ORLANDO, Fla. - The minute Nebraska marched down the field and scored on their opening drive, to only have it overshadowed by a blocked extra point return for two points you knew something was going to be different about the Capital One Bowl.
The Huskers had things going on offense. They had South Carolina off-balanced and guessing. They had a good plan in place to keep Connor Shaw in check, but whenever NU seemed to seize momentum the Gamecocks found ways to take it right back.
"Every time something happened today, another thing would happen that took the wind out of our sails and killed the momentum," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said following the Huskers 30-13 loss to South Carolina.
Instead of going up 7-0 to start the game, the blocked extra point made things 6-2 - a 3 point swing. With Nebraska driving and up 13-9, running back Ameer Abdullah fumbles the ball inside the 10 yard line to take another 3 to 7 points off the scoreboard.
Right before halftime quarterback Taylor Martinez got Nebraska down to the 30 yard line to try and set up a field goal for Brett Maher to only throw an interception on third down with 38 seconds left.
South Carolina responds by throwing a Hail Mary pass for a 51 yard touchdown to close out the half leading 16-13. Instead of possibly being up 24-7 or even 19-9 at the minimum, NU found themselves down 16-13 going into the locker room.
"I'll say it straight out," Pelini said following Monday's 30-13 loss to South Carolina. "Our football team feels and even after the game felt we were the better football team, but you have to go out and earn it. It's a humbling game. You give them credit. They made plays. I give all the credit to South Carolina.
"We're a pretty good team too, but we just didn't execute in the times we needed to do it. We made enough mistakes where we were our own worst enemy at times. You can't win football games like that."
I know what people are going to say after just seeing this score or looking at the final stats that "another SEC team beat up on a Big Ten school."
That wasn't the case at all in this game. NU flat beat themselves with their own comedy of errors and mistakes. They had every chance to seize the momentum and take control of this game.
Even a field goal to open the second half would've tied the game at 16-16 and that too would've changed the complexion of the second half. Nebraska did everything possible not to win this game.
In some ways, this game was a microcosm of the entire season. NU's problem for most of the year is they only played well as a "front runner." This team has had trouble responding to adversity and shifts in momentum nearly every key game other than Ohio State this season.
It's hard to even define this season. Nebraska won 9 games, but it had an empty feeling. It just never delivered what people wanted. The hard thing is I don't think people really knew what they wanted.
It sure is going to make for an interesting off-season. I'm not worried about the offense going forward, I think the major questions remain with the defense and replacing Alfonzo Dennard, Lavonte David and Jared Crick.
What I saw in Orlando
***Beck said that South Carolina made the adjustment to a cover two defense after NU started having success running the football early. Before Monday, Beck said South Carolina ran very little to no cover two and they were primarily a cover three and cover one team.
***I think it's safe to say with six quarterback sacks and five in the second half South Carolina's defensive line lived up to their billing. Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney lived up to every bit of the hype finishing with a combined 3 ½ quarterback sacks.
***The 253 yards of offense Nebraska finished with on Monday was the lowest output by NU since last year's Holiday Bowl loss when they finished with just 189 yards. In NU's loss at Michigan this year the offense finished with 260 yards. Some of that is deceiving though because of the amount of sacks Martinez took at the end of the game.
***I thought Pelini handled himself very well in the post-game press conference. Pelini even cracked a joke or two and was open to take any questions after the game. Beck also stayed around for nearly 20 minutes to talk with reporters.
***I really feel for cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. I think he let his emotions and competitive juices get to him. Dennard is the first player to get ejected from a game at NU since Terrence Moore was thrown out of the 2008 Oklahoma game for throwing a punch.
***On the Hail Mary pass to Alshon Jeffery Dennard said he did a poor job of getting his hands on him to slow him up off the line. Austin Cassidy also said NU didn't have somebody behind him, which they were supposed to at all times. It was just poor execution all around and a great play by a future first round draft pick.
The final grades
Rushing offense: B-
Nebraska gets an A or B+ for the way they ran the ball on South Carolina early, but once they got down and put themselves in bad situations with dumb penalties, the running game completely disappeared because of the down and distances they faced. Rex Burkhead had just eight carries for 18 yards in the second half, after finishing with 71 yards on 15 carries at halftime. NU did not have trouble running the football. It was their own mistakes that took them out of their running game. I also brought the grade down some for Abdullah's fumble.
Passing offense: D+
Early on Martinez hit on some big passes, but he threw a costly pick before halftime that took off three points from the board and allowed South Carolina to score on a Hail Mary. There were also some costly drops and the protection up front struggled against South Carolina's defensive line, as Martinez had no time in the pocket. South Carolina finished with six sacks, five of which came in the second half.
Rushing defense: C
Nebraska had a good plan to keep Shaw in the pocket and not open up running lanes for him. He still gave them problems though with his feet and in the zone read. However, South Carolina averaged just 3 yards per carry on 40 attempts. The rushing defense by NU was not what lost this football game.
Passing defense: D-
Shaw was 11-of-17 for 230 yards. Most importantly he didn't throw an interception or give Nebraska any free opportunities. When Shaw needed to hit the home run he did by hooking up with Jeffery four times for 148 yards and he also found Kenny Miles on a nice touchdown pass. When you are rushing just four most of the game, you can't afford to get beat down field like that with seven men in coverage.
Special teams: F
South Carolina's blocked an extra point and returned it for a two point conversion. This play was a sign of things to come for NU. The Gamecocks dominated the return game with three solid plays, including a 45 yard kick return. Kicker Brett Maher missed a field goal as well, which would've tied the game in the third quarter at 16-16.
Sean Callahan can be reached at [email protected] 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.