ORLANDO, Fla. — In a cavernous basement room of Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, the words of Bo Pelini's confusion, frustration — sorrow even — echoed out the door, into the hallway, right to the mouth of the football stage, where Nebraska's Rose Bowl quest crashed in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin.
“We failed,” the Husker coach said into a microphone. Most coaches would talk around the word. After six riveting, emotional weeks of wins, Pelini did not. In his black-and-white world, in a moment of great discontent, the teacher couldn't easily conceive of giving his students a passing grade.
But as the freeze of the loss thawed, Pelini quickly changed course. He told Athletic Director Tom Osborne he wanted a return to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl to play the best team possible. He told the No. 16 Huskers not to apologize for their 10-win season. And over the last month, he reframed this title-or-bust campaign into one word: opportunity.
It knocks Tuesday, high noon, at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. The team waiting there — No. 6 Georgia — is arguably the most complete squad Nebraska has faced since the 2009 Big 12 Championship. Yes, 10-3 NU — loser of its last three conference title games and last two bowl games — asked for this road to redeeming an ugly loss in the Big Ten title game.
Pelini has “thrown out a challenge for us,” running back Rex Burkhead said. “He's made us realize each and every day at practice that this is a great opportunity for our team to showcase what we can do. That Wisconsin is not who we are.”
The 11-2 Bulldogs aren't Wisconsin. They're much better.
>> They score more points than the Badgers and allow fewer. They have a better turnover margin thanks to the nation's leader in forced fumbles, linebacker Jarvis Jones. Nebraska has a turnover margin that's ranked 105th in the nation. It's a consistent burr in the offense, where fumbles and interceptions have set up easy scores for opponents in more than half of NU's games.
“I've done about everything,” Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck said of trying to correct the giveaway problems. “Everything I can think of.”
>> Georgia's big. The offensive line averages 308 pounds. The three-man defensive line can average 320 pounds, with 335-pound Kwame Geathers in the middle.
>> The Bulldogs possess Aaron Murray, a five-star, three-year starting quarterback, cocky but conscientious, who said Saturday that the SEC is “obviously” the best conference in the nation. Yet he remains haunted by the 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship. Murray and Georgia came up five yards short of playing for the national title.
The 6-foot-1 Murray threw for 3,466 yards and 31 touchdowns this season; he's second in the nation in passing efficiency. Nebraska's defense is No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency and No. 1 in pass yards allowed. Something will have to give.
“We'll try to get lined up, get the play called, not let their defense get their blitz set up,” Murray said last week. “Move fast. They really like to press outside and make you go deep.”
>> After giving up a school-record 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin, Nebraska's shorthanded, undersized front seven is again faced with a downhill running game featuring two fast, one-cut-and-go backs in freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The duo known as “Gurshall” combined for nearly 2,000 yards in 13 games.
“They don't really look to finesse many people,” NU defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “They see the hole, they're going to go to it.”
NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis hinted at “alternate plans” to compensate for the absence of Baker Steinkuhler — who's out with a knee injury — but Nebraska will most likely move 260-pound defensive end Cameron Meredith inside to absorb Bulldog double teams. The strategy worked at times before the loss to Wisconsin, but Nebraska appeared oversensitive to its interior weakness against the Badgers, which left open the jet sweep.
“The thing that probably bothers me most about it is the fact that, over the course of the season — especially the last six weeks — we made a lot of strides on defense,” Papuchis said.
>> The Bulldogs sold about 6,000 more of their 12,500 allotted tickets than Nebraska has, and they'll likely have a good number of fans make the short drive from Georgia to Orlando.
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Even if some diehard Florida fans in the area turn up to root for the Huskers — linebacker Will Compton said a couple of Gator fans came up to him and asked him to beat the Bulldogs — Georgia will have a decided advantage in fan support.
>> Including Jones, Georgia has more of what pumps blood into most elite college football programs: raw NFL talent. The kind Nebraska enjoyed in 2010.
Remember that team? Lavonte David, Prince Amukamara, Alfonzo Dennard, Jared Crick, Eric Hagg and Dejon Gomes — all major contributors on NFL rosters — patrolled on defense. The Huskers' offense that year had eventual NFL draftees Roy Helu, Niles Paul and Keith Williams. Plus the nation's best kicker in Alex Henery. Those Huskers, like these Bulldogs, frittered away the conference title.
Think of that NU team — its strengths and occasional inconsistencies — lining up against the 2012 version of Nebraska in Orlando. Now give that Husker team from two years ago the equivalent of Murray at quarterback.
That's the challenge. That's the opportunity. That's the road to redemption. Pelini asked for it.
“You don't ever wipe that taste out of your mouth,” Pelini said Monday of the Wisconsin loss. “People who have been part of this profession and play the sport of football understand that. That isn't going away. Regardless of what happens tomorrow.
“But to me, life is about opportunities. It's about challenges. It drives me. It's why I'm in this profession. It's why I do what I do and why the players play. When it was presented to me which opportunity we were going to take, I took the one that we thought was the biggest challenge for our team. To go play the best football team out there. And I understood what that meant. What challenges would be. And we look forward to it.”
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>> This week's edition of "The Big Red Today Show":
>> NU coach Bo Pelini speaks to the media on Monday, Dec. 31:
>> UGA coach Mark Richt speaks to the media on Monday, Dec. 31:
>> Monday's Husker pep rally in Orlando, Fla.: