Throughout the first half and even for a little while into the second half, I was fairly confident about Nebraska's chances against South Carolina. The Huskers seemed to be winning most of the plays, though South Carolina was making just enough big plays to foil the Huskers. Blocking an extra point. Popping the ball out of Ameer Abdullah's hands inside the ten yard line. And of course, a "Hail Mary" to Alshon Jeffrey just before halftime.
Nebraska looked like they were going to buckle down and take the game over at halftime. A nice run by Burkhead, and two passes to Tyler Legate and Kenny Bell. Then, Martinez fakes out the Gamecocks on the zone read, and the Huskers have the ball at the South Carolina eight yard line barely one minute into the second half.
Nobody knew it at that point, but from that point on, South Carolina dominated. Taylor Martinez makes an ill-advised decision to chuck the ball towards Kyler Reed who caught the ball for an eight yard loss, setting up a field goal...that Brett Maher missed. The Blackshirts held, but then the penalty flags began to fly. Four penalties on Nebraska's next drive. Three more on the next. And with the resulting short field, South Carolina punched in the deciding touchdown to essentially put the game away. After that Martinez run, Nebraska only gained one yard of total offense in the final 29 minutes of the game.
One Total Yard.
Those penalties got downright ridiculous as the game slipped away. I couldn't help but mutter expletives at Yoshi Hardrick, though the matchup against Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough one. I wish ESPN would have shown more replays to get a better feel for how the Gamecocks defensive line took over the game. I knew once South Carolina went up two scores in the fourth quarter, the game was going to be incredibly difficult for the Huskers to come back on. South Carolina's pass defense is ranked second in the nation for a reason, and passing is not Nebraska's strong suit. (Insert "no duh" comment here...)
So Nebraska lost another bowl game, and this time to an SEC foe. But I don't think this loss was due to SEC speed. I think the Huskers matched up OK, and at times looked like the faster team. Jeffery beat Dennard once, but other wise, I don't think South Carolina out athleted Nebraska today.
They out-executed Nebraska, especially down the stretch. Minus-two in turnovers. Eleven penalties. Imagine if Abdullah doesn't fumble in the first half, or if Martinez doesn't throw that interception just before halftime? Nebraska easily could have led 23-9 at halftime. Could South Carolina have come back from that deficit? I don't see it.
Twenty-one years ago, I remember shaking my head after Nebraska lost a bowl game in Orlando; it was then called the Florida Citrus Bowl. Many people at that time openly criticized Tom Osborne at that time, and I started to question him myself. It seemed at that time that Nebraska was in a downward spiral, getting further and further way from the upper echelon of college football.
Or so it seemed. We all know what happened next. Nebraska got better...a lot better. And Nebraska's 60-3 record from 1993 to 1997 set the standard for excellence in the modern college football era. Not Southern Cal, not Miami, not Florida or Alabama. Failure to meet that level of excellence led to the firing of Frank Solich after losing three games in 2003. Since then, Nebraska has lost no fewer than four games each and every year. So does this mean that it's time to pull the plug on Bo Pelini?
That idea is laughable. It's so absurd that it shouldn't even require a response. But looking over the comments around the internets, a response is necessary. No Husker fan should be happy about losing the Capital One Bowl today. No Husker fan should be happy with the second half of today's game. But I feel better about the performance of the Huskers today than I did after the 1991 Citrus Bowl ... not to mention last year's Holiday Bowl.
Doesn't mean I'm happy. A lot of tough questions need to be asked, starting with the offensive line. This group needs to get bigger, stronger, and more dependable. Barney Cotton is going to face a lot of scrutiny, and deservedly so. The scrutiny that fans place towards the line doesn't matter, though. Bo Pelini needs to scrutinize the lines play - and the coaching. That's not only Cotton, but also John Garrison and James Dobson as well. Scrutinizing doesn't mean firing, it means asking questions and having a plan to address the deficiencies that exist.
I look over the roster and I see evidence that there's a foundation of young talent available. Andrew Rodriquez missed the game with a foot injury. Tyler Moore got eaten alive by Clowney late in the game, but he's a true freshman who can only get better. Givens Price is redshirting...and really should have been a senior in high school this season. A touted group of freshmen are redshirting. Maybe they are ready to make an impact next season. Or maybe they'll sit on the bench like Brent Qvale (who didn't look like he was even suited up today) or Jeremiah Sirles did this season. I try to be patient, but I have to admit that patience is starting to run short.
Nebraska addressed the turnover problem this year; the backs and Taylor Martinez have improved dramatically in holding onto the ball. But penalties continue to be an issue, and that was the start of today's meltdown It's not acceptable, and it's something that has to be addressed going into next season.
There was a lot to like in the ball game early on. The secondary was locked onto South Carolina's receivers, while Nebraska had open receivers all day long. Even saw Jamal Turner in the game, drawing a pass interference penalty. Rex Burkhead ran well, and we saw some creative play calling with Burkhead under center. It all came to a crashing end once the offensive line melted down, of course. But before that, there was something to like.
The ending of the game left a bad taste in everybody's mouth, and it's something that needs to be addressed by everybody associated in the program once the plane returns the team to Lincoln. Nine-win seasons used to be the standard at Nebraska, now it seems to be a sign of mediocrity. Nebraska fans have high expectations of their football program, and while the Huskers have improved under Bo Pelini, they have fallen short of those expectations the last two years.