SAN DIEGO — After developing a reputation for high-scoring games and crazy finishes, the Holiday Bowl finally got the first shutout in its 32-year history.
It wasn’t close, either.
Zac Lee threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Niles Paul in the third quarter to highlight No. 20 Nebraska’s 33-0 rout against No. 22 Arizona on a rainy Wednesday night.
The coaches expected a defensive game, and the Huskers delivered, earning their first shutout in 46 bowl appearances.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the AP College Football Player of the Year and a Heisman finalist, had only three tackles, including one for a loss, in his final college game. But he helped the Huskers harass Arizona quarterback Nick Foles all night. Suh even went out for a pass early in the third quarter on second-and-4 from the Arizona 5, but Lee didn’t throw his way.
Suh had been on the bench for most of Arizona’s final drive, but came back in for a goal-line stand, along with some other starters.
The Wildcats had the ball fourth-and-3 at the Nebraska 8-yard line with 1:41 to go before safety P.J. Smith batted down Foles’ pass to preserve the shutout.
“We wanted to fortify that we were the best team on the field,” Suh said. “That’s the way we’ve been playing all year. We’ve been getting better week in, week out and we had one last chance to do it as a team in 2009. That’s why we wanted to shut them down and make them realize that they needed to respect us because we didn’t think they wanted to respect us at the beginning of the game.”
Then again, the Wildcats were never in this one. Nebraska free safety Matt O’Hanlon intercepted Foles on the third play from scrimmage and returned it 37 yards to the Arizona 5. Lee scored on a 4-yard run two plays later. It was the fastest score in Holiday Bowl history, coming just 75 seconds in.
Arizona set Holiday Bowl records for futility, with six first downs, 109 yards of offense, 51 offensive plays and nine punts. The Wildcats didn’t get into Nebraska territory until the first drive of the third quarter.
The previous Holiday Bowl record for fewest first downs was 12 by Nebraska in a 23-20 loss to Arizona in 1998. The previous record for fewest yards was 185 by BYU in a 65-14 loss to Texas A&M in 1990, and the previous record for the most punts was eight, by five teams.
Nebraska (10-4) got its first 10-win season since 2003. Arizona finished 8-5.
“Nebraska’s back and we’re here to stay,” coach Bo Pelini said.
This loss mirrored Arizona’s first bowl appearance, a 38-0 loss to Centre (Ky.) in the rain in the 1921 East-West Christmas Classic in San Diego.
“This game is humbling in many ways,” Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. “When you think you’ve arrived, that’s when you are going to get whacked. We got whacked by a very good team.
“Nothing was right all night. We certainly didn’t show up in any way and I apologize to our fans,” Stoops said.
Arizona safety Cam Nelson said a lot of his teammates were simply happy to be at the bowl.
“All week Coach Stoops tried to be nice and a lot of guys took advantage of it,” Nelson said. “That caused us to play the way we did.”
Pelini earned bragging rights in Youngstown, Ohio, where he and Stoops grew up and played at Cardinal Mooney High.
Nebraska’s Alex Henery set a Holiday Bowl record with four field goals, from 47, 50, 41 and 22 yards.
The Huskers even ran a handful of plays out of the wildcat formation, including a 5-yard run by Rex Burkhead early in the second quarter for a 17-0 lead.
“It’s something we’ve had in our hip pocket,” Pelini said. “We haven’t run a lot of it this year. We gave them some different looks. I thought we had some big wrinkles for them to keep them off-balance.”
With Nebraska leading 26-0 late in the third quarter, Paul hauled in Lee’s long pass at the Arizona 40 and cruised into the end zone. He spiked the ball and flexed his muscles in a pose to the crowd, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Paul had four catches for 123 yards.