Game Day Preview – #11 Nebraska


Introduction: Revenge…That is what this game is all about for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Last year, Nebraska came into Husky Stadium and embarrassed the Huskies 56-21. That game was right in the middle of two teams headed in opposite directions. Nebraska would go onto start the season 9-1, while Washington was at 3-6 after being blown out by Oregon. But, then things began to turn around for both teams in mid-November. After being embarrassed in three consecutive weeks including Keith Price’s first start against Oregon (53-16), Washington won three straight games including two on the road in the final minutes to get to 6-6 and become bowl eligible. A quirk of bowl alliances resulted in UW moving up to a Holiday Bowl invite when USC was ineligible and Oregon made it to the National Title Game. Nebraska on the other hand would go on to lose 9-6 to Texas A&M and then lose the Big 12 Championship game.

And don’t think revenge is on their minds? OL Jeremiah Sirles said “I’ve never been a big guy into revenge or anything like that, but I think we have a chip on our shoulders as a team. It’s something that has sat in the back of our heads since last December, how we finished the season.”

University of Nebraska (Public – Research Institution)
Mascot: Cornhuskers
Location: Lincoln, NE
Enrollment: 24,100

Line: Nebraska by 16

Prediction: Nebraska 41 Washington 27

2011 Record: 2-0 (0-0 in Big Ten Conference)
Coach: Bo Pellini (4th year)

Last Game: 42-29 win over Fresno State

The series: This has been a terrific series over the years, with the current record between UW and Nebraska of 4-4-1. After the blowout in Seattle, the teams ended up meeting again in the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska didn’t need to be there… They had a chance to be in a BCS bowl when they made the Big 12 championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX as the winners of the Big 12 North. However, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma 23-20 in the Big 12 Championship game. Despite being the #2 team in the Big 12, conspiracies sent Nebraska to San Diego as the #5 team instead of Phoenix as a nice “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” message by the Big 12. The most likely reason was that the Big 12 didn’t want a match up between a future Big Ten member and current one (Iowa).

Anyways, a deflated Nebraska team was sent to San Diego for their second straight Holiday Bowl. The stage was set… UW was riding high getting to their first bowl in years and had revenge on their minds for the drubbing in Seattle earlier in the season. Nebraska was less motivated and figured it would be a cake walk similar to September anyways. But, UW went in and executed extremely well. Nebraska had no answers for Chris Polk as he ran for 177 yards on 34 carries. But, even more impressive was the stifling defense, including Mason Foster’s 12 tackles and 2 sacks.

Synopsis: But, you can bet Nebraska will be extremely motivated and with revenge on their minds when the Huskies head to Lincoln and face 81,000+ red-clad fans in Memorial Stadium. The State of Nebraska lives and breathes college football. I spent two weeks in Nebraska last fall and everywhere I went from Scottsbluff to Kearney to Lincoln, the red N flag flies in homes, businesses, and car windows.

And, don’t expect to see a weaker team than last year either. Sure, they have looked a lot less intimidating in their first two games against UT-Chattanooga (40-7 win) and Fresno State. But, I get the sense that they will be really focused and put it together this week in anticipation of their entrance into Big Ten play after that.

Afterall, Nebraska was selected by the media to be the winner of the Big Ten Legends Division by 19-4 votes over Michigan State and was predicted to win the Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin 12-11. Although their home game against Fresno State was less than impressive for a little over two quarters (trailing 20-14 in the 3rd quarter), they did get it together and blew the Bulldogs away late.

Starting QB Taylor Martinez is leading the way. Last week he ran for 166 yards and threw for 219. Another dual threat quarterback (ala Bryant Moniz) for the Husky defense to watch out for. After having its secondary demolished by Eastern Washington and Hawaii, the Husky defense will get a bit of a break from the air, but will still have to be ready to contain Martinez and the running attack. At this stage, the Nebraska running game has been almost all Martinez, but RB Rex Burkhead is averaging 5 yards per carry on 26 carries. While I might have expected Nebraska to pound the ball more with Burkhead using the option this week, seeing the UW secondary so easily sliced apart the last two weeks might have Pelini and company thinking about opening up the passing game more than they might have otherwise.

As dangerous as the Nebraska offense can be, it is the defense that will be a real challenge for Keith Price and the Dawgs. Nebraska had three defenders recieve at least one 1st place vote on the predicted Defensive MVP media poll. DL Jared Crick recieved 15 votes, LB Levonte David recieved 7 votes, and CB Alfonzo Dennard recieved 1 first place vote. They have a stifling defense that stuffs the run and pressures QB’s before they make accurate passes down field. Everyone remember how Jake Locker couldn’t do anything against that defense in the first game as he went 4 for 20 for 71 yards and 2 interceptions? It didn’t help that Chris Polk only had 55 yards on 17 carries!

So, it will be absolutely imperative that the offensive line creates some holes for a healthy Chris Polk to exploit. If the Huskies can not get a running game going, Price is going to have a hard line finding recievers down field and may find himself scrambling a lot back there.

Analysis: Washington’s biggest fear of course is that they go into Lincoln, that vaunted defense stuffs them early, the sea of red in the stands goes crazy, and then Taylor Martinez starts lighting it up with the short field after a few punts. This game could get ugly in a hurry (as many games against top opponents have the last few years). But, there are reasons for hope for Washington. First of all, Steve Sarkisian has a pretty good handle on Nebraska’s style, having played them twice last season. They also have some confidence that they can win, since they did pretty easily in the Holiday Bowl. Secondly, Washington has played two games already against successively more difficult, but air attack oriented offenses. With those two games under their belt, we can hope a lot of the jitters are gone and the playbook has been tweaked just enough to be efficient in Lincoln.

However, Nebraska is and always has been a run-first offense and UW’s defensive front-line has not seen much of a rushing attack after the first two games. To make matters worse, Nebraska’s option is something not commonly encountered in the pass-happy Pac-12 conference. So, the key will be to have quick linebackers who can get out to the edge before Martinez takes off down the sidelines.

Hopefully the depth and experience of the offensive line, wide reciever corps, and especially Chris Polk will allow the Keith Price to get comfortable with the game, despite the intimidating crowd, and he gets the protection he needs and the opportunities to call the plays they want to run (rather than having 3rd and longs all day) to be successful and mix it up offensively.

So, while I do think it is possible for UW to keep this game close, or even pull off a shocker, I am not confident that will be the result. This is a game of a good offense (UW) against a great defense (Neb) and a good offense (Neb) against a mediocre defense (UW). How will it all play out? Sometimes luck has something to do with it, and I hope I am surprised, but I am not optimistic.

Final Note: I was in the stands at Husky Stadium as an in-coming freshman in 1992 when #12 Nebraska came to Seattle to take on the #2 ranked Huskies for a nationally televised night game on ESPN. The stadium with more than 73,000 fans was rocking more than I ever saw it again when UW went on to win 29-14. What a great introduction to the way Husky football was and should be! 1990-1992 was the pinnacle of Husky success before the long slow decline that resulted in 2008. But, all hopes are that Steve Sarkisian will bring the magic back to Husky Stadium the way I saw it as an 18-year.