Nebraska and UCLA lock horns for the third time in four seasons in the Foster Farms Bowl.
The Cornhuskers suffered painful September losses in 2012 and 2013. UCLA won a 36-30 decision three years ago at the Rose Bowl as the Brett Hundley-led Bruins amassed 653 yards in the second game under coach Jim Mora.
UCLA then stormed back from an 18-point deficit with 38 unanswered points to win 41-21 at Memorial Stadium in 2013. It was a major setback for Nebraska that marked the beginning of the end for former Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played through a foot injury against the Bruins. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. replaced Martinez a week later and remains the starter.
Armstrong, though, is embattled after a four-interception performance against Iowa in the regular-season finale on Nov. 27 -- which brings us to this game. Nebraska enters at 5-7, assured of its third losing season in the past half-century.
For the Bruins, this year, at 8-4, came on the heels of two straight 10-win seasons. Even with a true freshman quarterback, UCLA was expected to contend for a New Year’s Six bowl slot. Its opportunity disappeared in the final week of the regular season with a 40-21 loss to rival USC, with the Pac-12 South title at stake.
Nebraska and UCLA have split 12 games in the regular season. The Foster Farms Bowl will mark their first postseason meeting.
Most intriguing matchup: Defensively, the Huskers appear outclassed against UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. He entered college football this fall as the No. 2-rated pocket passer -- behind redshirting rookie Blake Barnett of Alabama -- and threw for 3,351 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rosen looked spectacular at times, completing 73.6 percent of his throws for 1,034 yards and eight touchdowns against Virginia, Arizona and Cal. But Rosen had a few freshman moments, and the Huskers, despite their 121st-ranked pass defense, showed improvement in the secondary as the season progressed. Nebraska’s front four, when healthy, is formidable. The Bruins have allowed just 15 sacks, but if the Huskers pressure Rosen, the chance exists for this matchup to go differently than the stats suggest.
Nebraska player who could have a big game: Let’s stick with the quarterbacks. After playing the role of game manager early in his career, Armstrong has developed into a boom-or-bust performer in the same mold as his predecessor, Martinez. Interestingly, Armstrong’s metamorphosis largely began last year in the Holiday Bowl against USC as he threw for a career-best and Nebraska bowl-record 381 yards. UCLA does a nice job against the pass, ranking first in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per game (205.7) and per attempt (5.3). But Armstrong has displayed an ability to turn red-hot against marquee opponents. See his showings in the second half this year against Miami and Michigan State as the junior completed 25 passes for 472 yards and led stirring comebacks.
Key to victory: For Nebraska, it’s the same story -- avoid mistakes. The Huskers, in changing coaches a year ago, hoped to shake their reputation as a program that beats itself, but it’s not happened yet under Mike Riley. Nebraska sits at minus-13 in turnover margin, 119th nationally, and 108th with 7.3 penalties per game. When the Huskers play clean, they’re capable of beating most teams, evidenced by six losses this year of eight points or fewer. Another thought here: run the football. When Nebraska attempted 40 passes or more this season, it was 0-5. In three Big Ten wins, it threw an average of 26.7 passes.