PASADENA, Calif. — The guessing game ended as soon as Nebraska took the field for warmups Saturday.
Rex Burkhead, listed as questionable all week from a sprained knee ligament a week ago, was wearing shorts and a ball cap.
The workload at Nebraska’s running back position would fall mainly on Ameer Abdullah.
And the sophomore responded mostly well in the 36-30 loss to UCLA, running for 119 yards on 16 carries and scoring two touchdowns.
There was, however, a costly fumble on the first play of the second half, which led to a field goal that gave the Bruins a 27-24 lead.
“Obviously, that’s something he’d like to have back, is laying it on the ground on the first play of the second half, but, overall, I thought he played well,” Husker running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He had some great runs and really did a good job.”
Brown said he doesn’t know that Nebraska would have run the ball any more late in the game if Burkhead were there.
“I don’t know if it’s that,” Brown said. “They were taking away a lot of things. They were giving us some throws that just by the way their defense was set up. … They were making it tough. They were jamming things up inside. They were bringing people off the edge and they were daring us to throw the football in a lot of ways.”
Husker head coach Bo Pelini said he thought “our backs played pretty well.”
“Not having Rex is not why we lost that game,” he said. “That’s not taking anything from how good a player Rex is, trust me.”
Pelini said Burkhead was “close” to returning and said he “possibly” could be back next week.
* Costly safety: Perhaps the biggest play of the night came with 8:44 left in the game when UCLA’s Datone Jones tackled Taylor Martinez in the end zone.
“Bad read,” Martinez simply said about the play.
The drive started at the Nebraska 5-yard line.
It was a far contrast from a play that had happened in the same end of the field in the first quarter, when Martinez ran a zone-read play for a 92-yard touchdown.
The Huskers started several drives inside their 10.
“(Field position) always plays a factor,” Pelini said. “I thought it hurt, especially in the second half. But you've got to flip the field. You've got to do that offensively. You've got to make some first downs. We kind of stood up there for a number of series there defensively in the second half when they had the field position and we just couldn’t get anything going on the offensive side of the ball at that point.”
* In for a long one: When did the Husker defense know it would be in for a rough night? Senior linebacker Will Compton, who led Nebraska with 12 tackles and a sack, said he never let that thought cross his mind.
“You never just realize it’s a rough night. You have to keep going play by play,” Compton said. “We didn’t execute well in the first half. We didn’t do our job defensively in the first half. We were a little bit better in the second half but we just didn’t come to play, that’s just the bottom line. That’s really all I have to say about that.”
* A numbers game: Nebraska fell to 7-5 all-time against UCLA, including 3-4 in games against the Bruins in California and 3-2 vs. UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The loss also snapped Nebraska’s 10-game September winning streak. The Huskers fell to 16-3 in regular-season nonconference games under Pelini.
Nebraska, which rushed for 260 yards, is 26-3 under Pelini when rushing for at least 200 yards.
* Tough homecoming: The four Husker captains who met at midfield at the beginning of the game were all players from the Los Angeles area: Taylor Martinez, Cameron Meredith, Daimion Stafford and Eric Martin.
But, obviously, it was not the homecoming they hoped.
“I was excited to come here and play,” Martinez said. “I wish we wouldn’t have come out with a loss, but at least my family and friends could see me play.”
* Maher’s mixed day: His day started ominously — a 13-yard punt, his second shanked punt in as many weeks.
But after a rough first five quarters to this season, Husker senior kicker/punter Brett Maher appeared to get his mojo back late in the first half.
He unloaded a 42-yard punt with about two minutes left that turned the field in Nebraska’s favor.
It came in handy. The Husker defense recorded a rare three-and-out on the following series, allowing NU a chance to drive and tie the game at 24 heading at halftime.
But to tie it, Maher had to make a 54-yard field goal. He did. Twice.
Maher made one kick, only to find out UCLA had called a timeout just before the snap. Bruins’ coach Jim Mora then called another timeout to ice Maher.
It didn’t work. Maher knocked the ball home again to even the score.
Full of confidence, Maher banged home a 43-yarder with 7:45 left in the third quarter.
But the kick Maher would like back came with 12:12 left in the game when pushed a 37-yarder wide left. The score was tied at 27 at the time.
“It hurts. It hurts,” Pelini said. “You have a chance to take the lead and gain some momentum. Disappointing.”
* Rough and tumble: Injuries to key players impacted both teams in the third quarter.
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley fell awkwardly on a run to the Husker 15 on the Bruins’ first drive of the third quarter.
The injury forced UCLA to bring in backup quarterback Richard Brehaut, who almost threw an interception in the end zone a few plays later. The ball went in and out of the hands of Husker safety P.J. Smith.
UCLA had to settle for a field goal on the possession.
Hundley was back a series later, though he maybe had lost a half-step from the injury.
Nebraska had some bad fortune of its own soon after when sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell planted awkwardly at the beginning of a route, suffering a noncontact injury that took him out of the game with 9:51 left.
Bell hobbled off the field. But like Hundley, he returned a series a later.
“I twisted my ankle pretty bad,” Bell said. “I went to run an out route. My foot just stuck. I’ll be all right. I’ll live.”