Return of the Blackshirts: Huskers Win Nail-Biter over Clemson 26-21

Bugeatersteve StuchlikCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2009

There was no denying the fact that Clemson had a good defense based on their season numbers. Turns out these Nebraska boys can play some defense too.

This was a game for the defenses, both of them, but when it was down to crunch time, in the final two-minutes of the game and all was on the line, it was the Blackshirts of Nebraska that made the difference in the game.

This game had enough drama to last most of us an entire season, let alone a single bowl game. But for the more than 65,000 in attendance and a few million watching it came down to an instant replay reversal and stout defense to send Husker Nation home happy.

Don’t think was a hard hitting in this game? Senior quarterback Joe Ganz was hit play after play and even missed a...well calling it a single play is way understating it, more on that later.

Then throw in the fact that starting running back Roy Helu Jr. was suffering from a knee infection and was limited to about five plays and senior Marlon Lucky was still hurting from his turf toe injury, so sophomore Quentin Castille stepped up and had the game of his life.  

Castille, often maligned this season due to his habit of putting the ball on the ground, responded like a three-year starter. He had a career-high 135 yards on 18 carries, including runs of 58 and 40 yards in the second half to help lead the Huskers to the victory.

Joe Ganz had a subpar day, completing just 19-of-36 for 236 yards passing, two touchdowns, and an interception, but was still named the game MVP. All of the Tigers points were a direct result from the Husker turnovers, so the defense had to step up for the Huskers to pull this one out, and boy did they.

The Blackshirts held Clemson to just 210 total yards, including only four yards rushing. Quarterback Cullen Harper was sacked five times and the Tigers finished just 3-of-16 on third down and converted only one of their three fourth-down attempts, as the Huskers harassed them all game long.

After Alex Henery kicked a field goal at the end of the third quarter to give the Huskers a 23-21 lead, it was drama time. On a drive in the fourth quarter, Joe Ganz rolled out on a second down play and was knocked cuckoo.

Enter backup Patrick Witt. Shawn Watson, the offensive coordinator surprisingly called for a pass on third down and Witt, finding no one open, chose to run. After gaining four yards, Witt was drilled and fumbled the ball, which was picked up by Clemson and run back for an apparent touchdown.

Instant replay reversed the fumble call on the field and just like that a 28-23 deficit was back to a 23-21 Husker lead. The Huskers then drove down and Henery kicked another field goal for the 26-21 final margin, but the drama was hardly over.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Tigers had their best non-turnover drive of the game. There were three dramatic third or fourth down conversions that kept Clemson alive.

First Harper hit Aaron Kelly for an 11-yard gain on third-and-eight. Later, on fourth down inside Nebraska territory, he found Jacoby Ford for 16 yards. Then Kelly again for 17 yards to set up the climactic, decisive four downs.  

On first and goal from the 10-yard line sophomore nickel back Eric Hagg broke free, jumped up and knocked down a pass attempt by Harper.

Then Hagg, this time blitzing from the opposite side, sacked Harper for a 17-yard loss on second down, and tracking Harper down after the QB had tried to fool him a pump fake.

On third down, backup safety Matt O’Hanlon knocked a pass out of running back C.J. Spiller’s hands in the end zone.

And on fourth, Harper threw wide of Ford at the 10. Game over and time for Bo Pelini’s Gatorade shower.

“At the end of the game, when it’s on the line, when they got four downs from the 10, I want to be pretty aggressive,” Pelini said. “I just want to set the tone there.”

With that, Pelini become only the fourth Nebraska coach to win nine games or more in his first season as a head coach. The other three, how about Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Frank Solich for company?

Pelini’s 9-4 record also tied the best mark for all of 2008’s first-year head coaches and was the best record of any first-time head coach.

This game was a typical 2008 Husker game, as they struggled in the first half, falling behind by 11 points on two separate occasions, including trailing 21-10 early in the third quarter.

After that, the Blackshirts held the Tigers to a total of 14 plays in the third quarter for -6 total yards.