Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch (88) is tackled by Nebraska cornerback Ciante Evans (17) during the first half at EverBank Field. (Reuters)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa combined for record-setting performances and the Cornhuskers forced Georgia to turn the ball over on downs twice in the red zone in the last six minutes of their 24-19 victory on Wednesday in the 69th Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl at EverBank Field.
Armstrong threw a 99-yard touchdown pass to Enunwa in the third quarter to give Nebraska (9-4) a 24-12 lead. Enunwa split the middle of a cover-2 defense by the Bulldogs, eluded safety Quincy Mauger and completed the longest scoring play in Nebraska and Gator Bowl history.
It was Enunwa’s 12th touchdown reception of the season, breaking one of Nebraska’s oldest records, set by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers in 1971.
“It was one of those situations where there wasn’t much we could do,” Enunwa said. “I’m lucky our coaches trust us as playmakers. I got into the hole (in Georgia’s coverage) and made the best play I could.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “Coach (Tim) Beck (Nebraska’s offensive coordinator) decided to take the shot and we liked the call and the opportunity. (Georgia) put a lot of guys up there.”
Georgia (8-5) cut the lead to five points on a 25-yard scoring pass from quarterback Hutson Mason to running back Todd Gurley but got no closer after coming up empty on its final two possessions.
The Bulldogs reached the Nebraska 22-yard line with a 48-yard pass from Mason to Michael Bennett but lost the ball on downs when Cornhuskers safety Andrew Green jarred a pass loose from Georgia’s Rantavious Wooten.
Georgia forced a punt and got to the Nebraska 23. But the Bulldogs stalled again and tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a pass on fourth-and-3 from the Nebraska 16 with 31 seconds left that would have been good for a first down.
The Bulldogs could have had chip-shot field-goal attempts, but coach Mark Richt played for the win both times.
“We really didn’t think about kicking the field goal,” he said. “We knew if we made it (a first down) we could score a touchdown and take the lead. We knew we were in four-down territory.
“We had a good back, and it was wise to give him the ball. Since we were in four-down territory, it freed us up to run the ball a little bit.”
Armstrong completed only 6-of-14 passes, but two of those were the touchdowns to Enunwa, who caught four passes for 129 yards.
Big Ten rushing leader Ameer Abdullah gained 122 yards on 27 carries for Nebraska.
Mason, who was making his second career start in place of injured Aaron Murray, completed 21-of-39 passes for 320 yards and connected with Gurley seven times for 97 yards. Gurley added 86 yards rushing on 21 carries.
“I felt great the whole game,” Mason said. “The first couple of drives we got some big third downs (conversions) and I didn’t feel like I came out slow. It wasn’t perfect, but we weren’t finishing like we could have.”
He also refused to blame the sloppy field.
“It was not great field conditions, but we weren’t really slipping out there a ton,” Mason said. “I didn’t see anyone coming out of the break slipping. It was not an excuse for any player.”
A rare Gator Bowl game played in the rain resulted in a sloppy first half for both teams. The first period was scoreless and the second was dominated by special-teams plays.
Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan put the first points on the board with a 38-yard field goal, but it was a bitter consolation prize after Mason was chased out of the pocket on a third-and-2 from the Nebraska 10 and was then called for intentional grounding.
The Bulldogs forced the Cornhuskers to punt on the next possession, but returner Reggie Davis fumbled after calling for a fair catch and Nebraska’s Josh Mitchell recovered at the Georgia 14.
After a 9-yard gain by Abdullah, Armstrong Jr. lobbed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Enunwa to give the Cornhuskers a 7-3 lead.
Georgia came up with a special-teams play of its own as J.J. Green returned the kickoff 48 yards to the Bulldogs’ 48. After Mason completed a 37-yard pass to Brendon Douglas to the Nebraska 15, the drive stalled when Mason misfired on two passes and Morgan came in to kick a 28-yard field goal.
The teams then swapped field goals on the final two possessions of the half. Nebraska kicker Pat Smith booted a season-best 46-yard field goal and Morgan drilled a 38-yarder as time expired to cut the Cornhuskers’ lead to 10-9.