Bowled Over

Huskers lose Big 12, face Washington in Holiday Bowl

**Imgs in folder if useable A minute and a half into the second quarter of the Big 12 championship game, Nebraska safety Courtney Osborne intercepted a Landry Jones pass and returned the ball to the Oklahoma 12-yard line. As Osborne went down, the Sooners’ Ryan Broyles stripped the ball. Oklahoma’s offense returned to the field, and even snapped the ball. But before the snap, Nebraska had taken a 30-second timeout, during which coach Bo Pelini decided to challenge the call. The ruling of an Osborne fumble and Broyles’ recovery was overturned. Two plays and a Sooner penalty later, the Huskers’ Rex Burkhead passed to Kyler Reed for 5 yards and a touchdown. With 12:14 remaining in the half, Nebraska led 17-0. Oh, the possibilities … With a victory would have come a BCS bowl bid, specifically one from the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskers haven’t played in a BCS bowl since 2001, a 37-14 Rose Bowl loss to Miami. With a victory, Nebraska would have had its first conference championship since 1999. With a victory, the Huskers would have finished a traditional rivalry with Oklahoma that went back to 1921 and was renewed every season from 1928 to 1997, when it ended on an annual basis because of the Big 12’s two-on-two-off cross-divisional scheduling. A better script couldn’t have been written for Nebraska’s final Big 12 game. By halftime, however, the Huskers’ lead was only 20-17. And the three points on Alex Henery’s 42-yard field goal to regain the lead with 6 seconds remaining would be their last. Instead of discussing Nebraska’s first 11-win season since 2001, Pelini had to explain a 23-20 loss. And the first question in the obligatory post-game news conference, losing team first, set the tone: Had the decision to start Taylor Martinez at quarterback been the right one? “Yes,” Pelini replied. Why was it the right one? “Because he’s our starting quarterback,” said Pelini. “And he was healthy.” Martinez didn’t exactly play as if he were healthy, hence the follow-up question. But then, Nebraska’s offense in general seemed to be ailing, particularly in the second half. The symptoms were reflected in the final statistics. Among them, the Huskers fumbled five times, losing three. Martinez threw a critical interception. And he was sacked seven times. “I thought we had our opportunities,” Pelini said. “We didn’t get it done.” The loss certainly couldn’t be placed on the officiating, a hot topic following Nebraska’s 9-6 loss at Texas A&M two weeks before. The Huskers were penalized only three times for 15 yards, both Big 12 championship game lows. And as the sequence early in the second quarter illustrated, they benefited from the review of a disputed play. As in its other two losses (both against South Division opponents) Nebraska played well enough defensively to win. Though Jones completed 23-of-41 passes for 342 yards and a touchdown, the Sooners averaged only 2.9 yards per rush and converted only 1-of-16 third downs. Linebacker Lavonte David was credited with 17 tackles, tying a championship game record. And defensive tackle Jared Crick sacked Jones twice during the second half, the second on the drive that produced the winning points, on a 27-yard field goal with 8:28 remaining. Still, the Huskers would have three possessions after that. On the second, they reached the Oklahoma 39-yard line, within Henery’s field goal range. But on third-and-8 from the 39, Martinez was sacked, trying to make a play. He fumbled but recovered at the 50. A team “can’t take a sack in that situation,” said Pelini. Now, Oklahoma will represent the Big 12 in the Fiesta Bowl, against Big East representative Connecticut, while Nebraska will play Washington in the Holiday Bowl. Yes, the Huskers beat Washington 56-21 at Seattle in mid-September. Yes, they’re scheduled to play Washington again next September. And yes, they played in the Holiday Bowl a year ago. Speculation was that a loss to Oklahoma would put Nebraska in the Insight Bowl against Iowa, an attractive match-up based on geography, enhanced by Husker alumni in the Phoenix area. Nebraska fans will consider relegating the Huskers to a rematch with Washington in the same bowl to which they traveled last December a final slap in the face by the conference, of course. But Nebraska controlled its own destiny. And when the Huskers took the 17-0 lead against Oklahoma, they seemed well on their way to bringing in the new year in Glendale, Ariz. When Pelini was asked about the level of disappointment, his answer was as justified as it was predictable. “It’s pretty obvious what the level of disappointment is,” he said. “We came in here to win the Big 12 Championship. We didn’t get it done. The kids are hurting. “It’s a pretty obvious question, isn’t it?” And so it was.

posted at 06:43 pm
on Wednesday, December 08th, 2010

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