Backed up near its own goal line, with momentum seemingly on its side, Nebraska chose not to play it safe. The result was a safety and a lead UCLA wouldn’t relinquish as the Bruins beat the Huskers 36-30 in Pasadena.
The loss snapped a 10-game winning streak in September for Nebraska and marks the first time the Huskers haven’t started 2-0 since the 2004 season.
In a 27-27 game with 8:51 remaining, offensive coordinator Tim Beck called for a shotgun zone read play from the Huskers’ 5-yard line. UCLA saw it coming a mile away. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was sacked in the end zone and UCLA had the 29-27 lead it needed in a game that had swayed back and forth for three quarters.
“I think that’s a call obviously we’d want back,” coach Bo Pelini said following the game. “It was poor execution to say the least.”
While Nebraska’s defense struggled from the start, the Huskers’ offense kept pace with a Bruins offense that shredded Nebraska for 351 yards and 24 points in the first half. A career-long 92-yard touchdown run for Martinez and a career-long 54-yard field goal from kicker Brett Maher had Nebraska in the game at halftime and the Huskers had the ball to start the second half.
But on the first play after halftime running back Ameer Abdullah, who set career highs with 16 carries and 119 yards on Saturday, fumbled at the Nebraska 27-yard line. UCLA netted a 22-yard field goal from the turnover but Nebraska battled back. The Huskers answered three drives later, going 36 yards over eight plays resulting in a 43-yard Maher field goal to tie the game at 27-27 going into the fourth quarter.
Then the UCLA defense took over. On four fourth quarter drives, spanning 10 plays, the Huskers netted a total of eight yards. The final Nebraska drive of the game, aided by a long Kenny Bell kickoff return and personal foul on UCLA, resulted in a 40-yard Maher field goal but a last-ditch onside kick attempt failed, sealing the game for the Bruins.
“We didn’t play well in any phase of the game,” Pelini said. “We were inconsinstent and the fundamentals were sloppy. I’m disappointed obviously.”
The big disappointment early was on the defensive side of the ball. The Huskers buckled down enough in the second half to force four punts and keep the game close, but UCLA still managed 653 yards of total offense, 145 yards more than Nebraska had ever given up under Pelini. It was just three yards short of the school record for most yards allowed by Nebraska.
One of the major concerns coming in to the season was how well Nebraska would do on third down, but UCLA made that irrelevant on Saturday. The Bruins went 9-of-20 on third down, but the real problem for Nebraska was first down. UCLA ran 38 first down plays, averaging 8.45 yards per play on first down. Missed tackles, a concern coming out of the first game against Southern Mississippi, were even more apparent in game two.
“We didn’t do anything well on the defensive side of the ball,” Pelini said. “Many times we had opportunities for tackles for a loss and they ended up in long gains. I’m embarrassed by how we played defensively.”
Still, the Nebraska defense got enough key stops in the second half to keep the Huskers in the game, but then the offense didn’t answer. Minus one 9-play, 73-yard drive late in the third quarter that resulted in a missed field goal, the Huskers averaged just 2.16 yards per play in the second half.
“Defensively we didn’t show up in the first half, offensively we didn’t show up in the second half,” Pelini said. “We didn’t deserve to win in the end.”
Nebraska’s loss was the latest in a disastrous day for the Big Ten in nonconference play. Wisconsin was held to just 207 total yards in a 10-7 loss to Oregon State. Penn State, behind four missed field goals and a missed extra point, lost 17-16 to Virginia. Iowa State beat Iowa 9-6 in the teams’ annual rivalry game and Purdue came up short, losing 20-17 to Notre Dame.
That, ultimately, might be the silver lining for the Huskers. This team was always likely to be defined by what it did in the Big Ten and the conference is still wide open. In the public eye, the Huskers’ chances to make a return trip to the Rose Bowl in January took hit. Mathematically, they’re the same as they were at the start of the day.
“Everything’s out there for us,” Pelini said. “In the end, we want to end up back here.”