JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't call Georgia running back Todd Gurley by his name after the Huskers' 24-19 Gator Bowl win, but there wasn't a reporter inside the press room who was confused about the object of Pelini's praise.
“Their back is a grown man,” Pelini said. “He's a heck of a football player.”
Nebraska's players wouldn't argue after the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Gurley amassed 183 total yards and scored a touchdown.
While still nursing an ankle injury from earlier in the season, Gurley gave the Huskers fits, especially in the passing game. He caught seven passes for 97 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. After that play, the normally subdued Gurley reached his arms to the crowd for adulation. He's not eligible for the 2014 NFL draft but is expected to be a top prospect in 2015.
“He had me tired out there, I'm not going to lie, running around, chasing him,” said NU linebacker Michael Rose, who often had to cover Gurley on those swing and crossing routes. Gurley also had a 30-yard gain on a swing route in which he shook off a tackle by Ciante Evans, righted himself and rumbled downfield.
But the Huskers gave Gurley problems, too, at least in the running game. He ran for 86 yards on 21 carries — 2 yards below his per-carry average during the regular season — and never busted a run longer than 16 yards. As a team, Georgia ran for 96 yards.
“The guys up front, our front seven, played really good,” Pelini said.
Nebraska appeared to win the line of scrimmage battle inside using tackles Thad Randle, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. The trio combined for eight tackles. Rose said the linebackers stayed in their gaps and successfully bounced plays to the perimeter, where the footing seemed iffier.
Defensive end Jason Ankrah agreed.
“We knew not having him going north and south is going to be the success for our game,” Ankrah said. “We forced him east and west and had people able to rally to the football.”
Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis also sent corners off the edge when Georgia's alignments called for it.
“We did a great job collectively, as a unit, staying in our gaps, not really giving up the big play off the run,” Rose said. “It was a pretty good game plan.”
But Georgia guessed right late in the game — on the Bulldogs' second-to-last offensive play. On third-and-10 from the NU 23, Georgia gave the ball to Gurley on a shotgun power play instead of throwing it.
“We had come up with a blitz,” Rose said. “They ran opposite of the blitz.”
Gurley easily made it through the hole. Just one player remained between him and the go-ahead touchdown: NU safety Corey Cooper. Gurley lowered his head. So did Cooper, and he made the tackle 3 yards short of the first down. Cornerback Josh Mitchell watched the play unfold.
“It was pretty much the best play of the game,” Mitchell said. “If he doesn't make that tackle, they score a touchdown and who knows what happens. He made a very clutch play. I turned over, saw them one-on-one and saw them make the tackle. I just wiped my forehead and knew we'd lived to fight another down.”
Even in the rain, Gurley makes defenders sweat. But Cooper, Rose said, stood up to the moment.
“Coop's made those kind of tackles all yearlong,” Rose said. “I don't think everybody on the team would make that play, and I'm glad he was the guy to take it.”
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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: