A lot of people around Nebraska had written off the 2014 season after Thanksgiving weekend; Bo Pelini was gone, and for some, it's all about 2015 and Mike Riley. So what was the point of this Holiday Bowl matchup against Southern Cal? Just another opportunity to complain about Bo Pelini and his coaching staff? Game was meaningless in their eyes; an "afterthought," in the words of the Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel.
Well, for the players and coaches, it wasn't meaningless. Any questions about the motivation level of the Huskers were answered long before ESPN started moving the game across their platforms. Bottom line to me is that this team wanted to be there and play well. Some will dismiss it as one final "us against the world" motivation, but I tend to believe it's simply proving the critics wrong.
QB: Was asking Tommy Armstrong to throw the ball 51 times a huge tactical error in the game plan? I'm not so sure about that; it was pretty clear that Southern Cal's #1 objective was to stop #8. If anything, the mistake was waiting until the second half to ask Armstrong to run the ball. If you remember back to September, Boston College's Tyler Murphy certainly put up big numbers on the ground. Armstrong still had his issues with locking onto receivers, even though they were covered...but considering he outdueled Cody Kessler on the day, that's not a bad performance at all. Grade: A-
I-Back: Any questions as to why Ameer Abdullah wasn't getting to the second level were answered in the second half when we saw Trojan defensive end Leonard Williams bring Abdullah to the ground while Armstrong raced around the right side untouched on the zone read. It was clear on those rare instances tht he got into the open field that he was feeling better than he had since October, but the running game just wasn't there for him. That makes his 149 yards of offense even more impressive. Grade: B+
WR: Whomever Mike Riley hires as a wide receiver coach has to be drooling over the chance to coach De'Mornay Pierson-El. As the season has emerged, the old staff startied to find more and more ways to get him the ball, and with Kenny Bell departing, Pierson-El is going to be the primary weapon in the passing game And that's a good thing. Bell had another fine performance as well in his farewell game. He'll leave Nebraska as the Huskers all-time greatest receiver, but I suspect he's merely holding the spot temporarily for Pierson-El. And let's not forget Jordan Westerkamp, who recognized that Armstrong was improvising (a good thing) and broke off his route to create a 66 yard touchdown. Grade: A
OL: Sophomore Dylan Utter was a surprise starter at center, but was quickly replaced by Paul Thurston after watching him get steamrolled repeatedly by the Southern Cal defensive line. Givens Price earned special attention on ESPN for a matador move on Leonard Williams. I'm still not sure how instant replay saw the lateral to Alex Lewis as a forward pass, though it really didn't matter in the end. The line wasn't particularly effective, as the Trojans had eight tackles for loss Grade: C-
DL: I'm conflicted on my thoughts here. No quarterback hurries and only two sacks on the day, and Vincent Valentine got manhandled on Javorius Allen's 44 yard touchdown run in the third quarter. On the other hand, this was the first time Cody Kessler was held under 60% passing all season long. There were moments of some really good play, especially in the third quarter, but quite a few breakdowns. Grade: C+
Linebacker: Aside from being confused on Bryce Dixon's touchdown catch, I thought the linebackers held up OK considering the lack of depth due to injuries to Trevor Roach and David Santos. Josh Banderas led the team with 14 tackles. Still, we saw too many tackles downfield. Grade: C
Secondary: I thought the corners played well against the best group of receivers that Nebraska has seen in years. And to be fair some of those passes were perfectly thrown lasers that were almost impossible to defend. Safety play was a little spotty, especially Nate Gerry. Did they look silly against Adoree Jackson? Yes, but I think he's going to make a lot of teams look silly over the next couple of years. Grade: B-
Special Teams: Another mixed bag: the good was Kieron Williams blocking a punt. He officially got credit for two, but I'm not sure he actually touched the ball on the first one. Plus, Ameer Abdullah looked really good on kickoff returns. But the bad was the coverage on Jackson's kickoff return, which was erroneously ruled a touchdown.
Wait. What? Everybody saw him score with that leap into the end zone, right?
Right. The problem is that under NCAA rule 9, section 2, article 1, note a-1-d, the play was over when Jackson left his feet to cross the goal line, and the penalty should have been assessed from that spot. From the NCAA 2013-14 football rule book:
There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct or any act that interferes with orderly game administration on the part of players, substitutes, coaches, authorized attendants or any other persons subject to the rules, before the game, during the game or between periods. Infractions for these acts by players are administered as either live-ball or dead-ball fouls depending on when they occur.
a. Specifically prohibited acts and conduct include:
1. No player, substitute, coach or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game, including but not limited to:
(d) Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves).
The rule book contains a specific example that applies to Jackson in this case:
Third and 15 at the B-20. Eligible A88 catches a pass at the B-18 and heads for the goal line. At the B-10 he goes into a "goose step" and continues this action as he crosses the goal line.
RULING: Live-ball foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fifteen-yard penalty enforced at the spot of the foul, which is the B-10, and repeat third down. Third and 20 at the B-25.
Since Jackson cartwheeled into the end zone, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty should have been assessed from just outside the goal line, making it first and ten at the NU 16 yard line. Grade for Nebraska's special teams: B
Overall: Very few people gave the Huskers much of a chance in this one. Statistical analysis had Southern Cal a heavy favorite, and people only wondered about the mindset of the team after the coaching change. But the Huskers got off to a good start, weathered a Southern Cal onslaught before halftime, and mounted a fourth quarter comeback, displaying some mental toughness in the process. Not only is that something that Husker fans should appreciate, it's something that Mike Riley should be able to build on. Grade: B-
Elsewhere in College Football
ESPN: It wasn't ESPN's fault that the Pinstripe Bowl went into overtime. It was their fault for scheduling their tripleheader of bowls starting at noon instead of 11 am. And I'm not sure what the point of bouncing the game from ESPNnews to ESPN2. And all the time, we were treated to the same lackluster ESPN production, where the announcers aren't even paying attention to what's happening on the field. Sad to say that Jesse Palmer might have been the best part of the production. Grade: D
Western Kentucky: A 35 point fourth quarter lead should be safe, right? Well, not with the Hilltoppers who nearly choked it away. Most people probably turned away from the Bahamas Bowl blowout, and those that may have had the game on in the background on Christmas Eve would be forgiven for being in a Lou Holtz stupor...only to get awoken by the incredible juxtaposition of a Hail Mary and a Stanford Band multi-lateral play.
Grade: D- (because they still managed to win the game, since Central Michigan's two point conversion try failed..)