ORLANDO, Fla. — There it was, right in front of their noses, momentum as their dance partner and those aggravating “S-E-C” chants nowhere to be heard.
The same Huskers who faceplanted just a month ago had just tightened the leash on a gassed bunch of Bulldogs, taking an eight-point lead, the aggressor, a team on the brink of one of those tune-changing wins.
“We had them on the ropes,” said Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “There’s no question about it. When we went up 31-23, I thought we had them right where we wanted them.”
Had them. Past tense.
Because Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie again here in Orlando.
Opportunity turned into a game of woulda, coulda, shoulda, with Georgia scoring the final three touchdowns on its way to a 45-31 win in the Capital One Bowl.
“I think we’re close, but you hate using the word close, because that just means you’re not there yet,” Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “We have to get over the hump.”
He repeated it, because it was worth repeating: “We have to get over the hump.”
The loss left the Huskers in the same spot they were in a year ago, with a 10-4 record, feeling they went toe-to-toe with a top-tier SEC team again only to have nothing to show for it.
"I thought they played their tails off,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said of his team. “To a man, every guy. They left it out there on the field. We just didn't make enough plays.”
The game, and the season, will no doubt be spun many different ways in the coming days and months.
That conversation is just beginning.
It might have been a different conversation had the Huskers been able to step on the Bulldogs’ throat in the third quarter, when the game seemed theirs for the taking.
But after a dominating touchdown drive to begin the third quarter, Nebraska bumbled on both sides of the ball, giving up a five-play, 79-yard touchdown drive.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray hit Chris Conley for a 49-yard score. Murray torched the Husker secondary with a Capital One Bowl-record 427 yards passing and five touchdowns, and none was bigger than that one.
After a two-point conversion, the game was tied.
No matter. Nebraska’s offense was doing as it pleased as well, and seemed on its way to regaining the lead.
But then, on perhaps the most pivotal play of the game, Ameer Abdullah fumbled.
It was third-and-1 from the Georgia 39-yard line. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck called for a play he’s used before with success — moving Rex Burkhead to quarterback and having him pitch the ball to Abdullah, then serve as a lead blocker.
“It’s a play that we’ve run five times and scored five touchdowns on,” Beck said. “It was a good call. It was a first down. I love Ameer. I don’t care. Ameer ran hard all game long and I’d call it again. It hasn’t been stopped yet this year for us.”
This time Abdullah fumbled, though some on Nebraska’s sideline wondered about the call.
“He thought he was down,” Pelini said. “I couldn’t see it. There was a number of things that we were questioning on that play. Why that didn’t get reviewed … that’s beyond me. But, you know, it was par for the course on how that game was called.”
Still, the game was tied at 31 heading into the final quarter, victory waiting to be grabbed.
Georgia grabbed it, much to the delight of the partisan crowd of 59,712.
Nebraska’s undoing ultimately was the Blackshirts' inability to get off the field on third down. The Bulldogs converted 12 of 17, including a back-breaking 87-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-12 that made it a two-touchdown game with 11:03 to play.
Get off the field there, and who knows?
Nebraska blitzed. Murray hit Conley quick. With nothing but green in front of him.
“We got aggressive,” Pelini said. “Turns out, it was a bad call by me.”
Georgia scored six touchdowns. All were from at least 24 yards.
Very few people were picking Nebraska in this game after the embarrassing 70-31 bludgeoning by Wisconsin just a month ago.
The fact Nebraska was in position to take a game from a team just 4 yards from the BCS title game might encourage some.
But it certainly won’t appease others who have seen Nebraska finish with four losses each of the past five seasons.
Four losses. Still no conference championship since 1999.
That’s the hump Kaczenski was talking about.
“What was good to see in there is there’s a lot of unsatisfied guys,” Kaczenski said. “This thing hurts, and that’s good to see. Sometimes you see teams where, hey, it’s a bowl game, you’re just trying to punch the clock and get through the month of December. This thing really hurt our guys.”
Papuchis said the 2013 season starts Wednesday. Pelini seemed to be of the same mind.
In the postgame locker room, Pelini thanked the seniors first. Then he sent a message to the players who will be returning.
“It’s time to go to work.”