The old cliche "A Tale of Two Halves" wouldn't even begin to describe the second half collapse that happened to Nebraska against on Saturday.
After jumping out to a 21-3 in the second quarter, the Huskers (2-1) completely fell apart on both sides of the football, as the No. 16 Bruins (2-0) exploded back with 31 unanswered points to run away with a 41-21 victory in front of a stunned Memorial Stadium record crowd of more than 91,000.
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who struggled for all but the final drive of the first half, turned a rough outing into an impressive passing performance, completing 16-of-24 throws for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, the Bruins, who had just 206 total yards in the first half, ended the day with more than 500 yards of offense. On the other side, Nebraska managed just over 100 yards after halftime.
"Obviously it was a disappointing loss," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I just told our players that's what I call a team loss right there. We got beat in every phase of the game in the second half. I think we showed a little bit of what we're capable of as a football team in the first half, but in the second half, we got away from fundamentals. It's nothing magical. It wasn't anything that they hadn't done in the first half. Defensively, you can't go out and miss tackles and miss your gaps and play undisciplined. Everyone's got to do their job.
"For some reason, we didn't show up in the second half. We had a number of opportunities to move the sticks, to take the momentum back, to at least gain some momentum to stop what was going, and we didn't do it. The pendulum started to go the other way, and we needed to make a play. We continuously had opportunities to make plays and didn't make them. I thought special teams-wise, we killed ourselves the whole game. The field position at times hurt us, but at the end of the day, we just didn't execute well enough to win the football game and played a horrendous second half. You could talk about it all day, but that's what it came down to."
It wasn't all bad for Nebraska, at least to start the game. The Huskers knew they needed to get off to a good start in order to establish early momentum, and just like he did last week against Southern Miss, senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste provided exactly the spark they were looking for.
After a pair of stalled drives by both teams, Jean-Baptiste snagged his third interception in three games and returned it to the UCLA 28-yard line. Four plays later, senior quarterback Taylor Martinez hit Quincy Enunwa in the left corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Bruins got on the board on their next drive with a 43-yard field goal by Kaim Fairbairn to make it 7-3 with 7:13 left in the first quarter, but the majority of the half belonged to the Huskers from there on. Nebraska quickly responded on its ensuing possession with a dominant 17-play, 92-yard drive that took up more than 6:30 and punched it in with another 14-yard scoring strike from Martinez to Enunwa to push the lead to 14-3 at the end of the quarter. The play was Enunwa's fifth touchdown in nine catches on the season.
Later on in the second, Nebraska capitalized on another big UCLA mistake when Bruin punter Sean Covington fumbled a snap and was eventually tackled at his own 26. Martinez then threw his third touchdown pass of the day two plays later, floating a pretty pass to a leaping Kenny Bell in the right corner of the end zone to put NU up a commanding 21-3 with just over seven minutes left in the half.
It looked as if UCLA had chipped away at the deficit on its next drive with a field goal by Fairbairn, but after review it was clear the kick had sailed wide right. The Huskers were unable to take advantage, though, and the Bruins came back and punched in their first touchdown of the game on a 10-yard run by Paul Perkins with just 57 seconds to go in the half. UCLA almost added another field goal in the final seconds, but Fairbairn came up short on a 55-yard attempt as time expired.
While Nebraska was able to avoid a total meltdown to close the first half, UCLA picked up right where it left off to open the third quarter, marching 89 yards on 10 plays and cutting it to 21-17 on a 3-yard touchdown run by Jordan James on its first drive of the second half.
After another three-and-out by NU's offense, the Bruins came right back and took their first lead of the day on a pretty 28-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline from Hundley to Shaquell Evans, putting UCLA up 24-21. UCLA then scored again on its next possession with a 12-yard touchdown pass to fullback Philip Ruhl and completely erased any momentum the Huskers had built up through the first two quarters.
"I don't know, to be honest with you," nickel back Ciante Evans said. "I guess we just lost our step and our sense of urgency. Guys were unfocused. I don't know what happened. I'll just try to watch the film and reevaluate some things."
Nebraska even tried digging into its bag of tricks with a fake punt by snapping it to the 300-pound defensive lineman Brodrick Nickens, but he came up a yard short and gave the Bruins the ball back inside NU territory. Hundley quickly cashed it in once again, this time with a 3-yard touchdown toss to Nate Iese to make it 38-21 going into the final quarter.
When all was said and done, UCLA had scored 28 unanswered points and out-gained the Huskers 157-40 in the third quarter alone, making a game that once looked to be an NU blowout turn completely in the other direction. The 28 points were also the most ever allowed by Nebraska in one quarter inside Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers finally showed some life early in the fourth quarter after a 40-yard pass to running back Ameer Abdullah and a fourth-down conversion pass to Jordan Westerkamp, but it ended up for not after Abdullah coughed the ball up and UCLA recovered at its 6-yard line.
"I think in the second half I kind of got the sense that we needed to try and hold onto the lead," Martinez said. "I think we were trying to, but we should have just gone out there and tried to just blow them out."
That would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for NU, as Fairbairn added one last field goal in the closing minutes to give the game its final score, 41-21.
The Huskers will try and get back on track next week when they play host to South Dakota State for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
"I just told our team they can't worry about what's happening on the outside," Pelini said. "We know what we're capable of as a football team. You have to stick together in times like this. I've said it over the first three weeks. My goal, always, is to win every football game. But we have to stay with the process of where we are as a football team and what we have to do to get better. We can't worry about what people are saying outside. It's gonna be negative. By the fans, by the media, by everybody.
"In times like this, we have to stick together. They only people that can fix it is us and that's a challenge we have. If we worry about what people are saying on the outside, then things are going to go a bad way."