice run on a scramble that would've gone for a first down, but senior guard Ricky Henry was flagged for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety to make it 19-7 with 13:38 left in the game.
"Bottom line, you can't play like that against any team," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "Turning the ball over is part of that, obviously. We've got to coach better and play better."
Green didn't fare any better than Martinez the rest of the way, and Washington merely ground out the clock for the final 10 minutes to win their first Holiday Bowl in four appearances.
Burkhead led NU with only 39 rushing yards on 12 attempts, and the Huskers managed just 2.2 yards per carry in the loss.
While the taste of Thursday night's loss was about as bitter as it could get, Pelini said he was confident that it wouldn't have any negative impact on Nebraska's offseason as it turns its focus to next year.
"This won't affect the offseason one bit. It doesn't change what you do and what you've got to get done. It'll be a new team next year and new challenges, and this won't have any affect on it.
"We won 10 (games), I wish we would've won 14. We didn't reach our goals."
For the Huskers' seniors, though, the game will be a bit harder to forget.
"Of course you're going to be disappointed, but I mean there's not too much we can do about it," senior safety DeJon Gomes said. "It's over, and I just hope they can get it back next year."
- Robin Washut
Watson's future unclear
The talk about Watson moving on to take a head coaching job after the season has been going on for weeks now, but with the season now coming to a close, time is running out for both he and Pelini to make a decision on the matter.
When asked after the game about his future at Nebraska, Watson didn't exactly seem like a man confident he would be back in Lincoln next season.
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens."
Pelini was also asked directly about whether Watson would be back with the team in 2011, and as of Thursday at least, he didn't foresee any changes being made.
"I evaluate everybody across the board," Pelini said. "That's kind of a crazy question. I expect everybody to be back."
Nebraska's dismal play offensively the past six quarters in the two biggest games of the year definitely won't help Watson's case should he be counting on staying at Nebraska next season.
While the defense has played at a relatively consistent level all year long, NU's offense has seen the highest of highs and, as shown on Thursday night, the absolute lowest of lows.
"It's really disappointing, because we're a better team than that," Watson said. "But it's what I said, you can't be inconsistent. We took turns shooting ourselves in the foot. You can't do that. It doesn't work in this game."
Watson's fate will likely be decided sooner rather than later, as it's expected that Miami of Ohio will announce their new head coach as soon as this weekend. As far as Watson's future at Nebraska, he at least has the support of his players to keep his job for at least another year.
"He's very levelheaded," senior wide receiver Niles Paul said. "He takes everything with a grain of salt. People can say what they want about him, but I think he's a good coach. That's all that matters is that this team, his team, his players think he's a good coach."
- Robin Washut
***Pelini said Martinez's undisclosed injury was not serious.
"He'll be fine," Pelini said.
***When asked about the offensive struggles, Paul said he sensed not all of his teammates were putting out the same intensity and focus he expected for a bowl game.
"I kind of noticed that it was a different offense out there, not our regular offense," Paul said. "We didn't have a high-level, high-intensity offense. I'm out here putting my body on the line, and I expect everybody on this team to do that. At times I didn't feel that was happening."
***Watson said he was confident Martinez would grow from his struggles this season and become a better quarterback next year.
"When he got hurt, it took a little of his confidence because he couldn't do the things that he's done," Watson said. "So it's just time. He needs to get back in the saddle. He's got to persevere through this. This is something that as a young quarterback, if he's going to become a great quarterback it's something that he has to learn."
***Junior linebacker Lavonte David had seven tackles in the loss, giving him 152 tackles on the year and breaking Barrett Ruud's single-season school record of 149.
"It's a great honor," David said. "To be able to break a record like that by Barrett Ruud, a great linebacker, is a great feeling. But to do it when we lose, it really doesn't mean as much."
***Reed's touchdown catch was his eighth of the year, marking the most ever in a season by an NU tight end.