A game you had to see

Senior quarterback Joe Ganz has a pitched ball deflected and run back for a touchdown. Then Ganz throws an interception which leads one player later to a Clemson score. Then sophomore wide receiver Niles Paul muffs a punt, Clemson recovers, ultimately scoring once more. Yeah, a recipe for disaster.

If you would have known going into the Gator Bowl that Nebraska would turn it over three times and those turnovers would all result in touchdowns, you'd think it's going to be a long day for the big red. In addition, if you would have known that Nebraska's leading rusher sophomore running back Roy Helu Jr. would go out early in the game and senior running back Marlon Lucky would only get in for a few plays, there wouldn't be a lot of optimism as to how this game would end, and the journey the tens of thousands of Husker faithful who made the trip down to Jacksonville, Florida, might seem a bit of a waste.

But behind perhaps the best defensive performance of the season by the "Blackshirts", Nebraska won a boxing match with the Clemson Tigers.

But it certainly didn't look like it was going to go the way it did.

You had to assume that early on in the game, emotions would be running high, the Clemson defesive line would have some success, but with the size, depth and experience of the Husker offensive line, that would eventually tell the tale.

Someone forgot to tell the Tiger defensive line to get tired.

Outside of two big runs from sophomore running back Quentin Castille, the Clemson defense on the Husker running game, was near flawless. Take away those two runs which totaled 98 yards, the Tiger defense led by freshman phenom Da'Quan Bowers, held the Huskers to 27 yards on 33 attempts, putting the Huskers into predictably a lot of third and long situations.

From the outset they were forcing Ganz into situations where everyone knew he was going to throw, and against a defense which had close to 20 interceptions on the season, that's not a place you want to be as a QB.

The first-half stats told the tale, Ganz completing just 9-of-21, no touchdowns and one interception.

With the turnover problem, the stout Clemson defense and the fact that on four out of the first five Tiger possessions, Clemson was starting out no worse than on their own 40-yard line and twice starting in Nebraska territory, you could have understood how anyone watching the first half didn't have a lot of optimism for the big red going into the second.

But Nebraska has a defense, too.

Going into this game the names Spiller and Davis were enough to make Husker fans shudder and I am sure Husker defensive coaches cringe a bit, as the Thunder and Lightning backfield tandem racked up over a thousand yards for the Tigers, Davis the downhill threat, while Spiller could break your ankles and then take it to the house.

They got four yards against the Huskers.

Spiller certainly made some strides in the return game, totaling 159 yards in both the punt and kick return game. And Davis did have a 12-yard run. But when you take into account the 42 yards lost by Tiger quarterback Cullen Harper, the goal of stopping the running game at the line and making Harper beat then with his arm, worked to a tee.

And oh, what a year that line had.

Think about how bad this defense was last year. Ranked as one of bottom ten defenses in the entire country, this same defensive line was ripped, riddled and plowed for sometimes record-setting numbers as the Huskers plodded their way to a losing season, giving up in one game a total of 76 points.

The scoreboard would read 21 points for the Tigers at the end, but seven of those came as a result of a Joe Ganz fumble which was taken all the way in for the score.

Oh, and yeah, there's this kid named "Suh."

We would like to take credit for predicting that he would have a big game, that Clemson would have to double-team him and that other players would have to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities. We'd like to, but can't, because this group has been doing that most of the year.

In what has undoubtedly been his best season as a Husker, the Portland, Oregon native put a huge exclamation point on the year by once again leading the team in tackles with eight, padding his slight tackles-for-loss lead on the team adding four more to put him at 19 for year; notching two more sacks, now making him the team leader for the season, finishing with 7.5 on the year and for good measure he threw in a blocked kick, doubling his stats in that category for the season.

But give it to his cohort in the middle, senior Ty Steinkuhler who has had a career-year as well, when Suh got the double-team as expected, all Steinkuhler did was become a complete disruption in the backfield in the early parts of the game, totaling six tackles for the contest, including two for loss, one of which was a sack. Steinkuhler also added a forced fumble.

Senior defensive end Zach Potter held up his part of the bargain as well, notching four tackles, two of which were for loss, along with having a batted ball behind the line of scrimmage. Not even first-year starter, sophomore defensive end Pierre Allen could be left out as he also had a sack during the game.

Combine that with performances in the linebacking corps and secondary which weren't consistent, but were awfully opportunistic and at crucial times, Nebraska was able to take the core strength of Clemson's offense and make perhaps their short-comings become strengths in order to bring them a win.

Give Harper some credit in that he almost did just that.

Almost at the end of the first half, Clemson got the ball off a Husker turnover and with only 35 seconds left to go Harper hit big-play receiver Aaron Kelly for a 25-yard touchdown pass. It was the kind of pass and catch that can usually spark a team. Clemson went into the locker room with a 14-3 lead.

After Nebraska had drawn first blood in the second half, narrowing the Tiger lead to four, it was Harper once again throwing an absolutely perfect pass in stride to a streaking Jacoby Ford. Clemson extended their lead once again to 11.

But those were the highlights, and for most of the game what Nebraska was trying to do was working, because the running game was going nowhere, forcing Harper into situations he's not accustomed to being.

The basic idea here is that if you think are are facing a solid ground game with a quarterback who may be prone to mistakes, you stop the ground game cold if you can and roll the dice that the quarterback would make enough mistakes during the game to give you opportunities.

Harper did that, throwing an interception on first down late in the second quarter, which gave the Huskers first and 10 on the Clemson 27. Then Harper did it again, this one coming in the third quarter, Clemson up 21-17, sophomore linebacker Blake Lawrence coming up with the pick, giving the Huskers a first and goal.

It was only due to the fact that the Clemson defense was about as game as any defense as you are going to see, that the Tigers were able to actually stay in the lead. But another Harper mistake might have been the coffin nail, you might say:

Down by just five, Harper and company started at their own 23 and attempted to move the ball down the field, just 5:13 remaining on the clock. Between some early small runs by Davis, a couple of short completions by Harper and a personal foul on Nebraska, the Tigers were putting themselves into fine position to score.

Following a 17-yard completion to Kelly, Clemson had first and goal at the Nebraska 10.

The incomplete passes for Harper which followed, were all due to either good coverage or good pressure on him in the backfield, forcing him to make decisions under pressure. But the one that should have been an incompletion was a pass he didn't even make. Sophomore cornerback Eric Hagg, blitzing from the outside for the second play in a row, grabbed Harper, but even though he didn't have a really firm grasp on the quarterback initially, Harper chose to hold onto the ball and take the 16-yard sack.

The next two plays were easy to figure, Clemson having to score a touchdown from the 26-yard line if they hoped to win the game. Harper made a good pass with the second to last toss of the game which was well defended, but the last one really didn't have a chance.

Had he not taken that sack, what could they have called, what would they have called, if given an entirely different type of scenario in the game?

Well, we'll obviously never know.

But Nebraska's plan did pay off, in that they wanted Harper to beat them, but not a play here and there. They wanted him to do it for an entire game. He didn't, the Husker defense was stellar, and Ganz, having suffered a slight concussion earlier in the game, came back for a strong enough performance to earn him the Bowl MVP.

I'm not sure that I might not have gone completely the other way, not giving to Ganz and not even to Suh, but to sophomore kicker Alex Henery, who following the climactic 57-yarder against Colorado over a month go, did nothing but went four-for-four in field goals today, hitting one from 48.

It was one of those types of games which was sloppy enough you'd have a hard time calling it a classic, but because both teams were able to almost completely fight off some of their own mistakes, this ended up being a heck of a game.

And I don't know about you, but after having watched a season's worth of Big 12 football, it was nice to see the defenses take center stage.

They did.

They BOTH did.

But both couldn't win. Credit Bo Pelini and his group for pulling it out in the end and finishing off an unbelievable comeback season for the big red. They didn't need to win this game to let everyone know that Nebraska was climbing its way back.

But it certainly didn't hurt.


Big Red Report Top Stories