ORLANDO, Fla. - For the second straight year, Nebraska is going to have to deal with the sick feeling of what could have been after yet another lackluster performance to close out the season.
After jumping out to a 13-9 lead in the first quarter despite some sloppy play, the Huskers were out-scored 21-0 in the final three quarters en route to a 30-13 loss to ninth-ranked South Carolina in Monday's Capital One Bowl.
While both the offense and defense played very well at times, Nebraska was its own worst enemy all day long. Turnovers, penalties and an overall lack of execution doomed the Huskers and handed them their second disappointing bowl defeat in a row.
"I'll say it straight out: our football team feels we are the better team," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Even after the game, (we feel) we were a better football team than them. You have to earn it. It's a humbling game? You know, we're a pretty good team too, but 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 a lot of times, and you can't win football games like that."
Overall, Nebraska committed 10 penalties for 58 yards, nine of which coming in the second half, and gained just 68 total yards after halftime. The Huskers also turned the ball over twice inside the South Carolina 30-yard line, including a fumble inside the 5.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez sacked a total of six times, and running back Rex Burkhead - who finished with 89 yards on 23 carries - had just 18 yards after halftime.
"There were some tough situations," Burkhead said. "We got in the red zone plenty of times and couldn't finish it. It is tough when you have momentum like that and just don't execute? We beat ourselves in a lot of phases of the game."
Nebraska didn't waste any time getting things going, as it needed just three plays to go 46 yards in 56 seconds for its first touchdown on a 30-yard pass from Martinez to redshirt freshman receiver Kenny Bell.
The momentum of the quick start was quickly deflated, however, as the ensuing extra point was blocked by Travian Robertson and recovered by Stephon Gilmore, who took it all the way back for two points to make it 6-2 with 11:58 left in the first quarter.
After taking two sacks and punting on their opening drive, the Gamecocks picked things up as well on their next possession.
South Carolina used 10 straight running plays to move the ball down to Nebraska's 1-yard line, but ended up faced with a fourth-and-goal. Following a USC time out, head coach Steve Spurrier took the first big gamble of the day and decided to go for it.
The move paid off, as Shaw barreled his way into the end zone on a quarterback sneak to give the Gamecocks their first lead at 9-6 with 6:04 left in the opening quarter.
Nebraska then got its first big break of the game on the very next drive. After being forced to punt, freshman defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles was flagged for a facemask penalty, awarding the Huskers an automatic first down at the South Carolina 26-yard line.
Three plays later, freshman running back Ameer Abdullah punched it in for a touchdown to put NU back up 13-9 with 3:33 to go in the first.
There was just as much offense in the second quarter, but missed opportunities by both teams kept many points from going up on the scoreboard to show for it.
First, Nebraska failed to capitalize after driving all the way down to the South Carolina 6-yard line, as Abdullah fumbled and USC recovered at the 15.
"Every time, just something happened today that took the wind out of you sails and killed your momentum," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
On the very next play, Shaw connected with Jeffery on a 78-yard bomb that went down to the NU 3. After three straight unsuccessful runs, kicker Jay Wooten shanked a 21-yard chip shot field goal.
The Huskers were then again able to march their way down field into field goal range in the final minute of the half, but Martinez was intercepted by Gilmore at the South Carolina 29.
With just seven seconds left, the Gamecocks came up with the play of the half when Shaw dropped back for one last Hail Mary pass from USC's 49-yard line, pump faked and heaved it up for Jeffery. The 6-foot-4 junior out-leaped four NU defenders to haul in the pass at the 3, and then spun and stretched the ball over the goal line for the go-ahead score as time expired.
"It was a lack of execution on our part," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "It's something that you prevent those things from happening. I think we had an opportunity to sack (Shaw) first of all before that even happened, but we didn't execute and the guy went up and made a play."
Jeffery finished the first half with four catches for a staggering 148 yards and a touchdown, while Burkhead picked up 108 yards of total offense, including 71 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Nebraska came out hot again to start the third quarter, as a 36-yard run by Martinez set up a first-and-goal from the Gamecock 8-yard line. Just like before, though, the Huskers could not make the most of it. Two negative pass plays and a false start forced NU to settle for a field goal, and the woes continued for Maher when he missed a 36-yard attempt wide right.
"We had them all game long, we just killed ourselves," Martinez said. "I thought we should have beat them."
Towards the end of the third quarter, the game changed completely when a post-play altercation led to the ejection of two of the best players for each team. Following a sack by linebacker Lavonte David on third down to force a punt, Jeffery and senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard got into a scuffle and exchanged punches along the NU sideline.
The penalties offset, but who players were ejected from the game with roughly two minutes left in the third quarter.
"(The officials) said they both threw punches, and they have to throw them out," Pelini said when asked if he got any explanation on what happened on the play.
Some questionable officiating and coverage breakdowns by Nebraska helped South Carolina go down and score on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to running back Kenny Miles, making it 23-13 with 12:25 to play.
The Gamecocks put the finishing touches on the game with one last clock-chewing possession, taking up more than six minutes on a 13-play drive that was capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Miles with 3:05 left to play.
With two full months before spring practice starts back up in March, Nebraska will have plenty of time to sit back and think about all that went wrong on Monday.
"I'm proud of the season we had," Pelini said. "Obviously we didn't finish the way we wanted, but it doesn't always take away from where we are and where we're going and what we've accomplished. Somebody had to lose that game, and we had our opportunities. We had plenty of opportunities, and we didn't take advantage of them. For that I give South Carolina a lot of credit, but we did a lot to help them, and it's a shame."
Dennard apologizes for ejection
No one moment better summed up just how strange Nebraska's Capital One Bowl loss really was that the sudden ejection of Dennard and Jeffery.
Two of the game's marquee that everyone wanted to see - especially NFL scouts - only got less than three full quarters of the two because tempers simply got the best of them during a heated one-on-one match-up.
Punches were thrown by both players during the brief skirmish, which requires an automatic ejection if witnessed by officials. After the game, Dennard apologized for the incident, saying he was embarrassed by his actions and sadden he hurt the team in his final collegiate game.
"I hit him up out of bounds, he pushed me and I pushed him back," Dennard said. "That's not the type of person I am. I'm very sorry for that. I'm very sorry for handling it like that, because in the state of Nebraska we don't play like that. I'm very sorry about that."
Pelini didn't elaborate much on the situation, other that saying he was told by officials what they saw and that both players would be ejected.
Papuchis said Nebraska's defense obviously suffered when Dennard was removed from the game, even though South Carolina was without its top wide out as well. Antonio Bell replaced Dennard for the majority of the fourth quarter.
"He's our best defensive back, so you lose a guy like that, it's obviously going to have some opposite effect on what you're doing offensively. But that's why the other guys practice. The second group takes a lot of reps during the week, and we prepare them the same way we do the starters. Antonio Bell came in and I thought he did a fine job."
Communication problems arise again for offense
One of the biggest reasons for Nebraska's offensive problems in the second half were do to communication problems between Martinez and his offensive line.
Martinez said he was having trouble getting the cadence calls to his line when the crowd noise picked up during the third quarter, which helped lead to seven procedural penalties, all coming in the third and fourth quarters.
"Penalties killed us," Martinez said. Just communication and stuff like that? Just communication with me and (senior center Mike Caputo)? We were just kind of off. I don't know. I can't really explain it to you guys."
While Martinez wouldn't expand much on what type of communication issues, Beck said one of the biggest issues came when Nebraska switched to a silent count to help combat the crowd noise, which picked up quite a bit when South Carolina started to pull away.
"I don't know how many false starts we had, all in that half," Beck said. "The funny part is we were on silent cadence. We didn't have cadences some of the time. It's just - I don't know. I don't know what's going on. Our guys just, you know, (South Carolina's defense) was moving and they were barking stuff and signals and stunts, and our guys weren't focused and we were moving? There's just no excuse. That's just unacceptable."