ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Huskers had made their share of mistakes, left some points on the field. But at least they were going to take a lead into the locker room at halftime.
And then South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw let the ball go. No worries. The Huskers had plenty of people back there, including standout cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and 6-foot-3 Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
But South Carolina star receiver Alshon Jeffery was there, too, getting behind Dennard, then jumping above the crowd to snag the ball at the 2-yard line. He turned and dove over the goal line for a 51-yard touchdown as time expired.
Just like that, South Carolina had a 16-13 lead in a half that had largely been controlled by Nebraska.
"I would say that it was the turning point of the game," Husker defensive end Cameron Meredith said. "We tried to come out and keep our focus but we just never got rolling again."
South Carolina was on its way to a 30-13 win in Monday's Capital One Bowl.
So what did Nebraska do wrong on the play besides the obvious of failing to bat it down?
"We should have guys surrounding the ball," said senior safety Austin Cassidy. "Only one guy's supposed to jump. The other guys are in the front for the rebound. The guys in the back are supposed to keep him out of the end zone in case anyone does catch it.
"I was on the other side of the field looking down the goal line, and there was really nobody behind him, so he really just fell right into the end zone. That's really what was most disappointing. We had practiced that. We knew what to expect. We knew they were going to run that play. We got in the right defense for it, and we just didn't execute."
It reminded of Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to beat Wisconsin as time expired earlier this season.
Since that play, Cassidy said he thinks coaches all over the country, including Nebraska's, have drilled their defenders on what to do in such a situation.
"Unfortunately, I think it maybe slipped a couple of our minds and we just didn't make the play," Cassidy said.
Secondary coach Corey Raymond said it just came down to a lack of execution.
"Maybe that's my fault," Raymond said. "I'm not on the field and I can't play for them, but that's my fault, I'll take the blame for that."
Dennard's ejection: Raymond said he didn't see the third-quarter incident between Dennard and Jeffery, after which both players were ejected for throwing punches.
"I thought the guy would have just both given them 15-yard penalties instead of kicking them out, but that's what they did," Raymond said. "I guess they might have warned them before, so that's what ended up happening."
Own worst enemy: Taylor Martinez said Nebraska got in the way of Nebraska.
"We had them all game long," the sophomore quarterback said. "We just killed ourselves."
In his opinion, Martinez said he still thinks some Big Ten defenses are better than what Nebraska saw from South Carolina.
"I think we moved the ball fairly well ..." Martinez said. "I thought we should have scored more points than we did."
Despite South Carolina's successful Hail Mary, Martinez said the mood in the locker room at halftime was upbeat.
"We thought for sure we were going to go out and score some more points just because we were in the red zone the first three times at the beginning of the game," Martinez said.
Costly interception: Among NU's missed opportunities came at the end of the first half when Martinez was intercepted by South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore.
Facing a third-and-14 from the Gamecock 35, Gilmore read the pass all the way, thwarting a drive that had been kept alive after Nebraska converted a fourth-and-inches on its 30.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he was hoping to gain a few more yards on the play to set up kicker Brett Maher for a closer field goal, with NU leading 13-9.
"(We were) trying to run a little option route with Ameer and trying to let him work that guy. It was kind of a misread," Beck said. "They played a lot more Cover-2 (defense). They shocked me. They were a big Cover-3, Cover-1 team. We were expecting Cover-1 on third down, which is their M.O. We did it early, that's why we had some of those plays early. And then they got out of it."
Maher misses: Maher had a sensational regular season and was honored as the Big Ten kicker and punter of the year.
But he'd be the first to admit Monday wasn't his best day.
Though it seemed no fault of his own, he had an extra-point kick blocked when South Carolina broke through the line. It was NU's first missed PAT of the year.
"Our operation time was good. I felt like I hit it good," Maher said. "It was just kind of a fluke thing. They put a couple guys extra in the gap than we could protect."
But Maher said a missed 35-yard field goal in the third quarter was on him. "Good snap, good hold, I just missed it." It was his first miss inside of 40 yards all season.
"Pretty disappointing day on my part," Maher said. "Right now it's kind of canceling out everything previous in the season. Definitely a humbling day and I'll let it fuel me going into next year."
Season review: Husker coach Bo Pelini said he told players after the game to keep their heads high and that he was proud of them.
"I am proud of the season we had," Pelini said. "Obviously, we didn't finish the way we wanted but it doesn't take away from where we are and we're going and what we've accomplished. Somebody had to lose that game, and we had our opportunities."
The Huskers ended the year 9-4. A win would have given them 10 wins for a third straight year. Despite missing that mark and not winning a Big Ten championship, Meredith said he still sees it as a successful year.
"It was our first year in the Big Ten and we beat some pretty good football teams," Meredith said. "I'm still disappointed with the losses we had, but I felt for the most part we got better as a football team. I think next year there is a lot for us to achieve and I think we all know that.
"This is Bo's actual recruiting class, his guys, so I'm fired up for next year. I'm upset about the loss today, but there's nothing you can do but look forward."