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The Morning After: Holiday Bowl vs. USC

What does everyone think about the tussle down in San Diego last night? Here you go.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sipple/Lincoln Journal-Star: No moral victories, but Huskers inspiring in defeat

Where is Nebraska headed?

Well, its new leader, Riley, now will begin in earnest to lay a foundation. He’s clearly inheriting a team with decent talent and excellent character.

Riley liked what he saw in the bowl practices he watched. He said he always tries to gauge folks’ enthusiasm for work.

"That’s what I really appreciate most about people, is how much they appreciate working," he said. "I thought the practices looked great that way."

So did the bowl game, despite the circumstances.

Tom Shatel/Omaha World-Herald: Thrill ride ends in a loss, but Huskers can keep their heads up

The Huskers were within a field goal, 45-42, with 6:52 left. An eternity the way these two were scoring.

But they couldn’t get there. Faced with fourth-and-3 at the USC 31, Cotton passed on sending out Drew Brown for a 48-yard field goal. He said the staff had drawn a line in the sand where Brown could make it. It was beyond the line.

That’s fine. But the fourth down play — a flip pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El as he was coming down the line — was stopped for a 1-yard gain.

His lead blocker was Abdullah.

If you’re going to go for it, ride the main horse. Give it to Abdullah.

There weren’t many regrets in this one. They laid it all out there.

"Kind of a microcosm of what the last five years have been like," Jake Cotton said. "It hasn’t always been pretty. But it was gritty."

"Best roller coaster experience I’ve ever had," Josh Mitchell said.

When it was over, Nebraska players walked off the field slowly. But their heads were high.

Brandon Vogel/Hail Varsity: Keep The No Quit

"We’re not a group that quits," senior offensive lineman Jake Cotton said after Nebraska’s 45-42 loss to USC in the 2014 Holiday Bowl.

Let that be the lasting legacy of the Bo Pelini era because it was, almost undeniably, true. In all but the biggest blowouts – the frequency of which were the reason Mike Riley was sitting in the stands in San Diego on Saturday, patiently waiting to assume control – the Huskers always had a shot. They fought to get back in, and won, a remarkable amount of games over the past three or four years. But it’s better not to be in that situation in the first place.

That’s one of Riley’s big challenges now that the clock has struck 12 and this is officially his program. Nebraska has inherent advantages over most teams it plays in any given year. It lost three of the four games where it was an underdog this season and dropped a game as a favorite to Minnesota along the way. Riley will need to eliminate the latter and win more of the former but that’s easier said than done. That said, there were a couple of lessons to be learned from the Holiday Bowl, a narrow loss to a team that’s going to be very, very trendy, presuming it gets at least its quarterback back, in the preseason polls next July.

Bill Platsche/Los Angeles Times: USC gets Holiday Bowl win that's too close for comfort

USC needed both plays to get past a Nebraska team that went into the game with a question regarding its motivation.

Former coach Bo Pelini was fired after the regular-season finale and Mike Riley was hired to replace him.

It was left to interim Coach Barney Cotton to rally the Cornhuskers, just as USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton did last season for the Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Led by quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska never quit but could not overcome the Trojans.

"They were everything we thought they would be," Cotton said.

Dirk Chatelain/Omaha WH: Riley just an ordinary, average Husker Head Football coach

You may have thought the past month of Husker football was bizarre and you’d be right. You may have thought this Holiday Bowl was wacky and you’d be right. But it doesn’t get much stranger than Riley sitting in Section 58, Row 12, Seat 10 at Qualcomm Stadium, surrounded by players’ parents, athletic department officials and ordinary fans.

"I thought he’d be up there in the box, for crying out loud," said quarterback Johnny Stanton’s dad, sitting near Riley’s family. "Where does that ever happen, for goodness sakes?"

I suppose it happens during an awkward coaching transition. I suppose it happens when you hire a coach who really doesn’t think he’s a big deal.

"It’s just kind of who he is," Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst told me. "I think we both kind of wanted to sit outside."

Riley wanted something else, too. He wanted a rare opportunity to experience a college football game as a fan. Without responsibility. Without a headset. With his family. You may never have another experience like this, I told him at the concession stand.

"We don’t take it for granted," he said, hot dog in hand.

Evan Budrovich/Conquest Chronicles: Nelson Agholor seals the deal in wild 45-42 win

What a night for Adoree' Jackson, JuJu Smith, Bryce Dixon and John Plattenburg, freshmen that were thrown right into the fire and expected to contribute right from day one. All of these guys show great promise, along with the young offensive line, that could compete for a Pac-12 Championship.

At the same time, some sloppy fourth quarter play calling left fans wondering "could this really happen again," especially after the agony of watching yet another team creep right back into the football game. USC slowed down Ameer Abdullah on the ground but struggled to slow down the dual-threat option of Tommy Armstrong. The Cornhuskers finished the night with 144 yards on the ground but it was the elusive options that left everyone scared in the second half.