Nebraska-Clemson: A Tale of Two Special Teams
It was the best of games, it was the worst of games.
Ultimately, the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl was determined by special teams plays.
Nebraska started the game very slowly. Scratch that, immobile. The defense played well in the first half, but the offense was...well, where were they? The Huskers were right around a single positive yard of rushing in the first quarter because rush after rush by sophomore Roy Helu Jr. was stuffed at or behind the line by Clemson's tenacious defense.
The Huskers got the most out of senior punter Dan Titchener (thanks for four great years, Titch—you'll be missed) in the first quarter with punt after punt.
At the end of one, the score was tied, 0-0.
To open the second, the special teams plays began in high fashion.
After a solid red zone stand by Nebraska's Blackshirt defense, a 20-yard field goal attempt by Clemson was blocked by none other than defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh—just another spectacular play for the big boy who's done it all this season.
An unsuccessful Nebraska series led to another Titchener punt. It was returned back into Husker territory by spectacular return-man Jacoby Ford, who—with C.J. Spiller—consistently gave Clemson excellent field position on punt and kickoff returns all game.
After a couple more unsuccessful drives by Nebraska, Titchener punted back to Clemson. After a couple more unsuccessful drives by Clemson, Jimmy Maners showed his own talents with a couple of spectacular punts.
(The game was scoreless to this point. Not to take away from anything the punters accomplished, but I personally like scoring, so it feels strange that most of the highlights thus far have been punts. Yes, the game truly was that sad for a while.)
With about five minutes left in the quarter, Clemson got on the board first with a fumble recovery that was returned for a touchdown. Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz was disheartened.
In an attempt to switch things up, Husker coach Bo Pelini stuck in running back Quentin Castille, a more powerful back than quick-and-dancy Helu. With a few solid runs from Castille, the Huskers had finally found some rushing success, ending with a 48-yard field goal from Alex Henery.
For Henery, and for fans, 48 yards was nothing after the 57-yarder to finish off Colorado on Black Friday.
The kickoff by Husker Adi Kunalic was one of several that was a touchback, effectively eliminating the return threat of Ford and Spiller.
The next Clemson pass was picked off, leaving Nebraska poised in the red zone to take the lead. But after a penalty, the next Nebraska pass was picked off and returned to the opposite red zone. Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz was very disheartened.
With under a minute on the clock, Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper completed an amazing touchdown pass to Aaron Kelly to put the Tigers up 14-3 at halftime.
Coach Pelini must have lit a fire under Nebraska because the Huskers came out ready to play in the second half. After a 31-yard kickoff return by Alfonzo Dennard, a confident Joe Ganz completed a long pass to senior wide receiver Todd Peterson and a touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Nate Swift (the last TD catch I'll get to see Swift catch in a Nebraska uniform). The extra point was good, and the kickoff was a touchback.
Nebraska's defense, newly energized, held Clemson and forced a punt. The returner, Niles Paul, fumbled the ball, and it was recovered by Clemson. If you're catching my drift, the special teams play by both teams played heavily into the success of the respective teams.
Clemson converted the turnover into a touchdown, their third off Nebraska turnovers in the game.
On the next series, Castille broke loose for a 58-yard scamper to the Clemson 17. Ganz found Peterson for a 19-yard touchdown to bring Nebraska within four, 21-17.
Another Cullen Harper pass was intercepted by Nebraska, leading to another Henery field goal, this one 28 yards, to bring the Huskers within one.
The next Maners punt for Clemson was blocked by Nebraska's Ricky Thenarse, giving Nebraska the ball within striking distance of the end zone. Another 28-yard field goal by Henery put the Huskers on top 23-21 to finish the third quarter.
A great return by Nebraska's Nate Swift to his own 48 on the next Clemson punt was erased by a costly special teams mistake, illegal block in the back, putting the Huskers back at their own 10.
Then Clemson punted to Nebraska, who punted back to Clemson, who punted back to Nebraska, who punted back to Clemson, who punted back to Nebraska.
Castille's 41-yard rush left Nebraska inside the 10 with a chance to seal the game away. The Huskers couldn't get a touchdown, but Henery kicked a fourth field goal from 22 yards out to give the Huskers a five-point advantage, 26-21.
Clemson drove the ball down to Nebraska's 10-yard line, but a nice sack by cornerback Eric Hagg left the Tigers 26 yards from the end zone. Nebraska held on third and fourth down to get the ball back.
The game was finished in the victory formation as Nebraska won, 26-21.
This Gator Bowl was truly decided by the play of both teams' special teams. The punters were impressive, and the return men set their teams up in great field position. Nebraska came up with a blocked field goal and a blocked punt to gain the second half advantage over Clemson, fueled by Henery's four field goals.
Henery, the unquestionable player of the game, is but a sophomore. And thank God.
It was everything I promised it would be: action, drama, suspense...and all with a happy ending.
Nebraska finishes the season 9-4 with the bowl victory, giving Bo & Co. plenty to build on for next season.
Ganz, Peterson, Swift, Titchener, Lucky, and the rest of the seniors, you will be missed. Oh, and Swift: Whichever NFL team drafts you is my new favorite team.
Thank you all for your support of Nebraska and my writing this season. And lest I forget, BOOMER SOONER on Jan. 8!
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