ORLANDO - For three quarters Nebraska had a team that was one play away from the national championship on the ropes.
Midway through the third quarter the Huskers built a 31-23 lead over Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. The Bulldogs were even forced to burn two defensive timeouts to slow down Tim Beck's offensive tempo.
Even after Georgia answered to tie the game at 31-31 you got the sense the Big Red wasn't going away. The Huskers were driving again and had a third-and-1 run play called to Ameer Abdullah. The play resulted in a first down, but Abdullah fumbled at the end of the run trying to reach for extra yardage.
It was Abdullah's sixth lost fumble of the season and his second costly fumble in back-to-back Capital One Bowls. A year ago against South Carolina Abdullah fumbled as NU was getting ready to score and go up 20-9. Instead the Gamecocks seized the momentum to take a 16-13 lead at the half.
Both Abdullah and head coach Bo Pelini felt the fumble should've at least been reviewed, but even after an injury timeout it was never looked at by the officials. Georgia got the ball back and was forced to punt, but you just got the sense the wind came out of Nebraska's sail after that play.
"It was the most mind-boggling thing ever," Abdullah said of his fumble. "I thought it was going to get challenged and reviewed. There was no challenge and no review and I was like 'man, I thought every play was going to be reviewed.' For them not to review it, they made a big mistake. I knew I was down.
"After that we just came out flat. I really hate that, because it killed our momentum. I just wished they would've reviewed that."
Running backs coach Ron Brown expressed similar feelings after Abdullah's fumble. Before that play Brown felt like NU had Georgia reeling, as NU held the ball for 9:12 in the third quarter and ran for 115 yards on 18 carries.
"We did. We had them going. They were tired on defense," Brown said. "We had a great tempo going. We were able to flash some plays before they got lined up. Even though we didn't give up points off of the turnover, we definitely lost some momentum, because we never did get our mojo back and defensively we had some big plays against us. It really gave them some life."
If there's anything we can take out of not just Nebraska's Capital One Bowl match-up against Georgia, but the two other Big Ten bowl games against SEC schools on Tuesday it's that after Alabama the rest of the Big Ten can play with the SEC.
Northwestern handled Mississippi State, Michigan was one play away from beating South Carolina and the Huskers gave Georgia all they wanted. Did I mention both Ohio State and Penn State weren't in bowl games either and they arguably are better teams than Michigan and Northwestern.
Everybody judged the Big Ten after early season losses to Notre Dame and Alabama. Last time I checked those teams are playing for the national championship. Yes the SEC is a very good conference and the best in college football. It's the notion though that Big Ten is a second-rate league that bothers me. It wasn't the banner bowl day Jim Delaney wanted on Tuesday, but I feel like that gap has closed compared to the last few bowl seasons.
"You have to remember Michigan State beat Georgia last year," Brown said. "Michigan came close today against South Carolina and we were with Georgia today for a good portion of the game. You can say whatever you want, but I don't know that there's a huge gap. Alabama is obviously very good, but you look at it past that and all those other teams are pretty beatable. We are not far off."
Abdullah said the team took all the slights and negative criticism going into this game as motivation to prove they belonged on the same field as an elite SEC team that arguably could've won the national championship. Growing up in SEC country himself, Abdullah also used that as motivation today to prove Big Ten football belonged on the same field.
"I think everybody was just praising them like they were the unbeatables," Abdullah said. "Georgia had two losses on the year, so it's not like they were unbeatable. It was no surprise to me. They put on their pants just like us. They are not the 'all-mighty Georgia.' It's not even like that.
"There's a lot made of it, and it shouldn't even be there. There's football all around the country. The SEC teams have been winning championships and they are very good, but at the same it's not like they are just going to walk in and just take wins. I won't let that happen. I won't stand for that. Any time we play an SEC team I'll be ready to just play my game."
If anything, the Huskers can leave Orlando with some confidence that they were right there with a team that had Alabama beat. Going into the season NU was picked to win 8 games and finish third in the division behind Michigan and Michigan State. Yes it's another 10-4 season, but I think it has a different feel than after bowl game losses to Washington and South Carolina the previous two seasons.
It wasn't the finish NU wanted, but as the underclassmen were getting on the bus to leave Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium you could just see the fire in their eye that they left it all on the field today. Nearly the entire offense returns in 2013. If NU can retool on defense there's no reason with eight home games and a favorable schedule this team can't be better in 2013.
On to the post game breakdown and grade out .
What I saw on Saturday
***As I interviewed running back Rex Burkhead one final time the Texas native had to fight the tears when reflecting on his four-year career. In my 14 seasons covering the team it's hard to think of very many better than No. 22 in terms of just the class and dignity he conducted himself both on and off the field.
***Give Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray credit. He was the best QB Nebraska faced this season and his deep ball accuracy was deadly. I wouldn't be surprised one bit to see him come out early. How much higher can his stock get after this season?
***This just in. Jarvis Jones is really good. Watching him in person coming off the edge is not fair. Now I know what Texas's offensive line felt like in the Big 12 championship game trying to block Ndamukong Suh.
***The ball skills of Nebraska's corners were the worst we've seen all season. Georgia made some great plays, but it's almost inexcusable that some of those 50-50 balls weren't knocked down. Murray averaged 23.7 yards per completion. The 427 yards by Murray is the most Nebraska has ever given up in a bowl game and the most they've given up as a defense since that dreaded 2004 night at Texas Tech.
***After the game I thought quarterback Taylor Martinez handled himself very well. You could tell Martinez really wanted this game. One reporter even tried to get Martinez to throw his offensive line under the bus asking him about the pass protection issues NU had at times. Martinez's response was "what do you want me to say?" He was probably as open and animated as we've seen in his time at NU. Martinez even got involved with some trash talking after Georgia defenders called him out from shying away from contact and running out of bounds.
***Going forward if Pelini can get Nebraska's young linebackers and defensive linemen developed this off-season, there's no reason why this can't be a better team in 2013. I think the linebacker position has a chance to be completely upgraded in terms of athletic ability when you look at some of the young players in the program and the ones coming in.
***The biggest difference between Nebraska and Georgia I thought was NU's margin for error vs. UGA's. The Huskers really couldn't afford to make any mistakes if they wanted to win, where the Bulldogs had enough talent that they could overcome a few, which is what we saw happen in the second half.
The final grades
Rushing offense: B
The Huskers ran for 239 yards on 52 carries and Burkhead finished with 140 on 24 carries. Abdullah's costly fumble was too much to overcome though. Going into the game I thought if NU got over 250 yards on the ground they would have a chance to win. It was heading in that direction until the Abdullah fumble.
Passing offense: D+
Martinez was sacked five times and hurried another seven. He also threw two interceptions. It was pretty clear that if Martinez was going to be forced to stay in the pocket for long periods of time he wasn't going to have much success. Martinez needed the running game to compliment him more. Once the Huskers got down it was going to be tough for NU to come back.
Rushing defense: D+
Georgia ran for 162 yards on 38 carries, including 125 yards on 23 carries from running back Todd Gurley. There were once again way too many missed tackles on key plays where the Huskers were in position to make a tackle.
Passing defense: F
Far and away the biggest issue for Nebraska in this game was the ball skills shown by NU's corners and safeties in pass coverage. Murray threw for 427 yards and nearly all of his touchdown passes came on coverage busts or deep shots down the field. With the game tied at 31-31 in the fourth quarter Murray connected on TD passes of 24 and 87 yards. Give the guy credit. He's a good player that made the read reads and throws in the clutch.
Special teams: C-
Nebraska is very fortunate Georgia's early blocked punt only resulted in a safety and not a touchdown. They were able to overcome that early mistake to jump up 14-9, but there were costly penalties in the return game that kept the overall grade down. Kicker Brett Maher made one field goal and missed another due to a bad hold from Jase Dean. I thought Maher's punting was solid. Heading into the off-season Pelini needs to take a hard look at how he wants to handle his special teams going forward.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.