Capital One Bowl
ORLANDO, Fla. — SEC speed didn’t so much beat Nebraska in Monday’s Capital One Bowl. SEC height did. With a familiar helping of Husker miscues.
Six-foot-four South Carolina defensive tackle Travian Robertson blocked an extra point that the Gamecocks turned into a two-point conversion. And 6-4 USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery reached over several Husker defenders to pluck a Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half.
NU had controlled the first 30 minutes, but still trailed 16-13 thanks to Robertson, Jeffery and two Gamecock takeaways in their own end. Four plays that No. 9 South Carolina (11-2 overall) made — and No. 20 Nebraska (9-4) didn’t.
“We’ll be fine,” NU head coach Bo Pelini brusquely said to an ESPN sideline reporter as he trotted off the field at halftime.
Pelini was wrong.
Nebraska lost 30-13 in front of 61,351 fans at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. It played a second half of ignominy: Just 64 total yards of offense, nine penalties — including four on one drive — five sacks, a missed field goal and an ejection of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Afterward, a glassy-eyed Pelini — who spent a chunk of the second half railing at referees for what he perceived to be poor officiating — insisted he and his players believed Nebraska was a better team. NU’s play on the offensive and defensive lines — until a disastrous fourth quarter — supported his claim.
“But you have to earn it,” he said just after his proclamation. “It’s a humbling game ... we just didn’t execute in the times we needed to do it, and we made enough mistakes that we were our own worst enemy.”
South Carolina celebrated its best season in school history. Coach Steve Spurrier, all smiles and jokes in a packed press room, said the school would buy rings for players with “a big ol’ 11 on ’em.”
“It really is neat,” Spurrier said.
NU was left with coaches and players repeating the same mantra: We beat ourselves.
“With stupid stuff,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “And then we lost our rhythm.”
It started on the Huskers’ first drive, after quarterback Taylor Martinez threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell. Robertson blocked Brett Maher’s extra point, and South Carolina corner Stephon Gilmore returned the block for a two-point conversion. A 7-0 lead was suddenly 6-2.
The teams traded touchdowns — NU led 13-9 after one quarter — when it looked like the Huskers would seize full control.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Pelini said.
But freshman running back Ameer Abdullah lost a fumble at the South Carolina 7. Nebraska’s next drive reached the Gamecock 30, but Gilmore snatched an interception. That set up the Hail Mary.
Crucially, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw dodged blitzing Husker linebacker Lavonte David. He rolled right, flinging the ball to Jeffery. NU placed several players in front of the Sports Illustrated coverboy, but no Husker was stationed behind him. So when Jeffery reached over Dennard for the catch, he needed only to pivot and fall into the end zone for the score.
“When you throw it to a guy who’s 6-7, it’s hard to stop him from catching the ball,” said safety Austin Cassidy, adding three inches to Jeffery’s prodigious length. “But if he does catch the ball, we should have someone standing in there behind him to stop him from falling into the end zone. Didn’t happen.”
That play, Cassidy said, put Nebraska “behind the eight-ball.” When Maher pushed a 35-yard field goal try wide right early in the third quarter, NU crawled back into meltdown mode from losses at Michigan and Wisconsin.
First: The penalties. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the South Carolina contingent was louder than expected and threw off some of NU’s cadence calls. Couple the Gamecock fans with a shifting, barking defensive line, and cue the false starts.
Second: Dennard’s ejection. Jeffery shoved. Dennard shoved back. Jeffery shoved Dennard in the face mask. Dennard swung and missed. Offsetting personal fouls and an early shower for two likely first-round NFL draft picks.
“I’m very sorry,” Dennard told the press after his final game as a Husker. “Nebraska doesn’t play like that. There was no warning at all. That was the first time it happened ... he swung on me. I swung back. Like I said, that’s not the type of player I am.”
Spurrier had his own version of the bout.
“Alshon, you didn’t slug the guy, did you?” he asked Jeffery, the game’s MVP with four catches for 148 yards.
“No sir,” Jeffery said.
While Jeffery was no longer a receiving threat after the ejection, Dennard — who spent the last 20 minutes of the game in the locker room getting periodic updates from trainers — left the Huskers without their best defensive back. South Carolina promptly scored two clinching touchdowns in his absence.
Third: Nebraska’s offense disappeared. NU’s final four drives lost 18 yards. On Beck’s last 12 play calls, running back Rex Burkhead touched the ball once. Pundits who suggested the Huskers relied too greatly on Burkhead got to see what it’s like when Nebraska doesn’t. The Huskers’ final drive of the season culminated in three straight sacks of Martinez.
“We’ve just got to be able to finish,” Martinez said. “We’re young still.”
It’s Nebraska’s second straight bowl loss. Its third double-digit loss this season. The Huskers may be hard-pressed to stay in the postseason Top 25. And the defense must replace David — who finished with 11 tackles and two sacks — along with Dennard and injured tackle Jared Crick.
In many spots, yes, the team is young. Bell — a redshirt freshman who caught three passes for 53 yards — also said NU’s determined for more.
“Nine-win seasons at Nebraska aren’t enough,” he said. “Nobody’s going to appreciate that. So we gotta get better. And we’re gonna get better.”
|Yards per carry||3.0||3.0|
Nebraska is 3-1 all-time against South Carolina.
|Fresno State||Sept. 10|
|Ohio State||Oct. 8|
|Michigan State||Oct. 29|
|Penn State||Nov. 12|
|South Carolina||Jan. 2|
Nebraska has played 7 games on Jan. 2. See them all »
©2018 BH Media Group