Gator Bowl, Nebraska vs. Georgia, 1.1.14

Nebraska wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (18) escapes Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd (84) after getting a handoff from quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. during the first quarter of the Gator Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

If it has to end, and it always does, then end it like this: victory formation in the rain.

After Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong put his knee to the ground one final time, senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles worked his way through defeated Bulldogs and jubilant teammates until he came upon his position coach near midfield.

The two exchanged cheesy grins, then John Garrison jumped in the air and Sirles caught him.

Rain and mud and victory. Now that’s fun football.

The fifth-year senior Sirles will not leave here with a conference championship he so desired during his Nebraska career.

But he will leave with peace of mind.

“This senior class wanted to leave as winners,” Sirles said. “And we got to do that.”

As it goes, Nebraska’s 24-19 Gator Bowl win over Georgia on Wednesday allowed a group of Husker seniors to leave with a win for the first time since the 2009 team.

Sirles was in the program that year, but he didn’t play in that Holiday Bowl win. He was just a redshirt freshman.

It’s only been four years since then, but there’s a lot of memories crammed into those years.

He’s been in winning locker rooms that have put goose bumps on a man’s arm and losing ones that had players in tears.

There were 5 o’clock wakeups for workouts, and dinners with teammates, and championship chases, and then, all of a sudden, all that was left was one fourth-down play in the rain.

Sirles did not see the Georgia pass fall incomplete that clinched Nebraska’s victory.

“I couldn’t watch. I didn’t watch. I watched them put the ball down, I watched everyone get set, and then I just hung my head and listened for the reaction of the crowd,” Sirles said.

“When I heard our crowd goes nuts, I went up and got nuts, too.”

The conference championship drought remains to be conquered by another senior class.

But those Husker players leaving the program — a group that compiled a 38-16 record over the past four years and won two conference division championships — spoke with the hope that Wednesday’s win was the push forward this program needed heading into the new year.

“Us getting this win is our championship to us. It sends us out right, but it also sends the young guys into next season full-throttle,” said senior defensive end Jason Ankrah. “The one thing these seniors wanted to do, we’re not selfish, we want them to succeed just like we did. … It’s all about sending these young guys into 2014.”

Senior offensive lineman Cole Pensick echoed those thoughts after Nebraska’s first win against an SEC team in its last five tries.

“It'll give the young guys confidence, like, 'Hey, we can do that,’” Pensick said of breaking through.

The seniors certainly carried their share of the load in their final game.

Quincy Enunwa won the bowl game’s MVP award with 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yard touchdown that turned the game in Nebraska’s favor.

But there also were Ankrah’s two sacks, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s two tackles behind the line of scrimmage from his cornerback position, and Thad Randle battling through a cramp in his calf for six tackles.

Safety Andrew Green had five tackles himself and two pass breakups, including one on a fourth down in the Husker red zone in the game’s final five minutes.

“He played his best game, in my opinion,” fellow safety Corey Cooper said of Green. “I didn’t even recognize him out there. I’m proud of him. He moved to safety, this is his first year moving to safety, he did a hell of a job.”

While the focus of seniors was to gain momentum for the younger players, the younger players were in turn trying to give the seniors a memorable exit.

“For me, especially, this is my last time playing with guys like Ciante (Evans), Stanley and Drew, guys who really put me under their wing and helped me out while I was here,” said junior cornerback Josh Mitchell. “So we had to make sure we sent those guys out the right way.”

It was Enunwa’s exit that proved most memorable of all. Not only did he break a record for the longest pass play in school history — one that can never be broken — his two touchdowns gave him 12 for the season, another school record, bettering Johnny Rodgers from 1971.

And while an offensive lineman rarely gets his name in the record books, a player such as Sirles takes a certain pride in being one of the protectors up front who has helped others claim some of those achievements.

“I was talking to my dad about this,” Sirles said. “If you go back through my five years, I’ve been part of quite a few records — (Enunwa’s) being one, Rex’s all-time carry mark, the Roy 300-yard game, Taylor’s records. You can go right down the line. So it’s pretty special to be a part of all that.”

Records can be erased, but the memories of a college career can’t.

Sometimes the endings of those careers can be cruel.

It was that way for Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught six passes Wednesday but dropped the one that ended the game inside the Husker 10-yard-line.

Lynch lay face down in the grass after the drop. His eyes welled up as he tried to explain what happened after the game.

“That’s on me,” his voice cracked.

A game like the Gator Bowl may not capture the fancy of the masses, but it sure means a lot to guys like Lynch and Sirles.

Down the hall, about 100 yards from where Lynch answered questions, Huskers laughed and joked as they walked toward a team bus to take them to a plane that would take them back to Lincoln.

“I’m just glad I can kind of relax and know that we finished it off strong,” Enunwa said.

As it turns out, the final flight home for Nebraska’s seniors may have been the best of them all.

​Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. Follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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