On New Year’s Day, Nebraska won the Gator Bowl, beating Georgia 24-19. In doing so, Nebraska ended a bowl drought that stretched back to the 2009 Holiday Bowl and gave this year’s senior class its first and only bowl victory. The win was an upset, as Nebraska was a nine-point underdog to Georgia.
Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s head coach, came into the Gator Bowl after surviving what many thought could have been his last game against Iowa. After a turbulent year that included Deadspin’s release of a profanity-laced audio tape where Pelini called Nebraska fans “fair-weather,” a series of ugly and mostly self-inflicted losses and a bizarre postgame press conference after the Iowa loss, few would have been surprised if athletic director Shawn Eichorst had taken Pelini up on his offer of “if they want to fire me, go ahead” (as reported by USA Today).
But Eichorst stuck with Pelini, a decision for which Pelini was clearly grateful in his postgame comments. And as Pelini stood in the Jacksonville rain, holding a trophy aloft and looking forward to “championships to come,” the question on the minds of many Nebraska fans was what exactly the bowl win meant for Pelini and for the Nebraska program as a whole.
What didn’t happen in the game stood out as much as what did. Against Michigan State and Iowa, Nebraska lost in large part because it turned the ball over. Against Georgia, Nebraska only had one turnover to the Bulldogs’ two. As a result—much like what Nebraska saw in reverse against the Spartans and the Hawkeyes—Nebraska was able to win the game despite being outgained by Georgia, 416-307.
But it was more than just turnovers. Despite the sloppy conditions, Nebraska had a relatively penalty-free game (six penalties for 50 yards). More importantly, Nebraska’s tackling was as good as it has been in recent memory. Because of this, the Blackshirts were able to contain Georgia tailback Todd Gurley to 86 yards on 21 carries. In comparison to Nebraska’s defense of other backs at the end of the season, the performance against Gurley—easily the most talented back Nebraska faced all year—is even more impressive:
Langford (Mich. St.)
Zwinak (Penn St.)
It’s one game, to be certain. But it does prove a point that a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst has made before: Nebraska is ready to win if Nebraska gets out of Nebraska’s way.
Winning the turnover battle. Winning (or, in this case, not losing) the special teams battle. Limiting penalties. Tackling well. The fundamentals of football that, at least for one soggy morning in Florida, Nebraska executed. As a result, the Big Ten notched a win over the vaunted SEC, and Nebraska won a game in which it was a nine-point underdog.
Is that what we will see in 2014? Has one good performance in a second-tier bowl righted the problems that have lingered in Lincoln for the last six years?
Obviously, such a sea change from one game would be far-fetched. But it is not unreasonable to think that the Gator Bowl performance could at least provide a model for Nebraska as it heads into the offseason.
Nebraska’s front seven on defense look imposing for next year. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong cushioned his lead for the upcoming quarterback battle with Johnny Stanton this spring. If I-back Ameer Abdullah decides to return for his senior season (which may be less of a sure thing after his Gator Bowl performance), he should be the backbone of an offense that possesses a number of exciting weapons.
There will be work to do in the offseason, of course. Nebraska will be replacing most of its offensive line, as well as key pieces of its secondary. While Nebraska’s return game didn’t hurt NU against Georgia, it certainly wasn’t a source of strength.
But the bigger question will be, mentally, how the coach and team handle adversity next season. The pressure of Pelini’s job status clearly wore on everybody, and it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that said pressure affected performance on the field. Particularly against Iowa, between the hat swipe 15-yard penalty on Pelini and the mind-boggling fake punt call that helped turn the game, actions taken under pressure by Pelini and company helped dig a hole from which Nebraska could not emerge.
Those difficulties and challenges will arise again in 2014. If Pelini reverts to form and some version of “Coach Chickenbleep” makes an appearance, then a repeat of previous seasons—four losses, struggling to win a division and no conference title—is a reasonable expectation.
But the Gator Bowl performance provides a model for something different. And if Pelini, now in year seven at the helm in Lincoln, is able to build off that performance and capture some of that long-awaited consistency and stability, 2014 may very well be something special for Nebraska fans.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge