San Diego, Calif. - In one of Nebraska's most dominant bowl performances in its illustrious bowl history, the No. 20 Cornhuskers registered their first-ever bowl shutout with a 33-0 whitewashing of Arizona in the 2009 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl on Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
With the victory, Nebraska finished the season 10-4 with six wins in its last seven games with the lone loss coming by one point in the final second to No. 2 and unbeaten Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game on Dec. 5 in Arlington, Texas. The Huskers notched their first 10-win season since 2003, while dropping the No. 22 Wildcats to 8-5 on the year.
Nebraska's 33-point victory margin was its largest in a bowl game since a 49-point win (66-17) over Northwestern in the 2000 Alamo Bowl. It also challenged a 39-point (45-6) win over Georgia in the 1969 Sun Bowl, a 38-point win over Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and a 34-point victory (40-6) over Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl.
Led by All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP Matt O'Hanlon, the performance of Nebraska's Blackshirts was near perfection, surrendering just 109 total offense yards by the Wildcats. Arizona managed just 63 rushing yards, 46 yards passing and six first downs.
The only serious scoring threat Arizona mounted all night came on its final drive, when the Wildcats accounted for 72 of their 109 yards and nearly one-fourth of their time of possession for the game. Keola Antolin's 36-yard rush on the drive accounted for one-third of U of A's offense for the game. But on 4th-and-3 at the NU 8, NU's P.J. Smith ended the Wildcat threat with a breakup on Arizona's final play to preserve the first shutout in the 14-year history of Big 12 Conference football.
In arguably their best all-around effort of the season, the Huskers used more than just defense to dominate the Wildcats.
An efficient and balanced offense finished with 396 total yards, including 223 rushing yards and 173 passing yards. NU rolled up 22 first downs, while surrendering just six to the Wildcats, with three of those on their final drive of the game. The Huskers also won the time of possession battle by an overwhelming margin, 38:12-21:48.
As usual, Omaha natives Alex Henery and Niles Paul also provided Nebraska with huge advantages on special teams, as Henery went 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, and punted four times while burying the Wildcats inside their own 20 three times. Paul, who went on to earn Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP honors, added a 49-yard kickoff return and three punt returns for a total of 45 yards to set the Huskers up with excellent field position throughout the night.
Paul added one carry for 20 yards and capped the Big Red's big finale to the season with a Nebraska bowl-game record 74-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. It was also Nebraska's longest play from scrimmage this season. The junior wide receiver finished the game with four receptions for 123 yards and accounted for 237 all-purpose yards to power the Husker offense.
Coach Bo Pelini, who improved to 3-0 as NU's head coach in bowl games, showed his pride in his Huskers' performance when he accepted the Holiday Bowl and addressed the crowd by saying: "Thanks to all of our great fans for coming out and supporting us here...Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay."
The Blackshirts' impenetrable defense allowed the Wildcats just 21 first-half snaps, with none coming on the Husker half of the field. While the defense was dominating, the offense methodically dissected the Arizona defense throughout the game, building a 10-0 first-quarter lead and a 23-0 halftime margin. Nebraska's lead grew to 33-0 after three quarters.
For the Blackshirts, it was their first shutout since a 55-0 blanking of Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 26. It also marked the fourth time this season the Big Red held an opponent out of the end zone.
The Blackshirts flexed their muscles just seconds after the opening kickoff, forcing a pair of incompletions by U of A quarterback Nick Foles to set up a 3rd-and-10. Foles tested Nebraska's outstanding secondary, and O'Hanlon made the Wildcats pay by hauling in his sixth interception of the season and returning it 37 yards.
O'Hanlon's big play set up Zac Lee's four-yard touchdown run two plays later to give Nebraska a quick 7-0 lead just 1:15 into the game. That score proved to be more than enough for Nebraska's defense, but the offense kept rolling for the Huskers. Lee finished the night with 65 rushing yards on 18 carries including the score, while adding 173 passing yards and another score while completing 13-of-23 attempts.
Five minutes later, Henery connected on a 47-yard field goal to cap a seven-play, 31-yard drive to push NU's lead to 10-0.
The Husker offense struck again on its opening drive of the second quarter, covering 82 yards on seven plays capped by freshman I-back Rex Burkhead's five-yard scoring run untouched into the end zone with 11:57 left in the half. Burkhead finished a solid game with 89 yards on 17 carries, while adding two receptions for 14 yards.
Henery pushed NU's lead to 20-0 with a 50-yard field goal with 8:25 left in the half, before capping a 12-play, 44-yard drive with a 41-yard field with 35 seconds left in the opening half.
Nebraska carried its 23-0 lead into the locker room at halftime, and Henery connected on his fourth field goal five minutes later to make it 26-0. Henery's field goal, his 24th in 28 attempts this season, capped an 11-play, 41-yard march for the Huskers.
Paul then provided the exclamation point for the Husker offense with his 74-yard touchdown reception from Lee with 3:39 left in the third quarter. Paul's fourth scoring catch of the year pushed his season totals to 40 receptions for 796 yards - the fifth-best receiving yardage total in school history.