Four Downs: Nebraska holds off Georgia in Gator Bowl

Nebraska freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong accounted for 189 total yards and two touchdowns in the Cornhuskers' Gator Bowl win.

Melina Vastola/Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The Nebraska Cornhuskers held off the Georgia Bulldogs on two late fourth-down stops to hang on a 24-19 Gator Bowl win on Wednesday afternoon. Here are four observations from the game:

Last bowl season, with junior playmakers Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez under center, this matchup produced 76 points and 1,032 total yards. What a difference a year — and two new quarterbacks — makes. With relatively green starters Hutson Mason (Georgia) and Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska) filling in for the two programs’ injured senior starters, the results were ugly at times and spotty the rest of the way.

Final tally: 43 points and 723 total yards.

Those numbers are not awful in and of themselves, but missed opportunities ruled the day, especially for Georgia (8-5), which was forced to settle for four field goals and saw two impressive fourth-quarter drives end on fourth-down dropped passes. Georgia outgained Nebraska 416-307, registered eight more first downs and benefited from a better display of offensive balance throughout the contest, but self-inflicted wounds — turnovers, drops, penalties — and timely plays by the Cornhuskers’ (9-4) defense held off prospective comeback attempts.

In the end, though, it was an anticlimactic ending in front of a half-empty stadium to two seasons that held promise before injuries and, in Nebraska’s case, controversy took their toll. But all is not lost…

There was always going to be a drop-off from one of the most productive offensive players in SEC history. The fact that Mason is not Murray, who watched in street clothes from the sideline thanks to the torn ACL he suffered against Kentucky in the Bulldogs’ conference finale, goes without saying, but the redshirt junior from Marietta, Ga., has a long way to go this offseason.

Granted, the Georgia offense has not operated at full strength since the first scoring drive of the 2013 campaign, but there were moments early in Wednesday’s showdown when Mason simply did not look comfortable or in complete command of the offense, much as Murray has been for the past four seasons in Athens.

The good news is that in his two career starts, Mason has shown the propensity to get comfortable as the game progresses. More reps, more production. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come as he (presumably) gets first-team snaps throughout the spring and summer. In those starts, the Bulldogs’ offense is averaging eight points in the first half and 22 points in the second half (though a majority of those points came in the Georgia Tech overtime affair).

In the fourth quarter in particular, even as the offense came up short on fourth down on its final two drives, Mason delivered, finding Gurley, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett for big chunks of yardage. He finished the game with respectable numbers: 21-of-40, 320 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Mason’s early struggles helped dig the Bulldogs into an early hole, failing to reach the endzone time after time in the first half, but the future does not look as bleak as it could with the graduation of Murray. With backup quarterbacks Faton Bauta and Parker Welch not attempting a single Gator Bowl pass and Christian Lemay reportedly eyeing a transfer, this looks to be Mason’s job to lose. He’ll need to get off to faster starts, but all is not lost.

Georgia sophomore Todd Gurley once again made his case for being the best running back in the country, even while playing short of 100 percent and being the primary focus of the Blackshirts. Hampered by an ankle injury, Gurley finished the game with 21 carries for 86 yards and seven catches for 97 yards, including a 25-yard fourth-quarter score. He was Mason’s comfort zone in the passing game and proved that when able to go — he missed three games and parts of others this season due to injuries — he’s one of the premier weapons in the country and an overwhelming focal point of the Bulldogs’ offense.

In the performance, Gurley became just the third Georgia running back to log consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns, joining Herschel Walker and Knowshon Moreno. Nice company to keep.

Still, it was Gurley’s team that concluded the game on the losing end after falling short on fourth down on its final two drives.

The winning running back, 5-foot-9 junior Ameer Abdullah, was the same workhorse he’s been throughout the 2013 season. For the 11th time this season, he eclipsed the 100-yard mark, going for 122 and a score against a Georgia defense (44th-ranked rush defense) that struggled to stop run-dominant teams late in the season.

If Abdullah, a player who could test the draft waters this offseason, returns for a final season in Lincoln, both teams should feature two of the top, say, 20 running backs in the country in 2014.

Nebraska’s passing offense was pretty lousy in 2013. For the better part of the Cornhusker’s first game in 2014, a similar trend held, even against a Georgia secondary that has given up big play after big play this season.

So of course it was the Cornhuskers that tied an NCAA record for the longest play from scrimmage after Armstrong found receiver Quincy Enunwa on a 99-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that gave Nebraska just enough breathing room to hang on for the win. It was also the longest play in bowl history.

The school-record play accounted for 61 percent of Nebraska’s passing yards on the day.

Enunwa, who finished the game with four catches for 129 yards and two scores, also earned Player of the Game honors, although Abdullah and Gurley likely played bigger roles in the game’s outcome.