Huskers feel duty to unite for Holiday Bowl

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting with the players Dec. 2.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said. “These players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks might have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for one another.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans (most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007) has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003 -- the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

Parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

It's safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe such as USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man -- make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”