JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nebraska rallied. Then withstood.
It wasn't always smooth or pretty as the Huskers beat Clemson 26-21 Thursday in the Gator Bowl.
But nobody will recall that years from now, just that it put a 9-4 finish on Bo Pelini's first season as coach — getting NU back to that nine-win mark it used to hit regularly but attained just once in the previous four years under Bill Callahan.
"I told our seniors last night and also talked about it today that we could put some more cement in the foundation,'' Pelini said. "People are excited. Our kids are starting to believe and showing how good they are. It's fun to see.''
So many things went wrong for Nebraska that it was hard to keep count before a Jacksonville Municipal Stadium crowd of 67,282.
Three turnovers led to all of Clemson's points. Instant replay negated another turnover that would have given Clemson another touchdown.
Senior quarterback Joe Ganz was momentarily knocked from the game. I-backs Roy Helu and Marlon Lucky hardly played, and linebacker Phillip Dillard didn't play at all.
Field position was atrocious for almost a half, and timeouts were wasted. And to cap it off, Clemson had first and goal at the Huskers' 10-yard line with 1:54 left.
"I thought the character and resolve of this team showed again today,'' Pelini said.
NU blitzed Eric Hagg on back-to-back plays from the 10, and the sophomore batted down a first-down pass and then sacked quarterback Cullen Harper for a 16-yard loss on second down. Junior safety Matt O'Hanlon battled C.J. Spiller on a third-down pass that would fall incomplete, and the Huskers celebrated when a pressured Harper threw incomplete again on fourth.
"We were definitely confident,'' NU nose tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "They needed a touchdown to beat us. That's all you have to do is hold them out.''
With Suh and defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler dominating the line of scrimmage, NU allowed a season-low 210 yards, sacked Harper five times and held backs James Davis and Spiller to 43 rushing yards on 19 carries.
But Clemson (7-6) took advantage of NU mistakes to forge leads of 14-3 in the second quarter and 21-10 in the third. Pelini joked that a chair may or may not have been thrown in the NU locker room at halftime.
"We definitely felt like we gave them what they had,'' NU tight end Mike McNeill said.
After a shaky first half, Ganz started the comeback by throwing third-quarter touchdown passes of 17 yards to Nate Swift and 19 yards to Todd Peterson. Both came on third-and-long plays.
Although Clemson turned a fumbled punt by Niles Paul into points in between those NU touchdown catches, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said he could sense the game slipping away.
"I thought that really, really hurt us,'' Swinney said.
A Blake Lawrence interception on a tipped pass led to an Alex Henery 28-yard field goal that pulled Nebraska within 21-20. A defensive stop turned into another Henery 28-yarder that gave the Huskers their first lead at 23-21 with 1:40 remaining in the third.
Ganz went down on NU's first series of the fourth quarter, dizzied when a Kourtnei Brown hit from behind drove his helmet into the turf. Backup Patrick Witt tried to scramble for a first down on third and 8, but the ball came loose as Witt fell short and Byron Maxwell appeared to turn it into a 32-yard TD return.
Officials reviewed the play and ruled Witt down, allowing the Huskers to punt and maintain the lead.
"We had some critical calls in the game,'' Swinney said. "Some of them went against us. It's a game of inches. That's very disappointing. But that's part of it.''
Henery added a 22-yard field goal with 5:20 left, making it 26-21 and giving the NU sophomore the Gator Bowl record with his fourth field goal.
Clemson then took over from its own 23. Harper moved the Tigers with completions of 11, 16 and 17 yards and a 15-yard late-hit penalty on O'Hanlon. The 17-yard throw to Aaron Kelly put Clemson on the 10.
Nebraska did anything but sit on its heels. Coaches sent Hagg around the right side on first down, then the left side on second, when he used all his resources to wrestle Harper to the ground back at the 26. "That dude was huge,'' Hagg said.
Pelini said the Huskers put the Tigers in a pick-your-poison situation by bringing more defenders than Clemson could block. Hagg wasn't touched on either blitz.
"Philosophically, that's who we are, '' NU defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "We're going to get after it. We're not going to sit back and play soft.''
Pelini said Nebraska erred by deciding against another blitz on third down. Harper threw a nice ball to Spiller as O'Hanlon battled from behind. Swinney said it was the right play and the right matchup.
"I thought it was touchdown, '' he said. "I thought it was game over. I had visions of going over and shaking Coach Pelini's hand -- and let's get back to Clemson.''
Bo Pelini didn't have much left as he walked away from postgame interviews. His players wore "AP'' on their helmets, a tribute to Anthony Pelini, the father of Bo and Carl who had died Dec. 23. The sons had returned to Youngstown, Ohio, before joining the team in Jacksonville.
The win "means a lot,'' Bo Pelini said. "Carl and I just look forward to taking some time off. It was a difficult week.''
|Yards per carry||0.2||3.6|
Nebraska is 1-1 all-time against Clemson.
|Western Michigan||Aug. 30|
|San Jose State||Sept. 6|
|New Mexico State||Sept. 13|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 27|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 11|
|Iowa State||Oct. 18|
|Kansas State||Nov. 15|
Nebraska has played 27 games on Jan. 1. See them all »
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