ORLANDO, Fla. — In a season marked by historic comebacks, Nebraska couldn’t find a way to finish in Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl against Georgia.
After taking a 31-23 lead on Rex Burkhead’s 2-yard touchdown run with 9:42 remaining in the third quarter, the No. 23-ranked Cornhuskers were stymied as the No. 6 Bulldogs scored 22 unanswered points to rally for a 45-31 victory before a crowd of 59,712 in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
“We just didn’t make enough plays and I give credit to Georgia,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, whose team entered the contest listed as a nine-point underdog. “That’s a good football team, but at the end of the day, we had our opportunities.
“There were some situations where you have to make plays and they made them, we didn’t.”
Georgia (12-2) came up big when it mattered most. The Bulldogs had three touchdown passes of 49 yards or longer as quarterback Aaron Murray finished 18-of-33 through the air for 427 yards and five TDs to set a school single-game bowl record and earn the 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior game MVP honors.
“It came down to the third down a lot and we just gave up big plays. I don’t really recall them driving on us continuously,” said Nebraska linebacker Will Compton, who had a 24-yard interception return for a TD in the first quarter. “We’d get them in third down and they’d make a play.”
Georgia finished 12-of-17 on third-down conversions. The Bulldogs also had 589 yards of total offense.
“When you make a big play here and there, all of the sudden, it gives you a little boost of energy as well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We made enough big plays at the right moment.”
Nebraska was still in the game until Murray connected with Chris Conley on what Pelini called an “out screen” for an 87-yard scoring pass to put Georgia ahead by the final margin with 11:03 to play.
With Georgia facing a third-and-12 situation, Pelini said he dialed up a blitz, hoping to come up with a big play. Instead, Pelini said Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford “jumped his guy,” leaving Conley wide open for the longest gain from scrimmage against Nebraska in its 49-game bowl history.
“We were free, we were coming off the edge, we got aggressive and it turns out it was a bad call by me,” Pelini said. “I wanted to take our shot right there.
“I thought we had them backed up. I took a shot and it didn’t work.”
The resulting score proved to be devastating for the Huskers, who overcame second-half deficits to win in five of their eight Big Ten Conference games, but didn’t have an answer this time. Georgia had earlier broke a 31-31 tie on the first play of the fourth quarter as Murray connected with running back Keith Marshall on a 24-yard TD pass, lofted perfectly over the shoulder Compton, who wasn’t able to turn his head in time to make a play.
Momentum was on the side of the Huskers (10-4) after they established a 31-23 lead, taking the opening drive of the second half 75 yards on 13 plays in 5:18 with Burkhead scoring on a 2-yard run. With Nebraska speeding up its offensive tempo, the Bulldogs’ defense wasn’t set when NU snapped the ball and Burkhead barged into the end zone on his way to a 140-yard rushing performance in his final college game.
However, the Huskers never scored again. Pelini and several players pointed to I-back Ameer Abdullah’s lost fumble with 5:30 to play as a turning point with the score tied at 31-31. Although Georgia didn’t convert the turnover into points, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said it seemed to zap NU’s momentum.
Plus, Martinez said he felt like Burkhead would’ve had a good chance to score on the play prior to Abdullah’s fumble. However, the Bulldogs called a late timeout and the play was blown dead.
“I think that’s what killed all of our momentum,” said Martinez, who was 16-of-27 passing for 204 yards and two TDs and two interceptions.
Pelini said he wasn’t so sure Abdullah actually fumbled.
“(Abdullah) thought he was down — I couldn’t see it,” Pelini said. “There were a number of things that we were questioning on that play.
“Why that didn’t get reviewed, that’s beyond me. But it was par for the course on how that game was called.”
Abdullah was emphatic that Nebraska should’ve been allowed to retain possession.
“It wasn’t a fumble,” Abdullah said. “I thought every play was reviewed — even if it was just a simple run play. It was just bizarre. It was just crazy.
“My knee was bleeding, for one, because I skinned my knee on the ground. So I knew I was down.”
While the Huskers could’ve conceivably come away from the loss to Georgia — a team which fell just 5 yards short of earning a spot in the BCS national championship game in a 32-28 loss in the Southeastern Conference title game — claiming at least a measure of morale victory, Martinez said he didn’t leave with any upbeat feelings.
“I wanted to win,” Martinez said. “I don’t know about (others), but I wasn’t (encouraged).”
Pelini said he was proud of the Huskers’ effort and the leadership displayed by Nebraska’s senior class.
“Like I told our guys, I said thank you to the seniors for what they’ve given to this program,” Pelini said. “For the guys coming back, it will be time to go back to work.
“I’m excited about the football team we have coming back and I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”