Abdullah, Gregory big losses from Huskers team that fired Pelini after falling short of goals

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — The Bo Pelini era at Nebraska ended the way it started, with every one of his seven years pretty much the same.

The Cornhuskers fell flat in their biggest games again this season and finished 9-4 with a Holiday Bowl loss to Southern California.

Pelini won nine or 10 games every year but never lost fewer than four. That, along with his volatile personality and inability to get the best out of his teams in the most important games, led athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him Nov. 30 and hire Mike Riley away from Oregon State four days later.

Riley will go into his first season in Lincoln with many of the same players from the 2014 squad. But he'll be without three of the biggest playmakers in running back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell and defensive end Randy Gregory.

Abdullah was a strong Heisman Trophy candidate while the Huskers were winning eight of their first nine games. He was limited in the last three regular-season games after injuring his left knee against Purdue.

Abdullah went over 200 yards four times and finished with 1,611 to become the only player in program history with three 1,000-yard seasons. He ended his career with 4,588 yards, 192 behind Nebraska all-time leader Mike Rozier.

His 7,186 career all-purpose yards are a school record and second-most in Big Ten history behind Ron Dayne's 7,429 for Wisconsin.

Bell, who caught 47 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns, leaves as Nebraska's career leader in receptions (181) and receiving yards (2,689). He caught at least one ball in his last 28 games and in 51 of 52.

Gregory, who announced he would enter the NFL draft, had an outstanding junior season even though he missed two games and was limited in two others because of injury. He led the Huskers with seven sacks, was the fourth-leading tackler with 54 stops, and he blocked two kicks.

The Huskers won their first five games, escaping a major upset when Abdullah's 58-yard catch-and-run with 20 seconds left produced the winning touchdown in a 31-24 victory over McNeese State. Abdullah starred two weeks later when he ran for 229 yards and had 313 all-purpose yards in a 41-31 win over Miami.

A late comeback fell short in a 27-22 loss at then-No. 10 Michigan State, but the Huskers won the next three games and were 8-1 heading to Wisconsin. In one of the most humiliating losses in program history, the Huskers allowed a then-FBS-record 408 yards rushing to Melvin Gordon in a 59-24 loss.

The next week Nebraska lost 28-24 to Minnesota, and in the final regular-season game the Huskers overcame a 17-point third-quarter deficit to win 37-34 at Iowa.

Pelini was fired two days later. Two days after that he held a final team meeting with the players where he profanely disparaged Eichorst for his management style. Pelini has since been hired as head coach at Youngstown State.

Now it's Riley's task to end a conference-championship drought that dates to 1999.

All four of Nebraska's quarterbacks return, including starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. His 2,695 yards passing ranked fourth on the school's single-season chart and the highest sophomore passing total.

Armstrong accounted for a career high and Nebraska bowl-game record 422 yards of total offense in the 45-42 loss to USC. His 3,400 yards of total offense were third most in school history.

Nebraska will bring back running backs in Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, receivers Jordan Westerkamp and De'Mornay Pierson-El and its top two tight ends and two starting offensive linemen.

The defense's strength should remain the front four even without Gregory. Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins are back, and Jack Gangwish played a lot of snaps when Gregory was hurt.

Zaire Anderson is a big loss from the linebacker corps, but David Santos and Josh Banderas will return, and Michael Rose will be back after sitting out this season with a knee injury.

Nate Gerry, who had five interceptions, will be back at safety, and the Huskers will get a promising safety back after LeRoy Alexander missed the season because of suspension. Cornerback Josh Mitchell leaves, but Daniel Davie will be back, and the Huskers also will have returning nickel backs Byerson Cockrell and Josh Kalu.

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