Oh, there were turning points, all right.
Nebraska’s inability to sack UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley on a third-and-12 play in the second quarter comes to mind.
So does a Taylor Martinez option pitch that UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr deflected, causing a 20-yard loss, that coming after the Huskers had moved from their 3-yard line to their 40.
Perhaps the biggest momentum shift Saturday in UCLA’s 41-21 victory, though, came when the Huskers, leading 21-3, couldn’t sustain a drive and run the final 4:48 of the first-half clock.
Or, at the very least, a sizeable portion of it.
Instead, Nebraska went three-and-out, and UCLA regained possession with 2:24 remaining. Not only did the Bruins score a touchdown to pull within 21-10, they forced another three-and-out and had one final possession before halftime, ending in a missed 55-yard field goal.
“It was bad time management on my part,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It let them crawl back into the game. You could feel the mojo kind of leave us there a little bit.”
It never came back.
UCLA blitzed Nebraska with four third-quarter touchdowns, a development that’s as much to blame on the offense as it is the defense.
“We helped the avalanche,” Beck said. “We might have started it.”
Beck said miscommunication was to blame on an Ameer Abdullah first-down run that netted 2 yards on the Huskers’ second-to-final drive of the first half.
A false start on third down made a third-and-4 play a third-and-9 situation, and a draw play gained only 1 yard, forcing a punt that led to UCLA’s first touchdown.
“We didn’t communicate well, we didn’t finish well, we didn’t execute well,” Beck said. “That was a debacle there in the second quarter.”
The third quarter wasn’t much better. A senior-laden offensive unit had two three-and-outs and had another short possession that ended on a fake punt attempt, helping along UCLA's four-touchdown onslaught.
“We just didn’t finish,” Beck said. “We didn’t play very well the second half. I don’t know why. It’s hard to tell you why I feel that way. I don’t think they came up with any unique defensive system to stop us in the second half from what they were already doing. We just weren’t making plays, weren’t executing.”
Beck and running backs coach Ron Brown said Nebraska’s running attack – 42 attempts, 128 yards – faltered, in part, because UCLA loaded the box with defenders. It’s why Beck said he countered with screens and short passes.
“It was kind of our way of running the football,” Beck said. “Just get it out quick and try to get 4 or 5 yards on first down, give you a manageable second down.”
Nebraska did, however, have success running powerful sophomore back Imani Cross in the first half. Cross had consecutive carries of 8 and 6 yards on a mammoth 92-yard, 17-play touchdown drive in the first quarter. He had another 5-yard run up the middle in the second quarter.
He didn’t carry the ball again.
“It’s the way they aligned their guys,” Beck said, explaining why coaches didn’t try Cross up the middle more often.
Said Brown: “We weren’t running the ball a lot inside. We were thinking about options and throwing the football.”
Martinez finished with minus 13 yards on 10 attempts, only the second time in his career the senior quarterback had negative rushing yards in a game (also against Oklahoma in the 2010 Big 12 Championship Game). He was sacked twice.
Martinez was in a walking boot after the game but said injury didn’t limit his running game. Beck believes his quarterback when he says he’s healthy.
“I mean, he says he is, so I’m going on his word,” Beck said. “Let him go out there and play and do what he needs to do. He just wasn’t real effective today running the ball.”
Martinez said Nebraska, which had 331 total yards, moved the ball well, but didn’t finish.
“When we did get close, something always happened,” he said, “and we’d get pushed back with a penalty or something like that.”