LOS ANGELES (AP) — With four losses in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime sending Nebraska to a losing record, Mike Riley’s first year as the Cornhuskers’ coach didn’t quite go as planned.
But with Nebraska (5-7) getting a chance to play in a bowl despite winning just five games, Riley has a head start on Year 2.
With not enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl slots, the Cornhuskers got a reprieve based on their high graduation rate and received a spot in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday night against UCLA (8-4).
While the opportunity to end a down season on a high note is nice, the biggest benefit of playing in a bowl, according to Riley, is the extra practice time.
“I always contend if you get the chance to play in a bowl game, it’s the end of one season and the beginning of another,” he said.
Riley spent the first two bowl practices working on the basics instead of planning for the Bruins. The first-string defense faced the first-team offense and the younger players got their own sessions.
Even when practices shifted to game preparation mode, Riley still took time for extra workouts for underclassmen expected to fill roles next season.
“It’s a learning experience for us and the coaches,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong said. “We had a lot of ups and downs. It was more just finding out what we were good at this year. It was about putting things together with the coaching staff.”
The Bruins learned plenty about their team too that can carry over to 2016. The most notable development was the emergence of freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. He stepped in right away and proved he was up to the tough task.
Rosen threw for 3,349 yards and 20 touchdowns and most importantly remained steady during the ups and downs of the season.
“We all know when you’re young, there’s going to be some setbacks,” coach Jim Mora said. “But I did see him learn lessons and apply them.”
Here are some other things to watch when Nebraska takes on UCLA:
EMOTIONAL MEMORIES: Mora has great respect for Nebraska, especially after an emotional trip there for the Bruins in 2013 just six days after receiver Nick Pasquale was killed when he was struck by a vehicle while he was walking in his hometown. The Huskers wore No. 36 decals on their helmets in honor of Pasquale and the student section let out blue and gold balloons before UCLA’s 41-21 win.
“There were signs everywhere honoring Nick,” Mora said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. To be able to play this team again and the young men and a program with so much class, is an honor for us.”
HEALTH REPORT: The Bruins have been dealing with a health scare that could force offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to reduce his role. Mazzone was recently hospitalized for a blood clot in his lung. He is feeling better, but Mora does not know if he will be able to stand on the sideline or even coach at all from the booth during the game.
“That’s a serious medical condition he has,” Mora said. “We want to make sure he’s safe.”
TRENCH BATTLE: While both teams have prolific quarterbacks, the key to the game might be how Nebraska’s stout run defense fares against UCLA’s running game led by Paul Perkins. Perkins became the first UCLAplayer to lead the Pac-12 in rushing since DeShaun Foster in 2001. Perkins ran for 1,275 yards and ranks third in school history with 3,423 in his career. The Huskers allowed just 113.4 yards rushing per game his season, eighth best in the nation.
“Their run defense is probably the best we’ve seen,” UCLA center Jake Brendel said.
STALWART IN THE MIDDLE: Brendel is concluding a stellar career with the Bruins. He will be starting his school-record 52nd game, having missed just one the past four years. UCLA has won 37 times in that span, with Brendel a big reason for the success.
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