Shatel: Huskers' tough mudders give Bo Pelini, fan base a reason to smile

Ameer Abdullah leaps into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown that helped NU go up 17-9 five minutes into the second half. Abdullah navigated the sloppy field to run for 122 yards, his 11th 100-yard game of the season.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The rain fell like confetti.

It had rained for the entire three hours of the Gator Bowl, enough to be a nuisance and an obstacle. As if Nebraska and Georgia hadn't been through enough this season, now this.

The rain kept falling. But now the Huskers didn't mind, as they hugged and whooped and hollered. They had been waiting for this moment for too long. A little mud wasn't going to ruin anything.

In fact, for this bunch, a little mud was fitting. There's nothing better than winning a game in the rain, unless it's breaking a three-game bowl losing streak against an SEC team in the rain.

“That was fun,” Bo Pelini said.

The Nebraska head coach was in the coach's office in the team's locker room. Everyone else had left, gone to the bus, to the airport, to 2014.

Pelini had a smile on his face. There you go. What was it he had said months ago? It was time to have fun. Are they having fun yet? Yes. Finally.

This season hasn't been singing in the rain. It's been a grind. It culminated with the Iowa postgame press conference.

But that Pelini wasn't here. The body language of the coach this week spoke of poise and confidence. Which is how his team played on Wednesday.

Does one win over Georgia in the rain wash away the disappointment of a season? No. But it sure makes it feel better. Pelini even got a pat on the back from Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst as he walked into the locker room.

Columnist Tom Shatel offers his quick takeaways from the 2014 Gator Bowl.

“How about that, Huskers?”

Pelini had said that up on the awards stand, as the rain fell and the hard-core Husker fans cheered. It felt a little like his first two bowl wins, here and in the Holiday Bowl, when he looked and sounded like the bold leader and everyone couldn't wait to follow him to the mountaintop.

There was one big difference here, and that's what the scars of falling down the mountain will do. There was no declaration that “Nebraska's Back.” The hope was tempered. But the hope was there.

“No, I'm not going to say that,” said Pelini, packing his bag in the office. “But I'm not afraid to say that I really like this team that's coming back next year. We have a lot of pieces back, and we have some good pieces coming back.”

On both sides of the ball. Nebraska's secondary and offensive line will have to be retooled in 2014, but there will be some real star power. Randy Gregory, Tommy Armstrong, Kenny Bell, Michael Rose, Vincent Valentine, to name a few. Nothing provides optimism like star power.

The biggest piece that holds 2014 together is Ameer Abdullah, the junior running back who seems to run for more than 100 yards every time he laces up his cleats.

Abdullah works just as well as a mudder, as he negotiated 27 carries for 122 yards and one touchdown in the slop. He was dragging SEC defenders all day, and that 4.5 yards per carry was a sight to see on a field he called “tough terrain.”

Nebraska's brilliant back must come back for NU to do something big next season. Abdullah is waiting for data that would project where he might get drafted in May. He has until Jan. 15 to decide, and he was headed home to see his family and figure it all out.

For his part, Pelini told his star he's there for him if Abdullah needs someone to talk to. It felt like such a flashback to the 2009 Gator Bowl, when a guy named Ndamukong Suh left here having to make the same call. Pelini went to Suh's home in Portland, Ore., to offer his counsel and remembers having a lovely trip.

“I flew out there to meet with Suh and his family,” Pelini said. “When I got there, I asked Suh if he was coming back and he said, 'Oh, yeah. I'm coming back.' I really didn't even need to be there.”

Abdullah's return could have the same impact that Suh's 2009 All-Everything season had on NU, which lost to Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

Nobody here was making any such predictions about next season. It's easy to get caught up in the emotion of a bowl win, but this is a bunch that has been through more the past three seasons than the “Mayhem” guy for Allstate.

The Huskers won this Gator Bowl because a couple of Georgia receivers couldn't make a catch. They won because they scored two touchdowns off Bulldog turnovers.

They won because they got a 99-yard lightning bolt from Armstrong to senior Quincy Enunwa, whose two touchdown catches made him the game's MVP.

Looking back on Freeman White's 95-yard touchdown reception, which Quincy Enunwa's 99-yard score topped as the new school record.

They won because they finally made a stand. Nebraska was up at halftime, 10-9. But we've seen that movie before. So, too, had they.

“The message at halftime was 'finish,' ” said senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles. “We had been here before. We knew how it could end. Let's make it end different this time.”

Finish. They know how in some games. They closed the deal this year against Northwestern, Michigan, Penn State.

But it's the big losses that get so much attention, and the games against UCLA and Georgia and Wisconsin that have made you think this program has a ceiling.

Then came this bowl rematch that looked so fruitless. But look what happened. It was Georgia that looked sloppy, undisciplined. Georgia that turned the ball over. Georgia that couldn't handle Nebraska's relentless defensive line.

And the Huskers who made the plays.

The signature play and moment of this bowl came from the poised Armstrong, the leader in 2014, and 2014 came early. Armstrong had bobbled a snap and saved himself from being tackled for a safety. It was Michigan State all over again.

On the next play, offensive coordinator Tim Beck trusted the kid enough to throw it deep. Armstrong did so perfectly and Enunwa did the rest.

To be sure, there will be a quarterback competition in the spring. But the potential of No. 4 is another reason for a forecast of sun in 2014. Sirles predicted Armstrong would win a championship in his career at NU. He might be one big reason for Abdullah to come back.

“We should have a very potent offense,” Abdullah said. “The legend of Tommy Armstrong is going to start. Actually, it's already started.”

It's too early to talk legends in 2014. This wasn't a legendary win. But it was great as a reminder.

The Huskers knew how things could end in the rain. Now they know how good it can feel, too.

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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:

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