Foster Farms Bowl

Nebraska 37

Dec. 26, 2015 • Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California

1 2 3 4 T
UCLA 7 14 0 8 29
Nebraska 7 14 9 7 37

Nebraska's ground game turns the tide, then defense sews it up

Nebraska coach Mike Riley celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Now that was a finish.

On a cool California night against a faster, glitzier foe than itself, the Nebraska football team dropped the passing pretenses, put its hand in loosened turf and pushed, bulled and thrust its way to a 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. The Huskers did so by ancient means, in the trenches, with a mean-as-nails run game, yard by yard, lead blocker by lead blocker, double tight ends, zone plays, draw plays, quarterback keep plays. This a physical punishment of the Bruins.

NU ran for 326 yards on 62 carries. Nine players carried the ball. Four scored touchdowns. It was an offense Nebraska coach Mike Riley hadn’t unveiled all season. UCLA’s smallish, injury-riddled defense complied, of course — the Bruins weren’t stout enough to hold up in the second half especially — but Nebraska, even down 21-7 to a dazzlingly quick UCLA offense, didn’t deviate. It stayed close to the ground. There was no Bay Area fog on this clear night, but if there had been, it’s almost as if Nebraska would have run right under it. Boots were on the ground. NU won this fight.

“It wasn’t so much what we saw but what we wanted to do — what we had a will to do tonight,” Riley said. “Football goes better generally when you can run the ball well and you can physically impose yourself on the other team. I thought our guys did a good job of that. I thought the quarterback did a great job of utilizing his skills — both running and throwing.”

Yes, that quarterback. The maligned Tommy Armstrong. He answered strongly Saturday night as the offensive MVP. He threw for 174 yards and a touchdown on just 19 passes. He ran for another 76 yards and a touchdown. Aside from a first half fumble — which occurred after his face mask was tugged, a penalty officials missed — Armstrong played clean football, perhaps his best game.

Armstrong, the MVP trophy sitting in front of him inside Levi’s Stadium’s auditorium, said the offense was easy to execute, with Nebraska’s offensive line plowing forward, creating holes. Shorter runs in the first half became longer runs. And then Armstrong started faking the ball to his backs and scooting around the end into open spaces because UCLA was starting worry so much about the running backs.

“After turning four and six-yard run plays into 12-, 14- and 20-yard runs, it was exciting,” Armstrong said. He had one such run on NU’s final drive, which ran out the clock after Nebraska’s defense had intercepted UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen for a second time. “We kept feeding off it, and also, I did, too. We just stuck together.”

The Huskers — who finished 6-7 overall — needed to stick together after Armstrong’s fumble was quickly turned into seven points for UCLA, by way of a 60-yard touchdown pass from the precocious Rosen. The Bruins (8-5) led 14-7 at that point and extended the lead to 21-7 on a 26-yard pass from Rosen to UCLA running back Nate Starks.

This would have been a perfect time for Nebraska to abandon its run game. But, in front of an announced crowd of 33,527 fans, Nebraska stuck to it, tying the game at 21 by halftime.

“We came into the game expecting a good battle from the front four, but expected to be able to wear them down,” offensive tackle Nick Gates said.

Nebraska dominated the third quarter, holding UCLA to one yard. Nebraska scored nine points in that quarter — surging ahead 30-21 — and added an Armstrong touchdown early in the fourth quarter. That was 30 straight points on the Bruins.

Rosen didn’t quit. He threw his third touchdown pass of the game — and converted a two-point play — to draw UCLA to 37-29. The Bruins then drove into Husker territory two more times in the fourth quarter. UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairburn — the Lou Groza winner — missed a 46-yard field goal, and UCLA’s final drive ended in a Chris Jones interception for Nebraska. But Rosen’s desperate heave — as he was chased around the field by NU’s defense — certainly resembled some of the desperate plays opponents hit on the Huskers all season.

Not this time. Nebraska’s defense gave up 386 yards on just 57 plays, but it held at the end.

“It was a good finish for us as a defense,” linebacker Josh Banderas said of a defense that was playing two freshmen and two sophomores in the secondary after safety Nate Gerry was ejected for targeting late in the first half. “Obviously we had some of those same situations where it came down to the last second and it didn’t come out how we wanted. So it was good for us to kind of put that statement on it that we can finish games no matter what the situation is.”

Still, when NU took over, nearly three minutes remained. Could the Huskers actually grind out the clock in ways they could not against Illinois and Wisconsin?

Yes, they could and did. Nebraska ran seven plays for 46 yards and ended the game with a kneeldown and a surprisingly impressive bowl win.

Where was this run game all season? How can NU sustain it on the offseason? Riley wants to sustain. He wants Nebraska to be one of the top running teams in the Big Ten. No lip service Saturday night. The Huskers delivered smashmouth football.

“We didn’t necessarily have to wait until next year to start doing it,” Riley said. “I was really, really excited. Because physically up front — offensive line, tight ends, our fullback — really, really went after those guys. It was a physical game and fun to watch as the thing went on and our guys kept attacking.”

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Column / Analysis

Game stats

Opp NU
Penalties-Yards 6-38
Rush yards 67 326
Rush attempts 16 62
Yards per carry 4.2 5.3
Pass yards 319 174
Comp.-Att.-Int. 26-41-2 12-19-0
Yards/Att. 7.8 9.2
Yards/Comp. 12.3 14.5
Fumbles 0 1

Series history

Nebraska is 7-6 all-time against UCLA.

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2015 season (6-7)

BYU Sept. 5
South Alabama Sept. 12
Miami (FL) Sept. 19
Southern Miss Sept. 26
Illinois Oct. 3
Wisconsin Oct. 10
Minnesota Oct. 17
Northwestern Oct. 24
Purdue Oct. 31
Michigan State Nov. 7
Rutgers Nov. 14
Iowa Nov. 27
UCLA Dec. 26

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