JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — On its own half-inch line deep into Wednesday's Gator Bowl, the Nebraska football team faced the kind of situation it has seen often this season. The Huskers had, once again, put themselves on the brink, shoving all chips into the pot.
They pulled away from it — and delivered their first postseason win in four seasons — with nothing less than the longest offensive play in school history. Nebraska's 24-19 win over Georgia had its share of game-defining sequences — including two fourth-quarter, fourth-down stops in Husker territory — but only one historic heave in NU's 50th bowl game.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong dropped back into his own end zone, found a streaking Quincy Enunwa wide open behind blown coverage and delivered a 99-yard, third-quarter touchdown to the glee of every Husker, including coach Bo Pelini, who wanted the actual length of the play noted for posterity.
“It was like 99.9 (yards),” Pelini said. “You can't make it any longer. I know one thing: There will be never be a longer play in the history college football than that one.”
Enunwa described it simply.
“Tommy just launched it up to me,” he said, “and from there on I just tried to make a play the best I could.”
Enunwa bounced off a defender at midfield and chugged to the end zone. It helped him win the Gator Bowl MVP award and set the school record for most receiving touchdowns (12) in a season.
“I knew I had him,” Armstrong said. “I was kind of nervous that the ball was so high. It was kind of slippery out there. But at the same time, he made a play and it ended up being a touchdown.”
And to think it wouldn't have happened if, on the previous play, Armstrong hadn't fumbled a snap, scooped it up and fallen just before crossing the goal line. This left NU — leading 17-12 at the time — with third-and-14. Might as well have been third-and-oblivion.
Initially, Nebraska was going to have Armstrong sneak the ball for a yard and create a little room for a punt. But officials called for a review, so the Huskers regrouped. Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck called for a pass.
Armstrong got perhaps his best offensive line protection of the day. The Bulldogs were in a pass defense that called for freshman safety Quincy Mauger to slide over and cover Enunwa deep, but Mauger bit on a shorter post pattern run by Kenny Bell. Enunwa caught the ball just as Mauger closed — too late — with his shoulder. Nebraska thus led 24-12 with just under five minutes left in the third quarter.
“Guys make mistakes, and when it happens on the back end, it's monstrous,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
The Huskers — who finished 9-4, their sixth straight season with at least nine wins under Pelini — had repeatedly taken advantage of Bulldog mistakes before that play, too. NU converted two turnovers — corner Josh Mitchell recovered a muffed punt and grabbed an interception — into short-field touchdowns in front of 60,712 at a muddy EverBank Field.
But after the 99-yard strike, Nebraska's offense gained just 46 yards on five drives. Armstrong threw his own interception. Georgia turned that into a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hutson Mason to Todd Gurley — the superstar Bulldog running back who amassed 183 total yards — cutting NU's lead to five.
Twice in the game's final five minutes, Georgia marched into Husker territory looking for a go-ahead touchdown. Twice, Nebraska turned the Bulldogs back with fourth-down stops. The Huskers' defense faced 82 plays and gave up 416 yards — including 320 passing yards to Mason — but rebuffed Georgia repeatedly in the red zone.
“We like that kind of pressure,” said defensive end Randy Gregory, who had a sack and four tackles. “We take it as a challenge. It makes us play harder, play a little bit more confident.”
Senior safety Andrew Green broke up a Mason pass on one fourth down. Tight end Arthur Lynch dropped one on the final Bulldog drive. Rain-soaked Georgia fans initially roared when Lynch clutched the ball before Nebraska fans in ponchos screamed back after seeing he'd dropped it. Lynch dropped to one knee for several seconds. The Huskers started celebrating before the final whistle, but really found their groove after it.
Players found their position coaches for hugs and pictures. tackle Jeremiah Sirles, all 310 pounds of him, jumped into the arms of offensive line coach John Garrison. Black Gator Bowl Champions hats were quickly distributed. “Need a hat!” slot receiver Jamal Turner said.
Pelini found Armstrong, clasped the back of his head and whispered in his ear. Then he worked his way over to the trophy podium with Enunwa. Husker coaches and players surrounded them on the platform and just beneath it.
“Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo!” yelled the Nebraska band and the Husker contingent, smaller than in some years, in part because of the spitting rain.
“Speech!” yelled wide receivers coach Rich Fisher. Pelini took the microphone.
“How about that, Huskers!” he said. The crowd in the stands cheered.
About 30 feet away from Pelini, away from the platform, stood Bo's boss. Dressed in black under a ballcap, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst smiled and clapped heartily. A trying year for him, for Pelini, for the team, for the fans, for Nebraska. And yet here was a day when the Huskers made their own breaks, pressed their own luck, rewrote a small portion of the record books and beat an SEC team.
“It's been a long season,” Gregory said. “We've fought through a lot of stuff. A lot of adversity with our coach. We came together in the end, and it's great to come out on top.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini and others at the postgame press conference:
Video: Gator Bowl highlights:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: