Holiday Bowl

#24 USC 45
#25 Nebraska 42

Dec. 27, 2014 • Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego

1 2 3 4 T
Nebraska 17 0 17 8 42
USC 10 14 21 0 45

Out of reach: Valiant effort without desired result mirrors NU in the Pelini era

Nebraska kicker Drew Brown dives but can't get a hand on Adoree' Jackson, who races 98 yards for Southern California's first touchdown and a 7-3 lead in the first quarter of the Holiday Bowl. The kickoff return triggered a night of offensive fireworks. The Huskers led 17-10 after a wild first quarter, then never led again. They held the ball almost nine minutes longer and out-yarded the Trojans 525-515. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

SAN DIEGO — Popcorn and roller coasters. Memorable playmaking, strange gaffes. A late night of “not quite.”

This was the Bo Pelini era wrapped up into a chilly West Coast evening against a ranked team that just barely held Nebraska football at arm’s length.

Just short of a big bang. But sure as heck stronger than a whimper.

Nebraska lost 45-42 to No. 24 USC in a Holiday Bowl thriller that left coaches and players reflective, their eyes red-rimmed with tears. A tumultuous month — the firing of Pelini, the hiring of Mike Riley, the compressed fury on a secret audiotape, the promises of remaining Husker coaches and players to cap off the Pelini era right — distilled late Saturday night into a handful of plays. It often did with Pelini’s teams.

“At times (the game) could have gotten out of hand — and at times it might have seemed like it did — but it was fun tonight,” left guard Jake Cotton said. His dad, interim head coach Barney Cotton, sat just to his right in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium. His mom and older brother, Ben, stood just feet away.

“It was a battle,” Jake Cotton continued. “It was kind of a microcosm of what the last five years have been like. Hasn’t always been pretty. It’s been gritty. We’ve done it together. But really I couldn’t ask any more of the guys, the way we responded the last four weeks.”

To Jake Cotton’s left: Cornerback Josh Mitchell. One of Pelini’s favorites. A three-star recruit who battled through early struggles to start his last two years in the program. He leaned back and spoke.

“The best roller coaster I’ve ever been on,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It’s possible that Nebraska saved for last its biggest roller coaster game in the Pelini era. Nearly four hours of playmaking and pressure. The teams combined for more than 1,000 yards and 87 points. USC (9-4 overall) surged to a 45-27 lead in the third quarter before crumbling in the final one. Nebraska had all the momentum — and control — scoring the game’s final 15 points. But the Huskers (9-4) fell short on their second-to-last drive of the game with less than three minutes left.

They reached the USC 31 and faced third-and-three. Barney Cotton said the 31 was three or four yards beyond kicker Drew Brown’s field goal range. So NU intended to take two downs to get a first down.

“We had a line in the sand,” Cotton said. “We were just outside that line in the sand as far as kicking it.”

On third down, quarterback Tommy Armstrong — who set Husker bowl records for completions (32), attempts (51), yards (381) and touchdowns (three) — misfired on a pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck — who called the most wide-open game of his Husker tenure — said Pierson-El’s route went a little too far to the middle of the field.

Fourth down. Instead of giving the ball to All-American Ameer Abdullah, Beck decided to try a jet sweep pitch pass to Pierson-El with Abdullah as a lead blocker. Pierson-El cut inside of Abdullah’s block. Beck said he should have stayed outside.

“If he ran to the outside, he might have scored,” Beck said.

Nebraska got the ball back with 17 seconds left, but a Hail Mary attempt to the end zone was batted down.

So ended a wild game — and a memorable era — under Pelini.

Nebraska’s players and outgoing coaches went to great lengths to visibly honor the sacked Pelini. NU left his seat open on the team bus. Freshman defensive back Josh Kalu wrote “Bo, Bo, Bo” on his towel. Jake Cotton arranged the numbers on the back of his helmet to read “BO.”

The game had several hallmarks of the Pelini era, too. NU’s defense was alternately stingy — forcing nine punts — and awful, giving up several chunk plays, including touchdowns of 71 and 44 yards in the second half. Armstrong was fair-to-middling for much of the game before heating up down the stretch, especially with a 65-yard touchdown pass to best friend Jordan Westerkamp. NU special teams blocked two punts — which led to 10 points — but also gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown to USC back-flipping freshman Adoree’ Jackson.

And, yes, when odds seemed long, Nebraska mounted a comeback. The defense forced four straight punts to end the game. NU’s offense — playing a pace that Beck said he only “meddled” with until tonight, when he could call whatever game he pleased without Pelini’s oversight— eventually wore down a talented Trojan defense.

Jake Cotton called Nebraska’s late comeback a testament to Nebraska’s character. A testament to the fired coach. A testament to the era that ends as Mike Riley’s tenure starts.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Cotton said. His voice then went up an octave. “But we never quit! The last four weeks shows it. We’re not a group that quits. A Bo Pelini team doesn’t quit. A Coach Cotton doesn’t quit.”
Cotton then named most of Nebraska’s assistant coaches and head strength coach James Dobson, who’s taken a similar job at Vanderbilt.

“Everybody throughout the whole stadium, we don’t quit,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go our way — and tonight was one of those days — but we never quit.”


More coverage

World-Herald post-game coverage (PDF)

Box score

Box score (PDF)

Photo gallery

Column / Analysis

Game stats

Opp NU
Penalties-Yards 7-45
Rush yards 194 144
Rush attempts 33 43
Yards per carry 5.9 3.3
Pass yards 321 381
Comp.-Att.-Int. 23-39-1 32-51-1
Yards/Att. 8.2 7.5
Yards/Comp. 14.0 11.9
Fumbles 0 0

Series history

Nebraska is 0-4 all-time against USC.

See all games »

2014 season (9-4)

Florida Atlantic Aug. 30
McNeese State Sept. 6
Fresno State Sept. 13
Miami (FL) Sept. 20
Illinois Sept. 27
Michigan State Oct. 4
Northwestern Oct. 18
Rutgers Oct. 25
Purdue Nov. 1
Wisconsin Nov. 15
Minnesota Nov. 22
Iowa Nov. 28
USC Dec. 27

This day in history

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