Nebraska lost a memorable Holiday Bowl 45-42 to USC in a game that saw the Huskers nearly erase an 18-point deficit but ultimately fall short as DeMornay Pierson-El was tackled after a one yard gain on fourth and three with 2:31 remaining.
USC lead Nebraska 45-27 with 2:03 left in the third quarter, but it was long before that that Husker fans felt like they'd seen this story before. The script; a strong start, a team that comes out on fire, but then fades and gets destroyed in a hail of big plays as the Husker offense remains stymied. That feeling set in as USC scored 21 unanswered points, dissolving a 17-10 Nebraska lead in the first quarter to lead 31-17 early in the third.
Nebraska would fight back as USC failed miserably to put the game away.
Ameer Abdullah scored on a 20-yard run with 9:41 remaining in the third to cut the score to 31-24, but USC appeared to diminish comeback hopes within five plays as Javorius Allen outran Husker defenders for a 44-yard score.
Nebraska blocked a USC punt after forcing a three-and-out, but could muster only a field goal after the Huskers had a first and goal from the four. The sequence saw Armstrong rush for a yard, Abdullah get sacked for a seven yard loss while Armstrong made up the yardage running for eight yards to the USC two to set up a fourth and goal attempt. Armstrong lost six yards on the next play, but the play was blown dead because of a Husker false start. Drew Brown hit a 24-yard field goal to make it 38-27.
USC stretched their lead to 45-27 as USC quarterback Cody Kessler hit Juju Smith for a 45 yard pass to the Nebraska 20, then hit Bryce Dixon on the next play for a touchdown.
On Nebraska's next series, Armstrong was under strong pressure, scrambled to the right, and hit Jordan Westerkamp who was coming back for the ball. Westerkamp made a move around two USC defender then outraced the rest on his way to a 65-yard touchdown, cutting the score to 45-34.
Nebraska would force a USC three-and-out, and USC elected to punt rather than going for it on fourth-and-one from the USC 41. The Huskers then used a mix of run and pass to get to the Trojan 23. On the next three plays the Huskers picked up five yards on a pass to Westerkamp, three yards on a Terrel Newby run, but no gain by Newby on third and two. On fourth and two, Armstrong ran an option, made a pitch fake, then shifted his way to the end zone to move the score to 45-42 as Armstrong completed a two-point conversion to Kenny Bell.
The Huskers would force another USC three-and-out as Kessler was sacked by Greg McMullen and Kevin Williams on third and nine. Starting from their own 26, Nebraska would make it to the USC 31 before stalling. An incomplete pass to Pierson-El on third down set up another fourth down conversion attempt. This would fail as Pierson-El was tackled short by Leo McQuay who didn't hesitate and burst across the line after seeing Pierson-El go in motion.
USC picked up a first down, but was forced to punt back to Nebraska with :17 left. The Huskers would move to the Nebraska 44 as Kenny Bell scrambled to get out of bounds after getting the ball on a hook-and-ladder play as time appeared to expire. The officials conferred, reviewed, then stated that one second be placed back on the clock. Armstrong last pass attempt to Brandon Reilly fell incomplete as time expired.
Kessler was touted as the most underrated quarterback in the country coming into the game, but he was outdone by Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr, who completed 32-of-51 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Armstrong set a new career high and also set Nebraska bowl records for pass attempts, completions, passing yardage, and passing touchdowns. Armstrong added 57 yards rushing along with a touchdown on an option keeper.
Pierson-El had eight receptions, a bowl record for Nebraska receivers. He ended up with 102 receiving yards, his brilliant play giving Husker fans much hope for their offense heading into the 2015 season.
Bell finished with seven receptions and 71 receiving yards and a touchdown to finish his career with 2,689 receiving yards as the Nebraska career leader in that category. Bell is the first player in Nebraska history to lead the team in receptions for four straight seasons.
Abdullah finished with 88 rushing yards on 27 carries in his last game as a Husker. He had 120 yards in kickoff returns. His career rushing total ended at 4,588 yards, just 192 yards behind Mike Rozier's record of 4,780.
Kessler was no slouch, going 23-for-39 for 321 yards, three touchdowns an an interception. His favorite target was Nelson Agholor who finished with seven receptions, 90 yards and a touchdown. Dixon had four receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown, while Adoree Jackson had three receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Allen lead all rushers with 152 yards on 26 attempts while scoring two touchdowns.
With the loss, Nebraska fell to 0-4-1 against USC all time, and 25-26 in bowl games.
The Bo Pelin era has ended at Nebraska. The Mike Riley era has begun.