LINCOLN — The way the last two Capital One Bowls played out, you could deduce that Nebraska wore down against more physical and talented Southeastern Conference opponents.
Last New Year's Day, the Huskers led Georgia 31-23 midway through the third quarter before the Bulldogs tallied the last 22 points. That included Aaron Murray throwing for 141 yards in the fourth.
The year before, South Carolina held NU to negative yardage and one first down in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks held the ball for more than 10 of the final 15 minutes.
In reflection, however, Nebraska players said the problem was more their own breakdowns in those two games than any physical or mental fatigue.
“We just kind of lost our way with what we were doing,” receiver Quincy Enunwa said. “It had nothing to do with anything else. I think we just lost focus toward the end of the games.
“Hopefully coming into this game we know that that was our fault the last two years, and we come in with a different attitude this time.”
Nebraska will see Georgia again Jan. 1, this time in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Both teams come in with worse records and lower rankings than a year ago, when the Huskers and Bulldogs were coming off appearances in their league championship games.
Enunwa will agree that there might be a different makeup to an SEC team, especially after going against a Georgia defense last season that featured seven NFL draft picks. NU offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said “the SEC is just a very athletic conference.”
But both said the Huskers aren't taken aback when they peek across the 50-yard line during warmups.
“Physicality is obviously a big thing down there,” Enunwa said. “They have a lot of size. Speed is a big thing. When you have a team filled with NFL players like Georgia did last year, it's obviously a little different from most teams that we play.
“But other teams we play also had that, as well. We had (linebacker) Anthony Barr from UCLA, a guy with size and speed. You have guys all over the board in every conference that we play against.”
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Is it a different 60-minute challenge with SEC opponents? Does their talent and depth become a bigger factor in the last 15, when you're also playing them in their kind of weather?
NU defensive end Jason Ankrah said he doesn't think that's what turned those two games.
“It was just they made more plays than we did, offensively and defensively,” Ankrah said. “We didn't feel like they were that much tougher than us or outschemed us or anything.
“You see the 'Georgia Bulldogs' sign and the SEC (patch) on their jersey, but other than that it's not different. They line up with football pads just like we do. No intimidation factor on their part. It's just another team.”
Nebraska generated 443 total yards last season against Georgia, but also allowed 589. The Huskers' last five possessions ended with two punts, two turnovers and a failed fourth-down attempt.
The turning point might have been losing an Ameer Abdullah fumble inside the Georgia 40-yard line right after the Bulldogs had tied it 31-31.
Perhaps the costliest play against South Carolina the year earlier was a 51-yard Hail Mary pass from Connor Shaw to Alshon Jeffery that gave the Gamecocks a 16-13 lead at the end of the first half. In the second half, the Huskers failed to net more than 5 yards on four of their five possessions.
South Carolina punctuated its victory with 14 fourth-quarter points, including a punishing 13-play, 71-yard drive — with 12 running plays — for its final touchdown with 3:05 remaining.
Still, NU cornerback Ciante Evans said he didn't recall the Huskers getting physically handled down the stretch either game.
“I just think it was mental, having the mental capacity to stay in those games,” Evans said. “It's something where we have to do a better job this year of staying and hanging in the fourth quarter, and coming out with a win.”
Evans said teams like Georgia might have a little more at the skill positions than Big Ten squads. Sirles said the defensive linemen on teams like Georgia and South Carolina move well.
“But I think we've shown in the past we've had some success running the ball,” Sirles said. “We just have to make sure we hold on to the football. If we hold on to the football, we can compete with anybody in the country.
“By no means is Georgia a pushover as a team, or South Carolina, but I think we can match up with them well. I think it's going to be a fistfight. I think it's going to be a dogfight.”