SAN DIEGO - After a season where Nebraska was its own worst enemy, Wednesday night's Holiday Bowl was a therapeutic release of a five months worth of frustration.
The No. 20 Huskers (10-4) were just short of perfect in a 33-0 win over No. 23 Arizona (8-5), as their offense played as well as it had all season and their defense was as dominant as ever, posting the first bowl game shutout ever by a Big 12 Conference team and the first in the school's 46 bowl appearances.
Even NU's special teams were in top form all night long.
It may not have been what Nebraska had hoped for coming into the season, but the Holiday Bowl blowout was exactly what it needed to end on the best possible high note it ask for.
"Obviously finishing with the win, it makes (the season) pretty special," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Our kids executed from start to finish. It was a complete win against a really good team… I thought we played really well, and I'm proud of our football team."
In front of more than 64,600 fans, Nebraska's game plan worked to near perfection from the opening kickoff.
By the end of the night, the Huskers had out-gained Arizona in total offense by an incredible 396-109 margin, converted 19 first downs to the Wildcats' six, and held nearly an 18-minute advantage in time of possession. The 109 yards allowed was Nebraska's lowest total since a win over Baylor in 2000.
Junior wide receiver Niles Paul was named the game's Offensive Most Valuable Player, as he hauled in four catches for 123 yards, highlighted by a 74-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Zac Lee in the third quarter. All together, the Omaha native finished with 237 all-purpose yards.
Lee ended the day 13-of-23 passing for 173 yards and a touchdown, while also carrying the ball 18 times for 65 yards and adding another score. Freshman running back Rex Burkhead led the way on the ground with a game-high 89 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, as the Huskers used a heavy does of the Wildcat offense for the first time this season.
After being heavily criticized for nearly a month of dismal offensive performances, the Huskers' breakout night brought much needed relief heading into the offseason.
"That's what we want to do," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "We want to spread the field. We want to be a team with a ball-control passing attack that's able to take shots with a good play-action game. A team that can spread the field and use 52 yards of space (sideline to sideline)… That's what we want to be, and that's who we will be because of the way we've recruited and how we're building our program."
The Huskers completely out-played Arizona in every aspect of the game throughout the first half. By the time the teams went into the locker room for halftime, NU had out-gained the Wildcats in total yards of offense 202-32 and held nearly an 11-minute advantage in time of possession.
The hot start began when senior safety Matt O'Hanlon picked off a lob pass by UA quarterback Nick Foles on the third play of the game and returned it 37 yards to the Wildcats 5-yard line. Two plays later, Lee rushed four yards around the right end and dove into the end zone for the quickest touchdown in Holiday Bowl history.
Along with his interception, O'Hanlon had five tackles and a pass breakup to win the game's defensive MVP award.
After a three-and-out by Arizona on its second possession, Nebraska increased its lead to 10 on a 47-yard field goal by junior Alex Henery with 8:53 left in the first quarter.
That score held until the start of the second quarter, when the Huskers got a little creative with their play calling. On the first play of the quarter, Nebraska lined up in the Wildcat formation for the first time all season, as Burkhead took the snap out of the shotgun and rushed it up the middle for a 34-yard gain.
The very next play, Paul took a reverse 20 yards for another first down. Two plays later, Lee hit Paul on a 23-yard pass to the UA 5, and Burkhead followed with a touchdown on another Wildcat run to put NU up 17-0.
The Huskers went on to run the Wildcat with Burkhead for the majority of the night, as Arizona couldn't find an answer for the new wrinkle to NU's offense.
"We had tremendous confidence in it tonight, and hopefully we can add some things to it," said Burkhead, who ran the Wildcat and also played some quarterback in high school. "Maybe a few pass plays. I don't know."
With a convincing lead, the Huskers decided to put in freshman quarterback Cody Green for a series, which the coaching staff said it was going to do earlier in the week. Despite starting the drive inside Arizona territory, NU had to settle for a 50-yard field goal by Henery to make it 20-0, which was one yard shy of tying the bowl record.
Henery added his third field goal of the half with a 41-yarder with 35 seconds to play after Arizona committed a personal foul on an NU punt to extend the drive and let the Huskers go into halftime up by four scores.
The second half was only more of the same, as Nebraska took the opening drive of the third quarter 41 yards and added another Henery field goal from 22 yards out to go up 26-0 with a little more than 10 minutes on the clock.
Later on in the quarter, the game reached its final score when Lee hit Paul for a 74-yard bomb down the right sideline. Paul ran a stop-and-go route that completely fooled his man and left him wide open behind the rest of Arizona's secondary.
With the offense calling off the dogs the rest of the game, the attention shifted to the defense, which was trying to hold on for the first bowl game shutout in school history. The Wildcats made one last push towards the end zone on their final possession, as they moved the ball all the way to NU's 8-yard line.
Even with two chances from the 8 on third and fourth down, though, the Huskers dialed up the pressure and forced two straight incompletions to preserve the shutout. As it turned out, those final two plays were the only times NU rushed more than its front four linemen in the game.
"We're a good defense," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "We tell our guys this all the time, and I believe this - we're a good team defense. We understand our roles. We play within the scheme. They're really getting it. They're making adjustments out there - it's like having coaches on the field. They really understand it.
"We work really well together, and no matter who's in there, they just seem to fit into the overall scheme. It's fun to watch. It's very satisfying to watch how hard these guys have worked for a year and a half to get here."
Just like last season's win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl, Wednesday's victory gives Nebraska another huge step in the right direction toward rebuilding its program back to national prominence.
While the Huskers still fell one second shy of achieving their goal of a conference championship, the table appears to have been set for them to make another big push at getting there next season.
If nothing else, Nebraska feels that it can play with - and beat - any team in the country.
"I just know this - where we are right now, we can beat anybody in the United States," Bo Pelini said. "I think that's how far we've come. On any given day, you can get beat. We understand that. These kids understand that. If we keep putting in the hard work and making those investments throughout this offseason and keep doing things the right way, it will set us up for the future and next year. I'm excited about the future ahead of us."
- Robin Washut