PASADENA, Calif. — It was a picturesque setting, a Saturday in the Rose Bowl, the late afternoon fading into darkness beneath a beautiful skyline and the San Gabriel Mountains.
But before a national television audience, Nebraska’s play simply did not match the scene, producing a downright ugly first half on defense, then a similarly unsightly showing by the offense in the second half.
Put it together, and what you had was a slow trudge to the locker room, with heads hanging, a UCLA chant ringing and a scoreboard showing the Bruins as 36-30 victors.
“I’m embarrassed by how we played today," Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “I point the thumb first. We didn’t play well in any phase of the game, in my opinion. We were inconsistent. Our fundamentals were lousy, and that leads to bad things happening. I give UCLA credit, but I’m disappointed.”
Pelini’s defense was torched by a UCLA offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley in the first half. The Bruins put up 24 points and 372 yards of offense in the first 30 minutes alone.
“We didn’t do anything well on the defensive side of the ball,” Pelini said. “Many times we had opportunities for tackles for losses and it ended up for long gains.”
Despite it all, it looked as if Nebraska could possibly escape with a win behind an offense that early on showed no signs of being stopped.
The Huskers scored 24 points in the first half, with 333 yards of offense, including a 92-yard touchdown run by Taylor Martinez on a zone-read play.
But the magic disappeared in the second half.
The Huskers had just 106 yards in the second half, scoring only six more points.
“I wouldn’t say we panicked,” sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “It’s hard to describe when it’s going on. We weren’t ourselves. We weren’t executing and they were playing well. A lot of credit to their defense. They were playing well, but we definitely helped them out along the way.”
Martinez started strong, but ended up 17-of-31 passing. He threw for 179 yards, but none in the fourth quarter, misfiring on all six passes, including an interception that led to UCLA’s final touchdown.
That touchdown, a 9-yard pass from Hundley to Johnathan Franklin, made it 36-27 with 2:13 left and all but sealed Nebraska’s fate.
“We just didn’t really execute very well,” Martinez said.
“It’s a team loss,” he said later.
Perhaps the biggest play came with 8:44 left in the game. Nebraska was at its 5-yard line and ran a zone-read play similar to Martinez's TD run in the first quarter.
But the play was a mess from the beginning. UCLA’s Datone Jones corralled Martinez for a safety. The Bruins gained two critical points to take a 29-27 lead.
“I think that’s a call that obviously we’d want back,” Pelini said. “But once again, we didn’t execute it well. It was poor execution, to say the least. A number of things contributed to that.”
Added Pelini: “You talk about a team loss, that’s it.”
The defeat was a bitter one for a team looking to avoid letdowns that had bogged it down in previous years.
“The sky’s obviously going to be falling in Lincoln. It’s going to be a rough week,” Bell said. “But we’ll be fine. We’ll bounce back this coming week.”
The alarming thing was that Nebraska had some breaks go its way and still lost a game the Huskers were favored to win.
UCLA missed two field goals, and failed to convert on a fourth-down trick play inside the Husker 20.
The Bruins statistically outplayed the Huskers by a significant margin, holding a 653-439 advantage in total yards.
That’s the first time Nebraska gave up 600 yards since the Missouri game in 2007. UCLA also rushed for 344 yards, the first time Nebraska gave up more than 300 since the Texas game in 2007.
The loss does not factor into Nebraska’s Big Ten title hopes, but it shows that the Huskers have a long way to go if they hope to be in the conversation.
“Everything’s out there. It’s Game 2,” Pelini said. “Everything is out there for what we want to do this year. Because, in the end, we want to play our last football game here. To do that we have a lot of work to do. We have to get a lot better. Obviously.”