• Video Below: Postgame press conference and game highlights
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PASADENA, Calif. — Dusk at the Rose Bowl. The Rolling Stones blared on the sound system. Pink thunderheads towered over the San Gabriel Mountains. Black clouds hovered over Nebraska's bruised defense.
Yet upstart UCLA gave the Huskers — who gave up 653 yards, three shy of the most ever against an NU defense — chance after chance Saturday night to send home roughly 25,000 NU fans with a wary, fortunate smile. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and Nebraska's offense couldn't close the deal in a 36-30 loss to the Bruins.
After Brett Maher hit a career-long 54-yard field goal for a 24-all tie at the end of the first half, No. 16 NU had eight drives in the second half in which a touchdown would have secured a lead. Playing without star I-back Rex Burkhead, the Huskers managed just six points and 106 yards in the second half.
The very definition of a team defeat, coach Bo Pelini said.
“Defensively, we didn't show up in the first half, and offensively, we didn't show up in the second half,” he said, quiet and despondent in a small, humid room underneath the Rose Bowl. “You've got to have each other's backs. And it didn't happen. UCLA earned the win. And we didn't. We didn't deserve to win.”
The 2-0 Bruins — led by redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley — dissected Nebraska (1-1) with a spread, no-huddle offense heavy on sweeps, zone reads and deep play-action passes. Staying in their dime defense, NU defenders struggled to keep up with Hundley (358 total yards and four touchdowns) and UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin (217 yards rushing).
Often, Husker defensive linemen and linebackers had that duo in their clutches, only to watch them squirm out for extra yards, or accelerate around them down the sideline. And Nebraska defenders slipped repeatedly on a well-cut, supple grass field that resembled the golf course fairways just outside the stadium.
UCLA won jump balls. Used wide receiver picks and wheel routes to cross up NU's defense. Made the Huskers chase from sideline to sideline, daring Nebraska to keep up and tackle well.
“We just didn't bring them to the ground,” linebacker Will Compton said. “Plain and simple.”
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For one half, NU's offense — punctuated by a 92-yard touchdown run from Martinez — kept pace, taking 14-7 and 21-17 leads. In relief of Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah ran for two touchdowns, Martinez threw for 149 yards, and the Huskers gained 333 on just 35 plays. A Rose Bowl crowd of 71,530 — broken up into chunks of scarlet and light blue — looked headed for a legendary shootout.
Then Abdullah fumbled to start the second half. UCLA recovered. But while scrambling for a first down, Hundley twisted his right ankle on the ensuing drive. The Bruins settled for a field goal. Later, UCLA turned down another field goal to attempt a perplexing fake, failing to complete a pass to the end zone. Though Hundley missed just one series, he lacked zip on his throw and zoom on his zone reads. The inexperienced Bruins were ripe to be picked.
Instead, UCLA's defense did the plucking. Martinez — in his Los Angeles homecoming — completed just four of 14 passes in the second half and threw an interception that set up UCLA's fourth-quarter touchdown. He repeatedly threw into heavy coverage. He lost his mojo on the zone read, getting smacked for a safety when he held on to the ball in the end zone, trying to recapture the magic of his earlier long run.
“Bad read,” Martinez said. In fact, offensive coordinator Tim Beck, said, Martinez had seen in the second quarter the very defense UCLA used on that play. Defensive end Datone Jones attacked the “mesh point,” Beck said, between Martinez and Abdullah, bear-hugging the quarterback five yards into the end zone.
That safety gave the Bruins a 29-27 lead. Nebraska's offense got three more drives after that. In 10 plays, NU gained 13 yards and Martinez threw the interception.
“At times maybe he forced some things,” Beck said. “Trying to do too much, doing more than the offense needed to be done at times. We put a lot on him.”
Said Martinez of the second-half power outage: “I think we slowed up on tempo. I think that kind of hurt us.”
Did Martinez ask Beck why the tempo slowed down in the second half?
“I'm not going to go into that,” Martinez said.
Only once in the second half did NU's offense get rolling. With the game tied at 27, the Huskers drove 74 yards to the UCLA 19 and faced a third-and-1. Beck called for a fullback dive to Mike Marrow, who'd had one previous carry in the game. The play lost a yard. Both Beck and Martinez said it was the one offensive play they'd like to have back.
“We didn't get any movement,” Beck said. “It was just a big pileup.”
Pelini opted for a 37-yard field goal that Maher pulled wide left. That triggered the end-game sequence, where UCLA made most of the plays, and Nebraska did not. Pelini said as much afterward as Husker coaches, players and cheerleaders scarfed pizza in the tunnel.
“We didn't play well,” he said. “We didn't play well in any phase of the game, in my opinion. We were inconsistent. Our fundamentals were lousy. That leads to bad things happening.”
The question will linger: Does Burkhead, a stickler for execution, advertised as the most dependable player on a team still running hot and cold, make a difference on Saturday? Does he gain that yard in the fourth quarter? Does he keep UCLA's defense off balance in the second half, when the Bruins seemingly solved whatever riddle Martinez and Beck concocted for them in the first half?
Pelini said no.
“There were enough breakdowns, I don't think it would have mattered,” Pelini said. “As good as Rex is. We didn't deserve to win that game. And believe me, I wanted to win in the worst way.”
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