JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz was sprawled out on the ground, trainers huddled around him, teammates, coaches and fans wondering whether he would be able to continue playing.
Ganz eventually made his way to the sideline, cleared his head, got back in the game and ended up hoisting the Gator Bowl’s most valuable player trophy.
His comeback provided an appropriate ending for Nebraska’s season. After all, the Cornhuskers enjoyed one of college football’s best turnarounds.
Ganz shook off a horrible first half and a slight concussion, threw for two touchdowns and led Nebraska to a 26-21 victory against Clemson in the Gator Bowl, giving the storied program plenty of optimism following coach Bo Pelini’s first season.
“I’m proud of this group,” said Pelini, who replaced fired coach Bill Callahan after Nebraska finished 5-7 in 2007. “It’s been a tough 12 months, but there’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people and it’s paid off. Now, we’ve got to keep it going.”
Nebraska (9-4) ended the season with a four-game winning streak, including a victory against rival Colorado, won six of its final seven games and had success in a January bowl game for the first time in nine years.
“We have some momentum going right now,” Pelini said. “People are excited, the kids are excited. It’s starting to show how good they can be as a football team. It’s fun to see. Now, we have to keep it going and pick that torch the seniors left and keep running with it.”
Cornhuskers fans might have wanted to run Ganz out of Jacksonville at halftime. The senior had a fumble late in the first half that was returned 28 yards for a touchdown and threw an interception in the final minute that was returned 63 yards and led to another score.
The Tigers (7-6) took a 14-3 lead into the locker room, but Ganz brought Nebraska back with a 20-point third quarter. He also bounced back from that bone-crushing hit. Although Nebraska didn’t score a touchdown after his return, Ganz’s value was clear when backup Patrick Witt fumbled on his first play.
Clemson picked up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown and a 27-23 lead, but officials overturned the call after review. Ganz was back the next series.
“When I stood up, I got a little dizzy,” Ganz said. “My first step was a little crooked. After that, I regained my senses. It took a little bit to get the fog out. I got drilled into the ground pretty good. If I could have played, there was no way they were going to keep me out. ... They would have had to peel me off the field.”
Ganz threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Nate Swift to open the second half, then hooked up with Todd Peterson for a 19-yard score. Both of them came on third-and-long situations. Ganz completed 10 of 15 passes for 133 yards in the second half, and finished 19-of-36 for 236 yards.
“He epitomizes what this team is,” Pelini said. “He had some bad things happen to him in that first half. There are a lot of kids that aren’t as strong, don’t have as much character and would have wilted under that type of circumstances. Joe kept going. ... A lot of people can learn from what he went through today.
“You’ve got to be a pretty special guy to have a fumble returned for a touchdown, an interception returned for a touchdown and still be the MVP of a game.”
Ganz had some help.
Alex Henery kicked four field goals, including three in the second half. Quentin Castille, filling in for injured starter Roy Helu Jr. (knee infection), ran for 125 yards. And Nebraska’s defense held Clemson to 91 yards in the second half.
“There were a lot of little plays along the way where we had opportunities and just didn’t get it done,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, adding that Nebraska dominated his offensive line.
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