Game Ticker | Box Score
To describe No. 4 Nebraska's 20-13 loss to Texas as frustrating or disappointing wouldn't even begin to scratch the surface of how the Huskers felt as they walked off the field on Saturday.
In their last chance to finally stick it to the Longhorns one final time before the teams part ways as conference rivals next season, the Huskers simply couldn't get out of their own way.
To sum it up simply, Nebraska (5-1 overall, 1-1 Big 12 Conference) made numerous costly mistakes that all piled up to help Texas (4-2, 2-1) hand them a loss for the ninth time in their past 10 meetings.
Three of the most obvious were dropped passes that would have resulted in touchdowns for NU. Then there was the fumble on the Huskers' second drive of the day that set up UT's first touchdown, and not to mention the 10 penalties committed for 94 yards.
While the countless miscues left the 85,648 fans in attendance as stunned and baffled as ever, head coach Bo Pelini said his team finally got bit by the same mistakes it's been working to correct all season long.
"Bottom line is, some of the things that happened to us have been happening to us," Pelini said. "We coach it, we preach it, and we put the ball on the ground. Some of the things that have been happening hurt us today. You've got to get them fixed. Football comes down to execution. It comes down to fundamentals. It comes down to technique. It comes down to playing the right way. We didn't play the right way today, and we didn't get it done. We got beat."
The game plan went to near perfection for Texas in the first half, and it couldn't have gone much worse for Nebraska.
It was clear the Longhorns had devised the perfect plan to shut down star quarterback Taylor Martinez, as he had nowhere to run throughout the game. In the meantime, it was Texas's Garrett Gilbert, not necessarily known for his mobility, who stole the show as the fleet-footed quarterback.
Behind several big runs by Gilbert and a costly fumble on NU's second possession by running back Roy Helu, the Longhorns were able to jump out to a 10-0 lead to open the game.
Gilbert had a 25-yard scamper on the opening drive to set up a 37-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, which marked the first time Nebraska had trailed all season. Gilbert then plowed in from a yard away for a touchdown following Helu's fumble on the Longhorns' next drive.
Nebraska was finally able to get on the board when it put together a 12-play, 54-yard drive and managed 45-yard field goal by Alex Henery to cut the deficit to 10-3 just a minute into the second quarter.
However, Texas stole the momentum right back with a 41-yard pass from Gilbert to running back Foswhitt Whittaker and then another 1-yard touchdown run by Gilbert to go back up 17-3 going into halftime.
All together, Gilbert finished with 11 carries for 71 yards and two touchdowns. On the other side, Martinez, who had been gaining hype as a Heisman Trophy candidate coming into the game, had just 21 yards on 13 carries.
Because of the combination of Martinez's ineffectiveness as a runner and his receivers not helping him one bit in the passing game, the coaching staff decided to make a surprising move by subbing him out for senior Zac Lee with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
In an effort to provide the offense with a spark and replace a frustrated Martinez with a more composed veteran, Lee played the rest of the game and, for the most part, was fairly effective.
On his first series, Lee led the Huskers on a 16-play, 83-yard drive that lasted nearly six minutes and resulted in a 28-yard field goal by Henery in the final seconds of the third quarter.
"We wanted to find a spark," Pelini said of benching Martinez for Lee. "We wanted to settle Taylor down. It wasn't Taylor. Trust me, it wasn't just Taylor. We made that decision."
The Blackshirts stuffed Texas for a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and Lee once again chipped away and drove the Huskers down the field deep into Longhorn territory.
Having already converted on a fourth-and-1 earlier in the drive, NU was again faced with another crucial fourth-and-8 play at the UT 28. Lee came up with an incredible throw in the face of heavy pressure and hit Helu over the middle for what looked to be a 13-yard first down pass. But a holding penalty negated the play and forced the Huskers to do it all over again.
All things considered, Lee made yet another exceptional throw on the next play and put the ball right between the numbers of junior receiver Brandon Kinnie on a post route that would have been a touchdown, but Kinnie couldn't hold on to it, resulting in a turnover on downs.
At that point, it looked like all hope was over for Nebraska. However, the Huskers weren't done just yet.
After finally stopping Texas on a third down on the next drive, the Longhorns lined up in a field goal formation and appeared to be attempting a 50-yard field goal try. Instead Hunter, Texas's kicker and punter, took the snap and pooch punted the ball near the right corner of the end zone.
Having seen Texas run that play on film earlier in the week, the Huskers were in position to get a return. Senior defensive back Eric Hagg ended up scooping the ball up at the NU 5-yard line, and he was able to weave his way through the UT coverage team 95 yards for an electrifying touchdown.
The touchdown, which was the longest punt return in school history, brought life back into Memorial Stadium and the Huskers, and it seemed as if NU was going to somehow find a way to pull off the win.
"Well Coach Pelini said to watch the fake field goal because it had been shown on film that they'll punt it deep," Hagg said. "I just scooted back. I didn't know I was going to break it that long but I guess it happened that way."
But just has been the case throughout the Texas-Nebraska rivalry, the good luck never came for the Huskers, as the Longhorns recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock to secure the win.
The road for the Huskers doesn't get any easier next week, as they travel to Stillwater, Okla., to take on undefeated Oklahoma State. Until then, Pelini said his team would have to learn from Saturday's loss, no matter how tough of a pill it was to swallow.
"I told our football team, we still have everything out in front of us we want to do," Pelini said. "Our first goal is to win the Big 12, and that's still out there for us to do. But we're not going to do that unless we look in the mirror tonight and take responsibility for what happened out on the field today and get better because of it.
"We'll let the fans and everybody else feels sorry for themselves and feel sorry for what happened, but you've got to take an experience like this and let it make you stronger. If we do that, then we'll be going the right way. If we don't I know our football team has a lot of character. I think they'll respond the right way."
- Robin Washut
Missed opportunities doom NU
Nebraska had its share of chances to make some potentially game-changing plays on Saturday, and it was never able to capitalize.
Whether it was a dropped touchdown pass, a crucial turnover or a costly penalty, the Huskers seemed to come up with endless ways to shoot themselves in the foot against the Longhorns.
As Pelini said earlier, the countless miscues were nothing he hadn't seen before, in both games and during practice.
"I've seen signs of this all year," Pelini said. "We're not the finished product. I've said it all along. People around here want to make us out to be the '85 Bears. We're not there yet. We're getting there. We've got to improve in a lot of areas."
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said had the Huskers been able to hold on into any one of the dropped potential touchdown passes, the momentum could have easily shifted back in their favor and changed the outcome of the entire game.
"They're all big in these kind of games," Watson said. "It's like a heavyweight fight. The difference in a game and the momentum in a game can shift really fast with just finishing a play like that. There were several of them. There was more than one, there were like five of them. You have to finish plays."
Even the little things that weren't as obvious as the drops could have made a difference, the Huskers said after the game. Senior offensive lineman Keith Williams said had the offensive line been able to block better and create more holes for Martinez to break a big run, everything could have been different.
"I think we stopped ourselves," Williams said. "I mean, I'm giving praise to Texas because they beat us, but we stopped ourselves at times with penalties and stuff like that."
- Robin Washut
Martinez is still the starter
It was a day to forget for Martinez, who was brought back to earth after his impressive showing last week against Kansas State entered his name in the Heisman mix.
After completing just 4-of-12 passes for 63 yards, rushing for a season-low 21 yards and managing to lead the offense to just three points through nearly three quarters, Martinez was understandably frustrated, and the coaches finally decided it was time to try something different with Lee.
While the move definitely raised some eyebrows, both Pelini and Watson insisted that nothing would change in their quarterback depth chart.
"Taylor is our starting quarterback," Pelini said simply.
Watson gave a bit more detailed explanation:
"There was a lot of things happening to him that he couldn't help, and he got in a situation where it started snowballing on him a little bit," Watson said. "We went with Zac because Zac had the experience and the maturity to kind of handle it. Taylor is still our starting quarterback."
Both coaches repeatedly said Martinez, who declined to do interviews after the game, was far from the only problem with Nebraska's offense on Saturday. As for Lee, Watson said the move was purely a situational decision and didn't mean he had passed sophomore Cody Green as the No. 2 quarterback.
Coming into the game, Lee had only seen mop-up duty in the season opener against Western Kentucky.
For Martinez, Watson said he hoped the redshirt freshman would continue to learn from his mistakes, and that the loss to Texas would be just another step in his progression as a starting quarterback.
"I felt that frustration, because he made some good throws," Watson said. "It's just you've got to finish plays for him and help him out. He'll learn from it and grow from it. He's our starting quarterback, and he'll work his way through it."
- Robin Washut
***Pelini explained his thinking on the decision to attempt the onside kick instead of kickoff off with three minutes left to play and two timeouts remaining.
"We figured we had to stop them anyway, so we figured we'd be aggressive and try and get the ball back with enough time," Pelini said. "If they got a first down the game was pretty much over anyway, whether we kicked it deep or not. I just figured it gave us another opportunity. I don't know whether it was the right decision or not, but I thought it was the right thing to do at the time."
***When Texas hit the first field goal early in the first quarter, Nebraska had to play from behind for the first time since falling behind to the Longhorns in last year's Big 12 Championship game.
"Getting behind hurts, but also the way we got behind - putting the ball on the ground," Pelini said. "We had a terrible start to the day. We didn't execute, and before you know it we're down 10-0. That's not the way you want to start."
***It was obvious Nebraska was not prepared for Gilbert to be the rushing threat he was on Saturday, and part of it was the Huskers didn't expect him to be as fast as he was. Gilbert had just 14 rushing yards coming into the game, which he surpassed on UT's opening drive.
"He showed some juice," Hagg said. "He was pretty fast. Just give him credit for that. Personally, I didn't know he was that fast because on film you can't tell, but yeah, he's pretty fast."
***The October woes continued for the Huskers, as they are now 2-9 during the month since 2005. Nebraska is 0-3 at home in October the past two seasons.