ORLANDO, Fla. — Midway through the first quarter, Georgia's Aaron Murray was starting to look like all of those other high-profile quarterbacks who've been befuddled and rattled by Bo Pelini's complex defensive schemes.
Even at halftime, after Murray had burned the Huskers a couple of times, his position coach and offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, was telling the veteran passer to calm down. There were some wide-open targets Murray didn't see. He'd misinterpreted some signals and called the wrong plays a couple of times. Frustration was showing.
It seemed to be exactly what Nebraska wanted.
Yet what unraveled at Tuesday's Capital One Bowl was statistically the worst pass defense performance by Pelini's defense in five years at NU.
Murray kept picking at Nebraska's defensive backs, eventually settling in and finding his groove as the Huskers blew coverages, whiffed on breakup attempts and gradually lost their edge. Murray threw five touchdowns in the 45-31 win. His 427 yards were the fourth-highest total by an NU opponent and the most against a Husker team in eight years.
“We were there. We had the opportunities,” Pelini said. “We didn't play the ball very well for whatever reason.”
It wasn't just defending the lob pass, though.
Yes, there were two key mistakes of that variety. Junior Andrew Green was right on Tavarres King's hip in the first quarter, but he couldn't knock the football away to prevent a 75-yard touchdown play. In the third, Ciante Evans was a step behind Chris Conley, who hauled in a 49-yard score.
Georgia attacked the Husker defense in a variety of ways through the air, most often by manipulating Nebraska's aggressiveness into favorable chances for their play-making athletes.
Bobo said the Bulldogs added crossing route combinations and receiver-pick plays into their arsenal specifically for this game, concepts that apparently fracture NU's match-up zone coverage scheme. The 29-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Arthur Lynch, who was wide open as he cut across the middle, was an example of “something that we've never done,” Bobo said.
According to Bobo, those types of calls were especially effective on third down (Murray completed 11 of his 14 third-down throws for 246 yards).
Nebraska countered by calling blitzes — because the longer Murray had to throw, the more lethal he was, according to defensive coordinator John Papuchis. But NU's two sacks weren't enough to derail Georgia's swing-for-the-fences approach.
The Bulldogs made it even tougher on Nebraska's front by executing screen and draw plays — the fourth play of the game was a 21-yard screen pass to speedy running back Keith Marshall. Murray took off for 10 yards on a quarterback draw in the second quarter, his third-longest run of the year.
Then there was the back-breaker. On third-and-8 early in the fourth quarter, the Huskers sent as many pass rushers as they could. But Murray got the pass off to Conley, who ran untouched for an 87-yard touchdown to seal the win.
Daimion Stafford thought his man was running an out route, but the tight end set a pick, taking Evans out of the play. By the time Stafford had identified the deception, he was getting blocked by an offensive lineman.
“We got the right call against the right look,” Bobo said.
Pelini admitted he made the wrong decision, characterizing it as “a bad call by me.”
But Pelini had several better calls early in the game. That's when it appeared that Murray may have underestimated the Blackshirts.
Murray said six days ago that NU didn't “out-complicate you.” But his fourth throw Tuesday was intercepted by P.J. Smith, who momentarily pretended to cover a tight end before dropping back toward the middle of the field. Usually in that situation, Nebraska would play two safeties in a deep zone.
Murray's second interception came on a screen pass. He didn't see Will Compton. But the senior linebacker knew what play the Bulldogs were running the moment he noticed a receiver coming across the formation to try to block him.
“I didn't think he was going to throw it,” said Compton, who returned his first career interception 24 yards for a touchdown that put Nebraska up 14-9.
It was the type of uncharacteristic error that opposing quarterbacks have committed over and over again as they've been overwhelmed by Pelini's NU defense. Blaine Gabbert. Jake Locker. Colt McCoy. Kirk Cousins. Ryan Tannehill. Each an NFL-caliber talent who had at least one nightmarish game against the Huskers.
But not Murray.
He listened to Bobo's advice. Said Bobo: “If you'll settle down, we'll be able to take advantage of some things and make some big plays. … I thought we were trying to be too perfect on every play, instead of just settling down and taking what they give us.”
Murray was still under duress often Tuesday, but he regularly extended plays by maneuvering around the pocket or rolling out to give his receivers more time. A 24-yard, back-shoulder touchdown pass to Marshall in the fourth quarter was a product of Murray's improvisation. Compton was covering Marshall, but there was little Compton could do.
“When you're going against great players, the margin for error's not that big,” NU secondary coach Terry Joseph said. “You get exposed when you're not perfect.”
Murray, on the other hand, was close to flawless by game's end.
Said Conley: “Once Aaron started hitting his targets, the offense was rolling. And once we get into a groove, it's hard to stop us.”
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