In a high-scoring shootout between two of college football’s most storied programs, Tommy Armstrong Jr. racked up 422 yards of total offense, but Nebraska came up short on its final two drives of the fourth quarter in a 45-42 loss to No. 24 USC in the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
Both teams finished their seasons with 9-4 records, while teaming up for 1,040 yards of total offense in the game. Nebraska finished with 525 total yards, including 379 passing and 146 rushing, while the Trojans managed 515 yards, including 321 through the air and 194 on the ground.
Armstrong, Nebraska’s sophomore quarterback completed a career-high 32-of-51 passes for a career-best 381 yards and three touchdowns setting NU bowl records for yardage, completions and attempts, but his Hail Mary attempt on the game’s final play was batted to the ground to seal the USC victory. Armstrong added 41 rushing yards on 12 carries, including a 15-yard touchdown run on fourth down midway through the fourth quarter. He followed up his scoring run with a two-point conversion pass to Kenny Bell to cut the USC lead to 45-42 after the Huskers trailed 45-27 late in the third quarter.
Armstrong and Bell also connected on Nebraska’s first touchdown of the night, an 18-yard connection to give the Huskers a 10-7 lead with 8:23 left in the first quarter. Bell finished his Nebraska career with seven catches for 71 yards to push his school-record totals to 181 receptions for 2,689 yards in his four-year career.
NU had opened the scoring with a Drew Brown 34-yard field goal, before USC’s Adoree’ Jackson uncorked a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
After USC tied the game at 10 on 42-yard Andre Heidari field goal, Armstrong sent the Big Red to the second quarter with a 17-10 lead after a nine-yard touchdown pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El.
Pierson-El finished the night with his first career 100-yard receiving game, hauling in eight passes for 102 yards.
Although Nebraska led at the end of the first quarter, the second quarter belonged to the Trojans, who put together a pair of long touchdown drives to take a 24-17 lead to the locker room at halftime.
USC pushed its lead to two scores for the first time early in the third quarter when the Trojans’ Cody Kessler hit Jackson on a 71-yard touchdown strike to put USC up 31-17 with 12:01 left in the quarter.
But Nebraska showed its fight, answering with a touchdown drive of its own capped by a 20-yard run from senior I-back Ameer Abdullah to make it 31-24 with 9:41 left in the third quarter. Abdullah finished his career as Nebraska’s all-time all-purpose yardage leader, rushing 27 times for 88 yards and a score. He added six catches for 61 yards and three kickoff returns for 120 yards including a 49-yarder to finish with 269 all-purpose yards in the game.
Abdullah finished his career No. 11 on the NCAA all-purpose yardage list with 7,168, while closing his illustrious career at No. 2 on the Nebraska rushing list with 4,588 yards.
USC then answered the Javorius Allen’s second touchdown run of the game, as he sprinted 44 yards to paydirt to put the Trojans up 38-24 with 8:06 left in the third. Allen finished the game with 152 rushing yards on 26 carries.
The Big Red pulled within 38-27 on Brown’s 44-yard field with 2:28 left in the quarter, before the Trojans took their biggest lead of the night just 25 seconds later when Kessler connected with Bryce Dixon on a 20-yard touchdown pass to make it 45-27 with 2:03 remaining in the third.
Kessler finished 23-of-39 for 321 yards with three touchdowns and one Josh Mitchell interception. Dixon finished with four catches for 44 yards, while Nelson Agholor led USC with seven receptions for 90 yards and a score.
Armstrong struck again before the end of the quarter, finding Jordan Westerkamp on a 65-yard touchdown pass to make it 45-34 with 24 seconds left in the quarter. Westerkamp finished the night with three catches for 81 yards.
While Armstrong’s run was the only score of the fourth quarter, the Huskers drove near the USC 30 with three minutes left and faced 3rd-and-3. After a timeout, Armstrong’s short pass across the middle to Pierson-El was batted down by a USC defender to set up a fourth down. On fourth down, Pierson-El came up short on a solid defensive play by the Trojans.