SAN DIEGO -- For years, Nebraska has been a measuring stick for other programs. The difference now is that more opponents are able to hang their season on a victory over the Cornhuskers.
Arizona's 23-20 victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday night was a new experience for the Huskers (9-4), who saw their four-game winning streak in bowl games terminated.
Much of the talk by the Huskers was about how the game was typical of their season: lots of promise diminished by failure to execute offensive and a susceptibility to big plays on defense.
"It was a down year for Nebraska," linebacker Jay Foreman said. "It's frustrating to know there's nothing you can do about it except play hard. The way we played this year, we were lucky not to have more losses."
It was the first four-loss season for Nebraska since 1968 and the defeat denied Frank Solich's bid to become the school's first rookie coach to win 10 games.
The Wildcats danced at midfield after becoming the fourth team this season, after Texas A&M, Texas and Kansas State, to claim a successful season by beating the Huskers.
"That's just the way it goes, and we knew it was going to be that way from the start," Solich said. "When you've accomplished what we did over the past several years, you know people will look at you like that. You've just got to respond."
In a season of struggle, it came down to this: Nebraska's famed option lacked the efficiency of recent years and the Huskers couldn't match the dominance they demonstrated through much of the 1990s.
"It wasn't a lack of effort," fullback Joel Makovicka said. "It was a lack of execution. You've got 11 guys out there and you've got to have all of them moving in the same direction. We just didn't have that tonight."
Nebraska's 87 rushing yards against the Wildcats (12-1) was the Huskers' second-lowest production on the ground this season. It didn't hurt that Arizona had three weeks to prepare.
"We were able to shut down Nebraska's running game, and that's one of the main reasons we won the game," Arizona coach Dick Tomey said.
It looked good for the Huskers with 10:55 to play when Eric Crouch found Tracey Wistrom on a 4-yard TD pass that gave Nebraska a 20-16 lead.
Wistrom, who caught only two passes all season, also had a 33-yard catch and run on the drive.
The Wildcats, who set a school record for victories, answered with a nine-play, 68-yard drive that was capped on Kelvin Eafon's 1-yard TD plunge with 6:08 left.
Arizona moved with relative ease against a Nebraska defense that had kept the Huskers in the game by allowing only 107 rushing yards.
"We did everything we could," defensive lineman Jason Wiltz said. "It was just that we gave up too many big plays. But if I could sit here and say we didn't give it all we had, then I could feel sorry for myself."
An interception by All-American cornerback Chris McAlister as Crouch tried to throw deep to Shevin Wiggins appeared to seal the Huskers' fate with 3:10 to play.
Nebraska got a final chance, taking possession at the Arizona 27 with 34 seconds left. Crouch threw a deep incompletion, then completed an 8-yard pass to Billy Haafke.
Crouch spiked the ball to stop the clock. With four seconds left, he overthrew Matt Davison on a deep route.
The Cornhuskers, who won two national titles in the past five seasons, went into the Holiday Bowl against Arizona seeking to show they were still a top-level team.
Nebraska struggled from the start, but salvaged the first half by striking for 13 points in the final five minutes.
Kris Brown's 25-yard field goal, plus a 44-yard TD pass from Crouch to Shevin Wiggins and another Brown kick, this one from 23 yards at the halftime gun, gave Nebraska a 13-9 lead.
Wiggins had fumbled away Nebraska's first possession, mishandling a punt that the Wildcats recovered and converted into a field goal by McDonald. And reserve quarterback Monte Christo fumble an attempted pitch, leading to another McDonald field goal.