Official Husker Locker Blog
2009 Jan 01
Blackshirts Stand Tall, Turn Back Clemson
Five turnovers. Two blocked kicks. Heroic defensive stands, 25 tackles for loss, one-handed catches and too many big hits to count. A third-string running back playing the game of his young life. And did we mention the backup quarterback whose fumble on his first and only play was returned for a touchdown that was then reversed when instant replay ruled he was down?
Yes, Nebraska’s 26-21 Gator Bowl win over Clemson was packed with enough twists, turns and game-changing plays for an entire New Year’s Day worth of football. And the Huskers’ defense – especially its front four – got to write the final chapter of the four-hour daytime soap.
With NU clinging to that five-point lead with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Blackshirts – they earned the name Thursday - stopped Clemson on downs inside Nebraska’s 20-yard line, as head coach Bo Pelini – who had deftly mixed up his defensive calls all afternoon - dialed up heavy, seven-man blitzes.
“At the end of the game, when it’s on the line, and they got four downs from the ten, I’m gonna be pretty aggressive” Pelini said. “They gotta pick their poison. We were bringing more than they could pick up.”
On first down sophomore nickel back Eric Hagg broke free, jumped and knocked down a pass from Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper.
Then Hagg, blitzing from the opposite side, sacked Harper for a 17-yard loss on second down, 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 CJ Spiller’s hands in the end zone.
And on fourth, Harper threw wide of his receiver, Jacoby Ford, at the ten.
It was easily Nebraska’s best performance of the year on defense, as it held Clemson to just 210 total yards and four rushing yards. Although Spiller made hay in the return game, he and running back James Davis combined for just 49 total offensive yards. The Blackshirts sacked Harper five times and forced nine punts. The Tigers were constantly put in no-choice passing situations, converting 3 of 16 third down tries.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh led NU with eight tackles, two sacks and a blocked field goal. Suh’s counterpart, Ty Steinkuhler, had six tackles, a sack, and he created an interception with a deflection. In all, Nebraska had 11 tackles for loss.
“(The defense) dominated us,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “I’m disappointed it. We knew they were good upfront. I just thought they were disruptive. They caused a lot of problems for us.”
Nebraska (9-4) finished the game with three kneel-down plays – hardly indicative of the drama that preceded them. Quarterback Joe Ganz – who would be named MVP despite having two turnovers that directly led to first-half Clemson touchdowns –tucked the ball under his arm, fielded a hug from defensive end Zach Potter and celebrated Nebraska’s first bowl win since the 2005 season. It doubled as the largest bowl comeback in Husker history, too – as NU twice climbed out of 11-point holes, mostly of its own making.
It ended an emotional, ultimately hopeful season of new beginnings, close losses and exciting victories with a ninth win – once believed the standard of a Nebraska football program – and resounding rebuttal to the lost year of 2007, when the Huskers thought themselves capable of winning a national title, but instead limped to a 5-7 record. That led to the firing of Bill Callahan and the eventual hiring of Pelini.
“I told the seniors last night and I talked also about it today: You can put some more cement on that foundation we’ve laid,” Pelini said. “It keeps the momentum going. The kids are excited. They’re starting to believe…the character and resolve of this team showed again today.
“…It’s been a tough 12 months. But there’s been a lot of hard work involved by a lot of people.”
And a lot of highlight plays. There was no shortage of them in the Gator Bowl, where Nebraska and Clemson gave a lively, vocal crowd of 67,282 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium their money’s worth – and then some.
After a first quarter dominated by defenses, Clemson drew first blood with linebacker DeAndre McDaniel’s 28-yard fumble return after he deflected a lazy option pitch from Ganz. The Huskers answered with an Alex Henery 48-yard field goal, and then got a gift late in the second quarter when Anthony West intercepted a deflected Harper pass. After a celebration penalty, NU was set up at Clemson’s 32-yard line with 1:05 remaining.
That’s when Ganz, under heavy pressure, short-armed a sideline pass for Niles Paul. Clemson quarterback Crezdon Butler stepped in front and returned the interception 63 yards inside the NU’s 20. CU scored two plays later when Harper floated a fade pass to Aaron Kelly, who leapt under it for a touchdown.
Nebraska quickly cut into Clemson’s 14-3 halftime lead with a five-play, 54-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter. Ganz hit senior receiver Nate Swift with a 17-yard fade pattern in the corner of the end zone; Swift caught the ball with one hand and dragged one foot for the score.
Then, after Clemson padded its cushion back to 11 with a 41-yard touchdown pass from Harper to Ford – a play set up by Niles Paul’s fumble on a punt return - NU answered with a touchdown in four plays. Sophomore running back Quentin Castille – who had a career day with 125 yards rushing - started the drive with a 58-yard gash through the heart of the Tigers’ defense; Ganz finished the drive with a 17-yard pass to Todd Peterson on a slant pattern.
Ganz, whose first half probably ranked as his worst of the season, rebounded to finish with 236 yards passing and two touchdowns.
“He had some bad things happen to him in the first half,” Pelini said. “There are a lot of kids - who aren’t as strong and don’t have as much character -would have wilted under those circumstances. Joe just kept going. It takes mental toughness to do that. I think Joe epitomizes that. A lot of people can learn from what he went through today.”
The Huskers weren’t done in that memorable third quarter. Sophomore linebacker Blake Lawrence picked off a deflected Harper pass, setting up NU at CU’s 11-yard line. Nebraska was held to a field goal there, as it was after safety Rickey Thenarse’s blocked punt set up the Huskers at the Tigers’ 31. Alex Henery’s two nailed chip shots gave NU a 23-21 lead to end the third quarter.
The fourth started with drama. Ganz was temporarily knocked out of the game when he was drilled to turf on a rollout pass play. Enter backup Patrick Witt for a third down.
If you can believe it, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called a pass. Witt scrambled, gained four yards, and was jolted hard as he went to the turf. He fumbled and Clemson scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown.
The referees upheld the fumble. Instant replay reversed it, as both of Witt’s knees had just touched the ground the ball came out.
“We had a couple calls go against us,” Swinney said. “It’s a game of inches and that’s very disappointing.”
With 5:20remaining in the fourth quarter, Henery added another 22-yarder for a 26-21 lead, a score set up by another long Castille run.
Clemson’s final drive was arguably its best of the day, considering all of its touchdowns were set up by turnovers. Harper hit Kelly for an 11-yard gain on third-and-eight. Later, on fourth down inside Nebraska territory, he found Ford for 16 yards. Then Kelly again for 17 yards to set up the climactic, decisive four downs.
Out of that sequence, the only play Clemson ran that had a chance of scoring was Harper’s throw to Spiller, which hit his hands before O’Hanlon punched it away. The other three were lost in the fog of Pelini’s blitz schemes.
Swinney struggled to contain his frustration about the endgame scenario, especially Harper’s play, under wraps.
“We had several chances to win the game,” he said. “Golly! Several chances!”
Though Pelini could have lingered on Nebraska’s many errors in the game – three turnovers, awful kick and punt coverage, 81 yards in penalties – he didn’t.
Instead, he heaped praise on the Gator Bowl, a “first-class operation” that put on, in Pelini’s opinion, the best bowl of which he’d ever been a part. He thanked his team, too, for choosing to win the game in the memory of his and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini’s father, Anthony, who died last week after a long bout with illness. The Huskers wore black “AP” stickers on their helmets Thursday.
“It means a lot,” he said. It really does. Me and Carl are looking forward to taking some time off. I haven’t really had time to think about it. But it was a difficult week.”
Punctuated with a big win.
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