LINCOLN — The meltdown was swift, severe and televised. And its seeds were sown by an apparent, alarming fear of prosperity.
UCLA tossed Nebraska's football season into early tumult with 38 straight points in a 41-21 pounding that had a record crowd at Memorial Stadium bolting for the exits early and the Huskers combing for crumbs on how they let a 21-3 second-quarter lead turn into a third-quarter whimper of infamy.
“The pendulum started to go the other way, and we needed to make a play,” said Bo Pelini, who suffered his sixth double-digit loss in his past 15 games against BCS conference opponents. “We continuously had opportunities to make plays and didn't make them.”
“We lost our sense of urgency,” cornerback Ciante Evans said.
“Once halftime came around, we felt a little bit comfortable,” freshman safety Nate Gerry said.
In front of 91,471 fans, UCLA (2-0) ripped the Huskers (2-1) from that cocoon by rattling off 28 third-quarter points against the embattled Blackshirts. Nebraska's offense answered with three punts and an urgent request for a 6-foot-5, 305-pound reserve defensive lineman to execute a fake punt. Brodrick Nickens stumbled inches short of the first down.
The numbers from that 15-minute snapshot are stunning. Both teams ran 22 plays. The Bruins gained 236 yards, NU 57. The quarter mirrored drubbings of recent years. The 28 points Ohio State hung on the Huskers in the second quarter last year. The 35-point first quarter Oklahoma put up against NU in 2008. The trio of 21-point quarters Wisconsin produced in the 2012 Big Ten championship.
“Shellshocked,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
“It looked like they'd seen a ghost,” Pelini said.
Or UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Harassed into a middling first-half performance, he completed all eight of his third-quarter passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns to wide-open receivers. He finished 16 of 24 for 294 yards.
And after snuffing out the Bruins' run game in the first half, NU suddenly looked vulnerable. Hundley lumbered free on zone read plays while running backs Jordon James and Paul Perkins squirted through holes and under defenders' arms.
Defensive end Randy Gregory said the Bruins “started hitting our B gaps” in the run game and figured out the Huskers' four-man pass rush scheme. Pelini said young players lost sight of their responsibilities and stopped playing their assigned roles. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said linemen started “peeking into the backfield” and getting beat by UCLA blockers. Nebraska's young defense then whiffed repeatedly on chances to corral the suddenly slippery Bruins after the initial point of contact.
“You can't play good defense that way,” Pelini said. “We missed tackle after tackle after tackle in that second half.”
The Huskers' offense also lost its way, gaining 135 yards over the last two quarters. NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said UCLA placed seven players in the box and took away some of the interior running plays. So quarterback Taylor Martinez threw 35 passes. He completed 21 and threw three first-half touchdowns — including two picture-perfect fade routes — but hit just 10 of 19 passes in the second half for 87 yards. He was sacked twice and hurried often.
“We moved the ball pretty well. We just didn't finish,” said Martinez, who wore a walking boot on his left foot, the result, he said, of a minor ankle injury that happened before the UCLA game. “When we did get close, something always happened.”
Said Beck: “We let the avalanche continue. We helped the avalanche. We might have started it.”
He was referring to a drive late in the second quarter, when NU led 21-3 and had the ball with 4:39 left. Beck said he got too conservative on that drive and Nebraska punted after a three-and-out.
“I let them back in the game,” Beck said. “We gave them some life.”
So did a subsequent missed sack by redshirt freshman Avery Moss, who had Hundley in his grasp only to spin the quarterback toward freedom and a first-down scramble. UCLA finished that late second-quarter drive with a touchdown to cut NU's lead to 21-10 at halftime.
“I think that made them feel good about themselves,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.
Nebraska players claimed to feel good about their prospects heading out for the third quarter. But a second half full of Husker miscues suggests the Bruins' first-half touchdown made NU ripe for a fall. Many of the errors that have cropped up in Husker losses since their move to the Big Ten — wide receiver drops, personal foul penalties, misadventures returning kicks and punts, communication errors — reared their head again as NU watched its lead dwindle like a lottery winner's bank account.
“I get the feeling, at times, that our guys — instead of playing to win — they're playing not to lose,” Pelini said. “That's the wrong way to go about it. I'd like to see our football team turn it loose and have fun. And, I don't know. It's like they — I don't know.”
Said Beck: “It's an accurate assessment. You get up 21-3, and it turns into 'let's defend' instead of being aggressive offensively or defensively and playing loose. You start to play a defensive game mentally.
“You're afraid to make mistakes. You're afraid to take chances because of the circumstances. I've fallen into that as well at times. Just trying to get a first down sometimes so hard when it could be something a lot easier than what I'm doing. But I'm trying so hard. I can't see the trees through the forest.”
Isn't that counterintuitive, that a team with an 18-point lead would be wary of losing it?
“Yeah, you're right,” Beck said. “It is. I don't know why it is like that. But it is like that.”
And now it's like this: Nebraska plays its next four games against teams that, collectively, haven't beaten NU since 1960. The Huskers will be favorites — perhaps heavy favorites — in all four. But this loss — that it happened and how it happened — will bring critics carping. Pelini said he knew that and was ready to rally his players against the critiques coming their way.
“It's gonna be negative,” Pelini said. “It's gonna be negative by the fans, by the media, by everybody. In times like this, all we can do is stick together. Because the only people who can fix it is us. And that's the challenge we have. If we worry about what people are saying outside, then, hey, things are going to go in a bad way.”
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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: