JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The day that couldn't come soon enough for the Nebraska football team is now less than 24 hours away.
More than a month after defeating Colorado in their regular season finale, the Huskers finally return to action on Thursday against Clemson in the Gator Bowl. On Wednesday, the team held meetings and a brief walk-through practice at the University of North Florida before head coach Bo Pelini and seniors Joe Ganz, Nate Swift and Zach Potter attended a pre-game press conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Jacksonville.
Of the topics discussed during the half-hour interview, the path Nebraska took to get to this point seemed to be the main focus. While much has been made already about NU's impressive turnaround following a 3-3 start to the season, the group took some time to reflect on the wild ride the 2008 season has been.
Pelini said he took away the most pride not from any sort of individual achievement in his first season as a head coach, but for the way his players showed the resiliency and determination to keep fighting even through the hard times.
"We had some bumps along the road, and you're going to have that, especially in your first year together," Pelini said. "But we never panicked. No one ever pointed fingers. Really, it's due to - not me, not my leadership and not this staff. It's the guys sitting here next to me, the rest of the seniors and the guys who have been around it. The character and the commitment they showed and the ability to keep everybody on the same page.
"That's why I told them a long time ago that they have a bigger job than maybe any team that's ever suited up for Nebraska because they had the responsibility and the chance to set the foundation for the future of the program. To do that, you've got to play through obstacles and play through a lot of tough times along the way and remain committed and keep the leadership there, and they were able to do that.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for these young men here. Forget about the job I did. It's really about what the kids do that's the most important thing."
Pelini was asked to try and pick a specific game or moment in the season where he felt his team finally clicked. It didn't take long for him to point to Nebraska's overtime loss to Texas Tech in Week 6.
Though the Huskers suffered a heart-breaking loss - their third straight at that point - Pelini said that was the game where he saw his players finally begin to truly believe they could play with anyone.
"When we walked off that field, I don't think there was a guy in that locker room who didn't feel we were a better football team than the team we lost to that day," he said. "I think at that point, the team started coming together and realized this is how good we can be."
It was almost a bittersweet moment for Ganz, Swift and Potter, as all three were as excited as ever to get back onto the field against a real opponent again. At the same time, they knew that in matter of hours, their collegiate football careers would soon be over.
Ganz talked about the importance of winning Thursday's game, not only for the prospect of a 9-4 season and a New Year's Day bowl game victory, but for the future of the program.
"It's been a pretty good year, but 9-4 is a lot different than 8-5," Ganz said. "If we can win this game, it'll really set up the momentum for the younger guys and really show the younger guys what it takes to compete at this level. I think that's one of the big things, we want to go out on top just to further cement the foundation that we've been talking about for the next couple years, and I think a win against Clemson is probably the best thing for that."
Trying to balance the emotions of preparing for a bowl game and watching their collegiate careers slowly come to an end has been a strange task for Nebraska's seniors. Potter said over the past month, many of the seniors began taking note when they completed certain task and activities with the team for the final time as Huskers.
"All the seniors have kind of been counting down the last month, all the last things we've been doing," Potter said. "Our last practice in the Hawks, the other day was our last weight lift as a Husker. It's kind of neat counting it all down, but it's a sad day because, you know, I wish I had four more years. I wish it wasn't my last year, but it had to happen eventually."
Potter said despite his attempts to stay focused solely on preparing for the Tigers, he can't help up acknowledge that his days as a Husker almost over.
"It's kind of starting to settle in a little bit, but I'm just trying to stay focused as much as I can and prepare as much as I can, if not even more than I have in the past, knowing this is my last college game," he said. "I want to go out on the right foot. I don't want to go out there and have a bad game as my last game as a Husker."
Tigers concerned with Nebraska's offense
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney wasn't shy about reveling the thing that worried him the most about Nebraska heading into Thursday's game.
Swinney said the Huskers' versatility on offense and the patience in which they stick to their game plan make would make it difficult for the Tigers to prepare defensively.
"The biggest thing that bothers me is they stay on schedule," Swinney said. "Very seldom to you seem them get behind the chains. They're very efficient in what they do. (Ganz) is a crafty quarterback. He knows the system and understands what he's doing. He's got an almost 70-percent completion percentage - that's pretty good. That's what scares me about them. They can run it, and they can throw it. Just their balance and their efficiency on offense is what worries me a little bit. They've been able to stay on schedule most of the time."
Senior safety Michael Hamlin echoed Swinney's concerns, saying Nebraska's balance on offense makes it even more important for defenders to play with near perfect fundamentals and discipline.
"It's a big challenge because they just don't have one guy," Hamlin said. "For the secondary and the defensive guys, we've got to be disciplined, we've got to read our keys and stay focused. Nebraska is a very balanced team, and you don't know what they are going to do at any given time. They're going to start out running the ball and trying to get 2 or 3 yards, and then the next play they'll hit you deep. Defensively, it's going to be kind of tough for us."
Potter ready to pass the torch
Thursday's game will also be a ceremony of sorts for Nebraska's defensive line, and Potter and fellow senior Ty Steinkuhler will move on and open the door for younger players to fill their shoes.
While obviously trying have has his best season personally in his senior season, Potter said he' also been taking it upon himself to be a role model and leader for NU's other defensive linemen as they learn how to play the position at the collegiate level.
When he was an underclassman, Potter said players like Adam Carriker and Jay Moore played big roles in helping him become the player he is today.
"The only reason I did it so much this year is that I had Adam Carriker ahead of me, and Jay Moore and those guys ahead of me, and they helped me get to where I am now," Potter said. "So it was only right to help the guys out who were younger than me. You just try and lead them and set examples for them so they can prepare for the future when they're really going to be playing. It's a great feeling to know you can help someone out on your team."
Pelini says turnovers, big plays are keys to victory
As he's mentioned a couple of times during the past week of bowl preparation, Pelini said winning the turnover battle and preventing Clemson from breaking off big plays are the two biggest keys to getting a win over the Tigers.
Clemson has found much success creating turnovers and altering the momentum in games with crucial takeaways this season, as it's produced a total of 25 turnovers, with 18 interceptions and seven forced fumbles.
Also, Pelini said it was equally as important for the Huskers not to give up any big plays defensively. Highlighted by standout running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, the Tigers have the ability to capitalize on missed tackles and mental errors by defenses as well as any team in the country.
Nebraska has had some issues this season in the turnover department, as it is minus-five in turnovers on the season with 25 total turnovers to their opponents' 20. Still, Pelini said he is confident in his team's ability to both take care of the ball and keep the Tigers from breaking off the big one.
"I have tremendous confidence," Pelini said. "Our offense has been very efficient, and I think they'll play well again. With Joe running the show, he'll get that going. Defensively, I think we're going to play very, very well. I like our guys up front. I think we play well up front. It's just there were times during the year when we gave up some big plays. If we can eliminate that, I like our chance."
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