SANTA CLARA, Calif. — So what’s it mean?
Had you announced before this season that Nebraska would go 6-7, it would be regarded by most, including those inside the program’s walls, as a fail. And yet for good reason, the Huskers left the Bay Area with a bounce in their step Saturday night.
The 37-29 win against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl seemed to confirm to them that they are in fact a better team, and closer to bigger things than that record suggests.
There’s heavy lifting ahead. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf talked after the game about replacing three offensive line starters. The coach stressed the need to keep building depth.
“But also continuing to look for guys that fit us, fit our style, great character guys that work hard and like football,” Langsdorf said. “That’s a big part of it, is just liking to play. I think we have that here. I think our guys like playing, they like practicing, and we just need to keep finding more and more of those.”
Saturday night’s result definitely won’t hurt in that pursuit. Five to six big weeks of recruiting await. On the trail, Husker coaches can highlight what their team did the last four games as a sign the program is trending up.
“Based off the alternative, it couldn’t be a better situation right now,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. “It’ll help recruiting. It will us in the offseason with weight room conditioning, and then in the spring. And then coming into the West (recruiting), where we intend to make a little bit more of a push on the West Coast, it’ll help. Because this is one of the premier teams. UCLA, USC. Teams in Southern California. That’s who recruits know. So it will help us.”
As we wait to see what type of bounce this win will provide to Husker football, let’s review the yays and nays from Nebraska's best work of the season.
Mike Cavanaugh’s crew had studied the tape on UCLA thoroughly. What it saw was a defense the Huskers might be able to push around a bit.
Still, who would have guessed a Nebraska team that had a season high of 258 rushing yards going in would have almost 300 before the fourth quarter of a bowl game?
The Huskers did this even with senior Ryne Reeves suffering a first-quarter injury. Junior Paul Thurston, who will battle for the center job next year, filled in admirably.
And say what you will about Big Ten football, but it’s full of big people, way bigger than what UCLA brought to the table.
“We came into the game expecting a good battle from the front four, but expected to be able to wear them down,” said freshman right tackle Nick Gates.
That had fully happened by the end of the third quarter. At the break, only Huskers were holding up four fingers.
We won’t use too much space here to belabor a point that will only be preaching to nodding heads.
The targeting ejection of safety Nate Gerry was the worst call we’ve seen in this Husker season, and probably by a considerable margin. Everyone agree? Yes? Yes? OK.
If you are in the 1 percent that doesn’t, you can check out senior safety Byerson Cockrell’s take.
“I was very shocked,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s going on.’ It just seems like football is just kind of getting a little soft now. But that was a good tackle, a very good tackle. You could put that on tape. It’s just crazy how the game has changed.”
At halftime, you wondered how a defense already thin in the secondary would function without Gerry. That leads us to the next yay. …
Nebraska decided to put heavy trust in another freshman. Antonio Reed had barely played any defensive snaps all year. But he was out there early on some key third-down plays. Beat by his man the first time, Reed bounced back.
It was Reed who coaches decided to plug into Gerry’s safety spot. Banker said it wasn’t perfect, but there were no obvious breakdowns. Nebraska only gave up one score in the second half.
Reed, coaches and players will tell you, plays with an edge. He’ll be important in 2016. Saturday night’s experience will be incredibly valuable going forward.
“He followed directions and did good, man,” Cockrell said. “I’m thankful for him.”
Devine Ozigbo: Let's just say that 102 yards of offense in a bowl game isn't going to knock down the idea that the sophomore-to-be is the leader in the running back clubhouse heading to 2016.
Stanley Morgan’s left arm: The UCLA defensive back is locking up your right arm? No problem. What a catch that was. Tough kid who wants to put in the work to be great.
Aaron Williams: He's going to give the Huskers versatility as both a safety and a nickel back for years to come.
Dedrick Young: He played more snaps than any linebacker this year. As a true freshman. That’s incredible.
Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones: Fought their tails off and each got a pick. Josh Rosen threw for 319 yards, and Jones got beat on a long TD, but they grew a lot the last part of the season. Just sophomores, too. And if you’ll notice, the four names above them are all freshmen.
Game told in a stat
Time of possession can sometimes be overrated, but it wasn’t on this night. One of Nebraska’s objectives: Keep future first-round NFL draft pick Rosen off the field as much as possible. How’s holding the ball for 38 minutes, 15 seconds do? The Huskers were also able to convert 7 of 11 third downs to help that cause.