LINCOLN — For 17 plays and nearly seven minutes in the first quarter, Nebraska's offense moved methodically for 92 yards, mixing its run and pass calls to keep UCLA from settling in.
The Huskers got their athletes in space and showcased their skills, exciting the soldout crowd with stop-and-starts, jukes and spins. Quincy Enunwa capped the drive by skying high over defenders and soaring and spinning into the end zone, and it appeared — for a moment — that the Huskers had found their groove.
Here's the catch: It didn't last. And that's what UCLA had planned on.
The Huskers went scoreless on their final eight possessions of a 41-21 loss to the Bruins on Saturday, totaling 152 yards on those series as they hurt themselves with their own mistakes. UCLA made sure to take advantage.
“We didn't change our defense one bit the entire game,” senior linebacker Anthony Barr said. “We ran maybe three or four calls. We kept it pretty simple. Pretty vanilla.”
Hardly any blitzes were utilized. Pass rushers wanted to “build a fence” around Taylor Martinez, Barr said. UCLA's goal was to turn Nebraska's quarterback into a pocket passer, so it dropped seven and eight players into coverage, kept the receivers in front of them and tried to make the tackles when they could.
“We kind of had a feel for what they were going to do,” Barr said. “They did pretty much what we expected.”
Like a stubborn boxer absorbing body blows, the Bruins' defense regrouped on the sideline after the Huskers' early surge and simply prepared to head back on the field for more rounds.
Nebraska had 21 points and 185 yards midway through the second quarter — yet the Bruins made no significant schematic alterations.
The Huskers chose to attack UCLA on the perimeter, calling several quick screen passes to receivers. Many of their running plays stretched to the outside, too.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the Bruins were loading the box, a pre-snap alignment that's not typically inviting for downhill-type running plays between the tackles. The Huskers ended the game with an average of 3.6 yards per carry (not including the 20-yard loss on a fumbled pitch in the second quarter).
“We tried to keep them off-balance a little bit early,” Beck said. “Spread the ball all over the field. And make them play the whole field.”
That seemed to work at the start. Receiver Kenny Bell caught a couple of short passes and creatively maneuvered around would-be tacklers for extra yards. Enunwa turned a 5-yard throw into a 14-yard touchdown. Ameer Abdullah fought for tough yards after contact, too. Imani Cross had a couple of bruising runs.
UCLA's response: “You can't keep doing those all the way down the field,” Barr said.
Bruin junior safety Anthony Jefferson said he and his teammates started tackling better as the game went on. They calmed themselves down a bit, too, reminding themselves that they had prepared for this exact approach from the Huskers.
“We knew they were a dink-and-dunk team,” Jefferson said. “Occasionally they would take their shots, but I think we were all over it.”
By the time Nebraska tried to attack downfield, though, the offense was in free-fall mode and UCLA was in control.
Beck said he should have managed the second quarter better. The Huskers had the ball with 4:38 left before halftime, leading 21-3.
But they missed a block on first down. Martinez had the option to pass a play later, but he chose to hand off for a 4-yard draw instead. Then Martinez lost control of the football on third down, but Enunwa had been whistled for a false start before the snap.
Three-and-out. Then the collapse.
“I take responsibility, obviously,” Beck said. “That was a debacle in the second quarter. I think it gave them life.”
Nebraska went three-and-out in three of its next four possessions, all of which ended with a punt.
There was a high throw to sophomore Sam Burtch on third down that ended one drive. A failed deep ball to Bell put Nebraska in a third-and-long situation one series later, leading to a sack. There were two drops and a near-intentional-grounding penalty on the next possession.
Martinez said the offense struggled to find its “rhythm,” but he couldn't figure out why. Senior guard Spencer Long said the unit failed in its “execution” because UCLA's defense didn't change its strategy much.
Beck said the issues weren't created by the Bruins.
“The second half was just a bundle of self-inflicted wounds, from penalties, to dropped passes, to sacks — all kinds of things,” Beck said. “(We) got rattled a little bit, lost some composure at times. We just didn't play very well in the second half.”
After amassing 185 yards on its first five possessions, Nebraska totaled 135 yards on 35 plays after halftime — and 69 of those yards came on a drive that ended with an Abdullah fumble in the fourth quarter. UCLA already led 38-21 at that point.
The Bruins credited their run defense for the difference, particularly their plan to limit Martinez. They held him to a negative rushing total (minus-13) for just the second time in his career. Even without counting the two sacks and the 20-yard loss on a fumble, Martinez managed just 22 yards on seven attempts.
“We wanted to drop guys into coverage and make him throw the ball into coverage,” Barr said. “That's what we did. It worked out as planned.”
Martinez, who completed 21 of 35 passes for 203 yards, had a protective walking boot on his left foot after the game. He suffered a shoulder injury in the opener. Beck said Martinez's health isn't impacting the way he calls the game.
The inability to find balance was the biggest problem Saturday, according to Beck.
“When you struggle to run the football and become one-dimensional, for anybody, that's a hard thing to do,” Beck said.
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Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Taylor Martinez at the postgame press conference: