Published Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 10:36 pm / Updated at 10:53 pm
FOOTBALL
Husker defense steps up in 'gut-up time'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nebraska defensive end Jason Ankrah called it “gut-up time,” that point where the goal line isn't far behind you and the score isn't all that much in your favor.

The Huskers lived through a lot of gut-up time in the Gator Bowl.

Georgia made six trips into the red zone Wednesday and snapped the football 37 times inside the Huskers' 35-yard line, yet found itself without a lot to show for it.

That more than anything might have explained the Huskers' narrow escape in a 24-19 win at EverBank Field.

“We've been in those situations before,” NU safety Corey Cooper said. “We're used to having our back against the wall and come out standing. It wasn't nothing new to us.”

The Nebraska defense made fourth-down stops at its own 14-yard line with 4:42 left and at its own 16 with 25 seconds to go. On the Bulldogs' previous four red-zone trips, they scored one touchdown and settled for three field goals.

“When they get in that red zone, we don't want to give up points, especially touchdowns,” Ankrah said. “It's gut-up time. They ain't getting in the end zone. I don't care what they run, we don't want to let them get in the end zone, and that's how it happened.”

Sixty minutes of bend-don't-break determination helped the Huskers hold Georgia to a season-worst 19 points. The Bulldogs' previous low output had come in a 23-20 win over Florida on this same field, and they came into New Year's Day averaging 38.2 a game.

The sign of things to come might have been when Georgia had first downs at the NU 18, 15 and 25 in the second quarter — and all three times had to eventually trot out kicker Marshall Morgan to salvage something. That allowed the Huskers to get to halftime with a 10-9 lead.

“Knowing me and knowing the rest of the defensive unit, I think we like that kind of pressure,” NU defensive end Randy Gregory said. “We take it as a challenge. I think it makes us play harder, maybe play a little bit more confident.”

The tests, however, were just beginning.

Nebraska forced three straight incomplete passes after Georgia reached first-and-goal at the 10 in the third quarter. The Bulldogs then finally broke through with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hutson Mason to Todd Gurley starting the fourth, after NU had pushed them back 10 yards on the previous play with an Ankrah sack.

Cooper said the Huskers didn't get down after that setback, which had allowed Georgia to pull within 24-19.

“People are going to make plays — and we've experienced teams making plays against us — but we know how to respond,” Cooper said. “We're never giving up.”

They had no choice as the rain kept falling, and the Georgia threats kept coming.

Nebraska was helped by a dropped pass by Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch at the 10-yard line two plays before its first fourth-down stop. That series ended when safety Andrew Green hit Rantavious Wooten near the first-down marker to break up a Mason pass.

Georgia then marched right back inside the Nebraska 20, where Cooper tackled Gurley at the end of a 7-yard run to create the fourth-and-3 at the 16. Mason's last of 39 passes then went off the hands of Lynch to start the Husker celebration.

“At the end of the day, we made more plays than they did,” NU coach Bo Pelini said. “It was a heck of a game.”

Mason threw for 320 yards in his second career start as the Bulldogs finished with 416 total yards and 7 of 19 third-down efficiency. Nebraska limited Gurley to 86 yards rushing (and 4.1 per carry), but the sophomore caught a game-high seven passes for 97 yards.

But the 19 points were all that mattered at the end.

“There were some third downs where we let them get off the hook, when they got some other big plays, but you've got to keep them to field goals or can't let them score,” NU linebacker Michael Rose said. “I think we did a great job of bending but not breaking. I'm proud of our guys today for playing the way we played.”

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini and others at the postgame press conference:



Video: Gator Bowl highlights:



Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis:

Contact the writer: Rich Kaipust

rich.kaipust@owh.com    |   402-444-1042    |  

Rich Kaipust is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and some general assignment tasks, including the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

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