Vince Campisi's College Football Game Preview
Colorado Buffaloes vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
--by Vince Campisi
November 26th, 2010
2:30 PM CST
Television Coverage: ABC
COLORADO (5 - 6) (2 - 5)
#15 (BCS) NEBRASKA (9 - 2) (5 - 2)
Weather Report for Colorado vs. Nebraska
Opening: Nebraska by 24.
Current: Nebraska by 17.5.
09/04/10 - at. Colorado State - W 24-3
09/11/10 - at. California - L 7-52
09/18/10 - vs. Hawaii - W 31-13
10/02/10 - vs. Georgia - W 29-27
10/09/10 - at. Missouri - L 0-26
10/16/10 - vs. Baylor - L 25-31
10/23/10 - vs. Texas Tech - L 24-27
10/30/10 - at. Oklahoma - L 10-43
11/06/10 - at. Kansas - L 45-52
11/13/10 - vs. Iowa State - W 34-14
11/20/10 - vs. Kansas State - W 44-36
11/26/10 - at. Nebraska
09/04/10 - vs. Western Kentucky - W 49-10
09/11/10 - vs. Idaho - W 38-17
09/18/10 - at. Washington - W 56-21
09/25/10 - vs. South Dakota State - W 17-3
10/07/10 - at. Kansas State - W 48-13
10/16/10 - vs. Texas - L 13-20
10/23/10 - at. Oklahoma State - W 51-41
10/30/10 - vs. Missouri - W 31-17
11/06/10 - at. Iowa State - W 31-30 (OT)
11/13/10 - vs. Kansas - W 20-3
11/20/10 - at. Texas A&M - L 6-9
11/26/10 - vs. Colorado
Saturday will mark the 69th all-time match-up between Colorado and Nebraska, since first meeting in 1898. Nebraska has owned the series over the years (48-18-2), and Nebraska has won 4 of the last 5. With the Buffaloes moving on to the Pac-10 and the Huskers moving on to the Big Ten starting next season, this could be their last match-up for many years. Last season in Boulder, a 3-8 Colorado team outplayed the 8-3 Nebraska squad throughout the game. In terms of total offense, the Buffs outgained the Huskers 403-217, but a Niles Paul 59 yard punt return for touchdown and a Matt O'Hanlon 20 yard interception return for touchdown swung the game in Nebraska's favor, as they went on to win 28-20. The last game played in Lincoln was in 2008. It was a back-and-forth battle for 3 quarters, and saw the Buffaloes lead the Huskers 31-27 going into the 4th quarter. Nebraska would own the final quarter, however, as kicker Alex Henery hit on a school-record 57 yard long field goal with 1:37 remaining to put his team in the lead 33-31. NT Ndamukong Suh would take a tipped ball 30 yards for a touchdown just seconds later to seal the deal 40-31.
Colorado's offense has been up and down again this year. The multiple form offense has been playing quite well as of late, though, thanks in large part to an improved running game which has helped out the passing game. Last week against Kansas State, the team showed great balance, rushing for 251 yards and throwing for another 225 while scoring 44 points against an inconsistent Wildcat defense. The Buffs are currently ranked 70th nationally in total offense (368.55 ypg), 56th in passing (228.09 ypg), 57th in passing efficiency (130.44 rating), 81st in rushing (140.45 ypg), 81st in scoring offense (24.82 ppg), 41st in interceptions thrown (9), 26th in fumbles lost (7), and 31st in giveaways (16).
QB: Sr. Cody Hawkins (114 of 205, 1384 yds, 12 TDs, 3 INTs) starts at quarterback for the Buffaloes. Over the course of his career at Colorado, he's had to deal with the constant scrutiny of being the head coach's son. Some of the harsh criticism of his performances has been overplayed due to the role of his father on the team. Certainly, he is not to blame for all of the woes the Buffs have felt over the past four seasons. Hawkins has a pretty good arm and possesses good pocket awareness. His throws don't always have the cleanest look to them, but they usually get to the intended target. He does tend to hover on the inconsistent side, however, and will have periods where he'll look great and others where he can't seem to buy a completion. Most of his struggles are caused by defenses that are able to get solid pressure on him. With the offense showing balance now, though, he's had more time to throw. He's not much of a running threat, although he will scramble out every now and then. He has a net of negative 32 yards on 9 carries, with 45 yards lost on sacks and other negative rushes this season. Hawkins was pushed back into the starting role this season after Jr. Tyler Hansen (112 of 164, 1102 yds, 6 TDs, 6 INTs) went down with a season ending injury to his spleen. Hanson offered more of a running threat than Hawkins and rushed for 41 yards on 51 carries (136 yards lost on sacks and other negative rushes). Behind Hawkins are TFr. Nick Hirschman and TFr. Justin Gorman. Neither has thrown a pass this season.
RB: The Buffs' running game is led by Jr. Rodney Stewart (270 carries, 1230 yds, 10 TDs). Stewart is a small (5'6") and shifty runner. He's got excellent speed and is tough to catch in the open field thanks to his slick spin move and quick feet. Despite being so small and quick, he's actually a workhorse type back and can easily tote the rock 30-plus times a game. He took 34 carries for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns last week against Kansas State, his third game in a row with at least 27 carries. He earned Big XII offensive player of the week honors for his performance last week. Backs in the reserve rotation include So. Will Jefferson (20 carries, 126 yds), RFr. Quentin Hildreth, and Sr. Corey Nabors. No one from this group has really done much, but Jefferson showed excellent quickness last week, rushing for 73 yards on just 5 carries. The backs are used fairly often in the passing game, with Stewart (27 catches, 271 yds) and Jefferson (13 catches, 148 yds) contributing this season. Stewart has excellent hands out of the backfield, some of the best hands you'll see on a running back. Most of Jefferson's catches have come when he's been lined up at receiver. At the utility back spot is Jr. Matthew Bahr (2 catches, 7 yds, 1 TD), with RFr. Scott Fernandez serving as the top back-up.
WR/TE: The Buffs' receiving corps is a talented group with one of the better top groupings in the conference. Starting at the receiver spots are Jr. Toney Clemons (43 catches, 482 yds, 3 TDs) at "X", TFr. Paul Richardson (32 catches, 452 yds, 5 TDs) at "Z", and Sr. Scotty McKnight (47 catches, 611 yds, 7 TDs) at "H". Clemons is an excellent athlete that is a great deep threat for the team. More than a few times this season, he's made some tremendous catches in which he puts his body on the line for the catch. Richardson is the best pure talent of the bunch. He has great wheels, excellent hands and picks up big chunks of yards after the catch. He's a slippery receiver that will turn bubble screens into big gains. He has all the tools to be a superstar in the Pac-10 conference going forward. McKnight is a quick receiver that does a good job of slipping arm tackles and makes some great catches. He is going to go down as one of the best receivers to ever play at Colorado. He broke the Colorado career receiving touchdowns record last week, picking up number 22. His 2,511 career receiving yards are 3rd all time in Buff history, and are just 37 yards from taking the top spot from Michael Westbrook. In addition, he has an outstanding streak of 47 consecutive games with at least one catch, the longest in the nation. Reserves at receiver include Sr. Travon Patterson (20 catches, 127 yds, 1 TD), So. Will Jefferson (13 catches, 148 yds), Jr. Kyle Cefalo (6 catches, 35 yds), and Jr. Jason Espinoza (1 catch, 13 yds). Patterson has been a solid receiver for the Buffs this year, but an ankle injury could sideline him again on Friday, but it is possible he makes his return this week. At tight end is Jr. Ryan Deehan (25 catches, 249 yds, 1 TD), with Sr. Luke Walters (8 catches, 68 yds) and RFr. DaVaughn Thornton (1 catch, 15 yds, 1 TD) in reserve roles. Deehan has been a good option at tight end after replacing the multi-year starter Riar Geer. He's a pretty good blocker and has shown soft hands in the passing game.
OL: Colorado's offensive line has struggled occasionally this season (mostly early in the year) to keep the QB upright and open holes for the backs consistently. Things have been getting better over the past few weeks, but that has also been against some of the softest defensive fronts they've played all season long. This season they are leading the way for the offensive to pick up 4.27 yards per carry (when taking sacks out of the equation). They've given up 21 sacks this season, ranking 59th nationally (1.91 per game). Starting at tackle is Sr. Nate Solder (6'9", 315 lbs) on the left and RFr. David Bakhtiari (6'4", 290 lbs) on the right. Solder is the best of the bunch and has been named one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation's best interior lineman. Solder has been a great tackle this season, with excellent feet and positioning against the quickest of ends. Bakhtiari isn't quite the rock that Solder is on the left, and does have the distinction of being the most inexperienced player of the group. The top reserves at tackle are So. Bryce Givens (6'6", 275 lbs) and So. Ryan Dannewitz (6'6", 300 lbs). Givens and Dannewitz have tried working into the starting line-up, but neither has worked out well as of yet. Both are athletic tackles, but need to get better in their technique if they want to get back into a starter's spot. Starting at guard is Jr. Ethan Adkins (6'4", 315 lbs) on the left and Jr. Ryan Miller (6'8", 310 lbs) on the right. Adkins is fair in both run blocking and pass protection, but not above average in either. He is a little heavy footed, but typically holds his own strength-wise. Miller has more of a tackle's build, as you rarely see a 6'8" guard. He's done a good job of creating running lanes, driving defenders back. Top back-ups at guard include RFr. Jack Harris (6'5", 290 lbs), Jr. Blake Behrens (6'3", 295 lbs), and Jr. David Clark (6'4", 300 lbs). Starting at center is Jr. Mike Iltis (6'3", 290 lbs), with Sr. Keenan Stevens (6'2", 290 lbs) backing him up. Iltis and Stevens are pretty close in terms of ability, and both have started multiple games in the past. Iltis has been a good blocker this season, but can get better at staying with his blocks. Too often an opposing defensive tackle seems to come free from him easily and make a play.
Colorado's defense has been porous this season, but has picked up their play over the last two games, especially with their pass rush. They haven't exactly played offensive stalwarts in the last two games, matching up with Iowa State and Kansas State, but improvements have been seen. Last week against Kansas State, the Buffs defense were stingy against the run, allowing star RB Daniel Thomas to rush for only 58 yards on 14 carries. The pass defense gave up 310 yards, however. They are just three weeks from their fourth quarter meltdown against Kansas, however, in which they gave up 35 to the offensively-challenged Jayhawks and lost the game. The Buffs are currently ranked 82nd nationally in total defense (399.36 ypg), 113th in pass defense (270.45 ypg), 109th in pass efficiency defense (150.37 rating), 28th in rush defense (128.91 ypg), 84th in scoring defense (29.45 ppg), 59th in interceptions forced (10), 41st in fumbles recovered (9), and 53rd in total takeaways (19).
DL: The Buffs' defensive line has been very good this season at getting pressure on the opposing quarterback. The defense has picked up 33 sacks this season, with 15 of those coming in the last two games. On the season, they are allowing their opponents an average of 4.84 yards per carry when taking sacks out of the equation. Starting at defensive end is Jr. Josh Hartigan (19 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 QBH, 1 PBU). More of a pass rush specialist, Hartigan's 7 sacks leads the team and he picked up 3 of those last week against KSU. Reserves at defensive end include So. Forrest West (16 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 BLK), TFr. Chidera Uzo-Diribe (10 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF), and Sr. Marquez Herrod (2 tackles). West is an inconsistent performer, but can do a good job of disrupting play in the backfield when he's on his game. Uzo-Diribe is a strong end that has some slick moves off the edge. Herrod was the line's best player a season ago, but is near the bottom of the depth chart right now. He's played just 59 snaps this season. Starting at defensive tackle is Jr. Curtis Cunningham (27 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QBH, 1 PBU), with So. Nick Kasa (17 tackles, 1 sack), and Jr. Eugene Goree (1 tackle, 1 sack) backing him up. Cunningham is a tough, scrappy tackle that does a good job up front against the run but has been neutralized with double teams. Kasa is really a defensive end and has good quickness off the edge. At nose tackle is So. Will Pericak (39 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 QBH), with Jr. Conrad Obi (4 tackles) backing him up. Pericak is an athletic nose and his game is more about finesse than overpowering opposing linemen. He picked up 8 tackles and 1 sack last week against KSU, one of his best games of the season.
LB: Colorado's linebacking corps has been an inconsistent group that has seemed to get better as the year has gone along. Not surprising since the unit returned just one full-time starter from last season. Starting at middle linebacker is Sr. Michael Sipili (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 QBH), with So. Douglas Rippy (4 tackles) and Jr. Evan Harrington backing him up. Sipili is a big (245 lb) backer that has nice speed to compliment that size and finishes the play by wrapping up well. His 84 stops lead the team by far. Sr. B.J. Beatty (33 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 FF, 14 QBH, 1 PBU) starts at strongside linebacker, with Jr. Tyler Ahles (26 tackle, 2 QBH, 3 PBU) and Jr. David Goldberg (2 tackles, 1 QBH) backing him up. Beatty is a versatile defender that often will line up as a down lineman to form a 4 man front on the fly. He possesses good speed and is a dependable tackler. When lining up on the edge, he has a nice swim move and gets great pressure on the QB. Ahles is fair against the run, but doesn't always make the tackle. He is quick and does well in blitzing the QB and has done a nice job in coverage. At weakside linebacker is RFr. Liloa Nobriga (36 tackles, 1 FF, 3 PBU), while RFr. Derrick Webb (16 tackles, 0.5 sack) and Jr. Patrick Mahnke (34 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 QBH, 3 PBU) back him up. Nobriga, Webb, and Mahnke have all played about the same amount of snaps this year per game played. Mahnke has played the most out of the group, has excellent speed and has played the pass pretty well this season.
DB: Colorado's defensive backfield has not been having a good season, ranking near the bottom in the nation in terms of yards and opponents' QB rating. Last week against Kansas State, they allowed the Wildcats' QB Carson Coffman, a QB not known for his passing prowess throw for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns. Starting at cornerback is Sr. Jalil Brown (41 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 FR, 1 QBH, 5 PBU) at left corner and Sr. Jimmy Smith (65 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 QBH, 5 PBU) at right corner. Brown is a speedy, physical, and hard hitting corner. He typically does a good job of turning his head around and making plays on the football. His 3 interceptions lead the team this season. J. Smith is a fairly solid cover corner and the surest tackler in the unit. He doesn't get burned deep often, but has very good recovering speed when he does. Players in the reserve rotation at corner include Jr. Jonathan Hawkins (14 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU), Jr. Arthur Jaffee, and RFr. Paul Vigo (3 tackles). Jaffee has played primarily special teams this season. Starting at strong safety is TFr. Terrel Smith (43 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), with TFr. Jered Bell (11 tackles) and RFr. Deji Olatoye (7 tackles) backing him up. T. Smith is a raw athlete that will get beat deep, especially by decently sized tight ends. Starting at free safety is So. Ray Polk (66 tackles, 1 QBH, 1 PBU), with Jr. Travis Sandersfeld (31 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 QBH) performing back-up duties. Polk hasn't been great against the pass this season, but is solid in run support, showing good tackling ability. Sandersfeld spends most of his time at the nickel back spot, as that is Colorado's base defense. He is a rangy defender, seen all over the field making plays. He has been good in run support, but does get caught out of position with the ball in the air.
Colorado Special Teams
Colorado's special teams units are a mixed bag this season, the kicking game has been awful at times, while the return and coverage units have been pretty solid. The Buffs currently rank 92nd in net punting (34.30 yd avg), 26th in kickoff returns (23.71 yd avg), 76th in punt returns (7.06 yd avg), 40th in kickoff coverage (20.53 yd avg), and 51st in punt coverage (8.22 yd avg).
K: Sr. Aric Goodman has made 9 of his 14 field goal attempts with a long of 48 this season. He has a pretty strong leg, but lacks the consistency that would make him an above average kicker. Goodman also serves as the kickoff specialist for the Buffs and has pushed 12 of his 49 kickoffs for a touchback.
P: RFr. Zach Grossnickle is the top punter for the Buffs and ranks 79th nationally, averaging just 39.33 yards on his 55 punts with a long of 52 this season. 10 of his 55 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20. He has had 2 punts blocked this season.
KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit for the Buffs consists of Jr. Toney Clemons (10 kick returns, 25.5 yd avg, 53 yd long) and Jr. Arthur Jaffee (12 kick returns, 25.1 yd avg, 89 yd long). Jaffee had an excellent 89 yard return that nearly went for a score after faking a lateral early in the return. Jr. Toney Clemons (2 punt returns, -2.5 yd avg, -1 yd long) works as the top punt return man. Sr. Travon Patterson (15 punt returns, 8.3 yd avg, 45 yd long) has been the top punt returner, but his injury status is up in the air.
Coverage: The Buffs' coverage units have been pretty solid this season, with only an occasional big return given up. Through eleven games, the kick coverage unit has allowed an average of 21.0 yards on 41 kickoff return attempts. The punt coverage unit has allowed an average of 8.22 yards on 23 punt return attempts. Last week against Kansas State, they allowed Ty Zimmerman to return the first punt of the game 41 yards to the CU 1. The Wildcats scored on the next play to take the early lead.
Nebraska's spread option offense had been very successful this season when QB Taylor Martinez was healthy. He's struggled with a high ankle sprain and when he isn't near 100%, the offense really struggles to get things going consistently. The Huskers gained just 306 total yards (164 passing, 142 rushing) and 6 points against a fairly pedestrian Texas A&M defense. An endless barrage of penalties and Martinez's ankle injury were the main reasons behind the struggle, as well as some lackluster play from the offensive line. Nebraska currently ranks 32nd nationally in total offense (425.91 ypg), 106th in passing (156.36 ypg), 44th in pass efficiency (135.73 rating), 7th in rushing (269.55 ypg), 28th in scoring offense (32.73 ppg), 12th in interceptions thrown (6), 101st in fumbles lost (12), and 49th in giveaways (18).
QB: RFr. Taylor Martinez (97 for 163, 1435 yds, 9 TDs, 5 INTs) starts at quarterback for the Huskers. Martinez is the fastest of the QB's and is an explosive playmaker on the ground, rushing the ball 134 times for 974 yards and 12 touchdowns (lost 135 yards on sacks and other negative rushes) this season. While Martinez has shown to be a dynamic playmaker, he still will make freshman mistakes. He doesn't always make the best reads in the zone-read option, as there have been a number of plays this season that would have gone for bigger gains had he either handed off or kept it depending on the situation, but he has gotten better. There is room to improve in all facets of the game for Martinez and his decision making should improve as he continues to gain experience. Martinez appears to have a pretty solid arm, but needs to increase his consistency. His arm can be quite erratic; he has shaky footwork in the pocket, and also has had issues with staring down his receiver. His arm strength is somewhat of a question because while he throws at a high velocity, he does occasionally under-throw open receivers. As the season has gone along, he has turned into a true dual-threat. He suffered a high ankle sprain four games ago against Missouri, and missed the following game against Iowa State. He has started the last two games, but re-aggravated the injury last week against Texas A&M when his center stepped on his ankle. He returned to the game later, but is a shadow of his formerly healthy-self. Sr. Zac Lee (8 for 16, 70 yds), last year's starter, has bounced between second and third on the depth chart this season. He has a strong arm and can be successful when he has protection. Lee has decent speed and has rushed for 57 yards on 15 attempts this season. He's been fair when he has played this year, but suffered an arm injury a couple of weeks ago that has kept him out of action since. So. Cody Green (20 for 35, 215 yds, 1 TD) is the third option at quarterback. At times Green looks as though he has the tools to be a good quarterback, but is very inconsistent and really lacks pocket awareness. He can throw some nice passes, but seems to have trouble getting into a rhythm. Green has pretty good speed, but lacks the extra burst that Martinez possesses. He fits the mold of a true spread QB much more than the spread option offense Nebraska has employed this season. He has carried the ball 27 times for 75 yards this season (lost 14 on sacks and other negative rushes). One problem that Martinez and Green both have is with fumbles, as they don't take proper care of the football at all times. Green especially has trouble with taking snaps and at the mesh point in the zone read. Another QB to watch for is RFr. Ron Kellogg III, whom has been taking second team snaps this week in practice. If Martinez doesn't play, it will be interesting to see who officially will get the start.
RB: Nebraska's group of running backs is deep and talented. They are led by Sr. Roy Helu Jr. (151 carries, 1043 yds, 10 TDs). Helu Jr. has a great combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability. He can beat defenders by running around, by, and over them. He really is a complete running back. He broke the single game rushing school record against Missouri this season, with 307 yards on 28 carries. The top back-up to Helu Jr. is So. Rex Burkhead (125 carries, 721 yds, 6 TDs), an impressive back that does a very nice job running between the tackles. He hits the hole quickly and breaks tackles well. He also has the speed to pick up chunks of yards running to the outside. As his vision continues to improve, he'll only be more dangerous to defend. The duo of Helu Jr. and Burkhead is one of the best in the Big XII, and has been more of a 1A and 1B option rather than a clear 1 and 2 in the depth chart. So. Dontrayevous Robinson (11 carries, 12 yds) and Jr. Austin Jones (10 carries, 50 yds, 1 TD) are splitting 3rd back carries this season. Robinson has potential to be a quality power back, but really isn't quick enough to produce in the spread offensive sets and is much better suited out of the I-form where he can get some momentum going and has a fullback in front of him. Jones has looked solid in his limited carries, albeit the carries have come late in games against tired defenses. In the passing game, Helu Jr. (5 catches, 46 yds) and Burkhead (11 catches, 125 yds) have good hands, but with Nebraska's offense becoming less pass oriented, they've seen fewer opportunities than in recent years' past. At fullback, Jr. Tyler Legate (1 catch, 1 yd, 1 TD) is the top guy but hasn't really seen much time on the field. He's a good blocker, but hasn't had many opportunities to show what he can do with the ball in his hands. Jr. Ryan Hill (1 catch, 11 yds) is the top back-up at fullback. A former TE, Hill's hands can be an asset for Nebraska at the FB position.
WR/TE: Nebraska's receivers, while talented, have had their share of struggles with consistency in catching passes and their route running. The unit has been plagued with dropped passes as well as the occasional lazily run route. There is good potential in the group, however, some of the depth receivers need to step up. Starting at "Z" is Sr. Niles Paul (39 catches, 516 yds, 1 TD). He has a great combination of size, speed, and quickness. He is very inconsistent, though, as it seems for every great catch he makes, he'll drop just as many easy ones. Paul also has had fumbling problems and concentration issues. He is a great blocker, however, and has opened some big lanes along the sideline for the backs. Against A&M last week, though, he was not blocking well and dropped a 3rd down pass that he should have had. Starting at "X" is Jr. Brandon Kinnie (36 catches, 407 yds, 3 TDs). Kinnie has great measurables (6'3, 220 lbs) and is Nebraska's best wide out. He is a physical receiver, throwing some big blocks to open big runs downfield. He typically has great hands and turns up field quickly after the catch. Sr. Mike McNeill (13 catches, 232 yds, 1 TD) is the top receiver in the slot this year after switching from tight end in the off-season. McNeill has a knack for getting open and does a nice job of picking up yards after catch. Top reserves at receiver include Sr. Will Henry (2 catches, 32 yds), TFr. Quincy Enunwa (1 catch, 10 yds), Jr. Curenski Gilleylen, So. Khiry Cooper, and So. Tim Marlowe. Henry is a big body (6'5") but has yet to make an impact in his career. Enunwa shined in fall camp and saw his first catch in the second half of the season opener. Gilleylen has a history of dropping passes, but has great speed and is a deep threat. Cooper has plenty of upside, but needs to be more physical and work to get open. Nebraska's top TE's are So. Ben Cotton (3 catches, 34 yds) and So. Kyler Reed (13 catches, 306 yds, 4 TDs). Cotton is a better blocker than Reed, but Reed is a better athlete. Reed's athleticism makes him a tough match-up for linebackers and safeties, and his role has been increasing as the season has gone along. His 4 touchdown receptions lead the team this season.
OL: Nebraska's offensive line, when they are at their best and fully engaged, can do a great job of taking on defenders and imposing their will on them. When they are focused, they have shown the ability to dominate the opposition. Unfortunately, they seem to be getting increasingly inconsistent as this season goes along. The splits on the line this season are a bit wider than in years past, as Nebraska has transformed into more of a spread option team. On the season, they have paved the way for 6.44 yards per carry average (when taking sacks out of the equation). Starting at left tackle could be either RFr. Jeremiah Sirles (6'6", 310 lbs) or Jr. Jermarcus Hardrick (6'7", 320 lbs). Both have played well this season, with Sirles starting and Hardrick coming off the bench. Sirles has picked up the offense quickly, and will likely be a four-year starter, while Hardrick is a JUCO transfer that has the potential to be a force. Starting at right tackle is Sr. D.J. Jones (6'5", 310 lbs), with Jr. Marcel Jones (6'7", 315 lbs) backing him up. D.J. has performed well this season, however, he doesn't have great torque in his hips and will get beat by athletic ends. Marcel has the potential to be a rock on the right side; however, he has shown some difficulties against athletic defensive ends. He has struggled with a back injury for much of the season and has only played in two games this season. He saw more snaps last week than he had seen all year, so he appears to finally be healthy enough to play. Starting at left guard is Sr. Keith Williams (6'5", 310 lbs), while Sr. Ricky Henry (6'4", 305 lbs) starts at right guard. Williams is a solid blocker that has had trouble staying healthy during his career. He does very well as the pulling guard, plowing through his man and opening holes. Henry is a player known for his strength and his nasty streak, which often gets the better of him, drawing flags. When he's not committing penalties, he's the line's top pancake blocker. So. Brandon Thompson (6'6", 290 lbs), RFr. Brent Qvale (6'7", 320 lbs), and TFr. Andrew Rodriguez (6'6", 325 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard. Jr. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs) starts at center, with RFr. Cole Pensick (6'2", 270 lbs) backing him up. Caputo isn't a prototypically sized center, but he has very good technique and use of leverage. He has been pretty solid so far in his first season as a starter, but will occasionally get overpowered by big defensive tackles.
Nebraska's Blackshirt defense seems to be getting better late in the season. They've had moments where they have looked vulnerable to the run, but they look like one of the better defenses around the country more often than not. Against A&M last week, they allowed the Aggies to gain 310 yards of total offense and just 9 points. Pretty solid numbers, especially the scoring mark, but a horrid roughing the passer call allowed the Aggies to get a late field goal to get to 9, which was enough to beat Nebraska on that day. The Huskers are currently ranked 9th nationally in total defense (294.45 ypg), 2nd in pass defense (143.09 ypg), 1st in pass efficiency defense (93.77 rating), 57th in rush defense (151.36 ypg), 9th in scoring defense (16.73 ppg), 12th in interceptions (16), 117th in fumbles recovered (3), and 53rd in total takeaways (19).
DL: Nebraska's defensive line play has been up and down this season and the loss of Ndamukong Suh has been glaring at times. They play a two gap system, in which the d-linemen line up square with the opposing o-lineman, and attempts to take responsibility for the gaps on either side. What this does is allow for fewer men in the box and keeps the secondary numbers up, so it doesn't become an opportunity for the offense. The group is talented, but needs to show more consistency snap to snap, especially in controlling the A and B gaps if they want to be a great unit. They are allowing 4.48 yards per carry when taking sacks out of the equation. Starting at defensive end is Sr. Pierre Allen (47 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 11 QBH, 2 PBU) on the right, with So. Cameron Meredith (53 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 9 QBH, 1 PBU) on the left. Allen is a great athlete that does well against the run and also as a pass rusher. Meredith has a good first step and enough strength to power by opposing tackles. He's been used as a "Spinner", allowing him to come out of the typical three point end stance, and play the role of an outside linebacker. So. Josh Williams (10 tackles, 1 FF, 1 QBH) and RFr. Jason Ankrah (1 tackle) are the top reserves at defensive end. Both were outstanding high school players, and each possesses excellent athleticism and the ability to become great pass rushers. Williams appears to be a step ahead of Ankrah at this point. So. Eric Martin (23 tackles) has been a back-up linebacker since he arrived at Nebraska, but has now been moved to DE. He is a physical defender that hits like a freight train and is a special teams all-star, his athleticism should be an asset to the line. Jr. Jared Crick (59 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 FF, 8 QBH) starts at defensive tackle, with RFr. Thaddeus Randle (6 tackles, 1 QBH) providing back-up. Crick is big, strong, and has good speed to get into the backfield to cause problems for opposing offenses. Randle has a great motor and a good first step, but still has a ways to go in terms of beating his blocks. Starting at nose tackle is So. Baker Steinkuhler (41 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 PBU), with Jr. Terrence Moore (14 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 1 PBU) backing him up. Steinkuhler has had some trouble getting off his blocks this season, but is getting better with more experience. Moore had a close race with Steinkuhler in fall camp, and like many on the line, just lacks consistency.
LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps has had problems with injuries this season, but is now as healthy as they'll be all season since Will Compton returned from injury. The group has had some issues with misreading running plays and hitting the wrong gap, which has resulted in some sizeable gains for the opponent. This has gotten better, but there is still room for improvement. Starting at middle linebacker is So. Will Compton (5 tackles, 1 sack), with So. Alonzo Whaley (9 tackles) backing him up. Compton brings more game experience into the unit after starting a season ago. His return to the lineup should help the rush defense. Whaley started the opener but struggled with communication and has worked as a back up since. Jr. Lavonte David (120 tackles, 6 sacks, 6 QBH, 8 PBU) starts at weakside linebacker, with Jr. Matt May (9 tackles) and Sr. Thomas Grove (4 tackles) proving back-up. David is a JUCO transfer that didn't arrive in Lincoln until the summer, yet quickly proved to be a playmaker. He is one of the top tacklers in the Big XII and will continue to be a big time player for the defense as he gets more experience in the system. Nebraska calls their hybrid strongside linebacker/safety the "Peso", and starting at that spot is Sr. Eric Hagg (35 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INTs, 1 FR, 2 QBH, 4 PBU). Hagg is a great athlete and gets into the backfield quickly on the blitz and making tackles in the open field. After struggling with coverage earlier in his career, it appears he is finally coming into his own.
DB: Nebraska's defensive backfield is one of the best in the nation, especially on the edges. This group as a whole spends a lot of time watching film and studying their opposing receivers to the point that they know every route they'll run. This has resulted in them jumping many routes, picking up 16 interceptions and returning 4 for scores this season. Sr. Prince Amukamara (48 tackles, 1 sack, 11 PBU) starts at LCB, with Jr. Alfonzo Dennard (19 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 QBH, 6 PBU) starting at RCB. Amukamara is a great athlete and an outstanding cover corner. He is one of the nation's best defensive backs, making it tough on potential receivers and forcing opposing offenses to game plan away from him. He has been named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back. Dennard has shown to be a star in his own right across from Amukamara. He's a physical corner that makes outstanding plays on the football and is a very solid tackler. Top reserves at corner include TFr. Ciante Evans (8 tackles, 2 PBU), So. Antonio Bell, and RFr. Dijon Washington. Evans quickly worked his way onto the field this season, and has looked pretty good for being such a young player. Starting at free safety is Jr. Austin Cassidy (36 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF), with Sr. Rickey Thenarse (34 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 PBU) and So. P.J. Smith (37 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 PBU) backing him up. Cassidy went from the back-up "Peso" to being a starting safety four weeks ago. He has provided a smart, sound tackling presence. Thenarse is a hard-nosed, big hitting safety. His problem, though, is that he always goes for the impressive looking big hit and will miss tackles instead of wrapping up for a sure tackle. Smith has the tools to be a very good safety and should continue to improve as time goes on, but really needs to get better at making sure tackles. At strong safety is Sr. Dejon Gomes (84 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 2 FF, 6 QBH, 1 PBU), with So. Courtney Osborne (28 tackles, 1 sack) and Sr. Anthony West (11 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU) being his top back-ups. Gomes is solid in coverage, has great ball-hawking ability, but needs to be better at taking down physical running backs. Gomes works as Nebraska's top dime back and will shift there when the play calls for it. Osborne will take Gomes' place at SS when in dime, and has started the last few games, looking good for a young player and his size (6'3") is a definite asset. West is a former starter at corner, but fell down the depth chart due to lackluster play. He has only been average in his career, and has made a switch to safety for his senior season.
Nebraska Special Teams
Nebraska's special teams units are some of the best in the nation. They have some of the top kickers in the nation, and the return men have the ability to break free on any given return. The coverage teams have been weak, however, due to some sloppy tackling and taking poor angles on the return man. The Huskers are currently ranked 40th in net punting (37.49 yd avg), 16th in kickoff returns (24.86 yd avg), 11th in punt returns (14.00 yd avg), 104th in kickoff coverage (24.35 yd avg), and 94th in punt coverage (11.55 yd avg).
K: Sr. Alex Henery possesses one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the nation. This season, he is 15 for 16 with a long of 52. He has made 49 of his last 50 kicks from under 50 yards. As he closes out his time as a Husker, Henery is just weeks away from breaking most of the statistically significant NCAA career kicking records. He holds an incredible 89.04% career average (NCAA record is 87.8%), 76.67% from 40 yards or more (NCAA record is 72.1%), and 97.67% from inside 40 yards (NCAA record is 97.0%). Sr. Adi Kunalic has a booming leg and has been among the best kickoff specialists in the nation throughout his four year career. Kunalic has pushed 32 of his 70 kickoffs for touchback this season, with an excellent 69.0 yard average, kicking to about the 1 yard line.
P: Sr. Alex Henery ranks 25th nationally, averaging 43.98 yards on his 51 punts with a long of 69 this season. 20 of his 51 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20. He added punting duties to his repertoire last season, and has been a key weapon for the Huskers. When directional punting or attempting to get the ball downed inside the 10, he is exceptional.
KR/PR: Nebraska's top kickoff return unit is made up of Sr. Niles Paul (16 kick returns, 25.2 yd avg, 1 TD, 100 yd long) and So. Tim Marlowe (6 kick returns, 27 yd avg, 42 yd long). At punt returner is Sr. Niles Paul (14 punt returns, 11.4 yd avg, 31 yd long), with So. Rex Burkhead (3 punt returns, 4 yd avg, 8 yd long) also being a possible option. Paul has had issues with ball control, and doesn't always make great decisions on whether or not to field a ball. These units can be very good, but can also be very inconsistent.
Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams have been pretty poor this season. Their problems have been missed tackles and taking poor angles to the opposing return man. Against teams with good return units, this is a problem and has yet to be solved through the course of the season. The kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 24.4 yards on 37 kickoff returns (52 yd long), while the punt coverage unit is allowing an average of 11.6 yards on 20 punt returns (24 yd long).
RBs: Nebraska ++
WR/TE's: Colorado ++
OL: Nebraska +
DL: Nebraska +
LB: Nebraska ++
DB: Nebraska +++
Special Teams: Nebraska ++
Coaching: Nebraska +++
+ = Slight
++ = Moderate
+++ = Large
WR - Travon Patterson - Ankle - Questionable
LB - Jon Major - Knee - Out Indefinitely
C - Keenan Stevens - Knee - Out Indefinitely
QB - Tyler Hansen - Spleen - Out for Season
CB - Josh Moten - Suspension - Out Indefinitely
S - Anthony Perkins - Knee - Out for Season
RB - Brian Lockridge - Ankle - Out for Season
RB - Justin Torres - Personal - Out Indefinitely
WR - Dustin Ebner - Ankle - Out Indefinitely
OL - Shawn Daniels - Foot - Out for Season
S - Parker Orms - Leg - Out for Season
S - Vince Ewing - Knee - Out for Season
RB - Roy Helu, Jr. - Calf - Probable
QB - Taylor Martinez - Ankle - Questionable
QB - Zac Lee - Arm - Out Indefinitely
TE - Ryan Hill - Concussion - Out Indefinitely
TE - Dreu Young - Back - Out Indefinitely
OL - Jesse Coffey - Foot - Out for Season
LB - Sean Fisher - Leg - Out for Season
OT - Mike Smith - Leg - Out for Season
CB - Anthony Blue - Knee - Out for Season
Keys to the Game
1.) Establish the Run - The offensive line will need to show it can open holes consistently for Rodney Stewart against a great defense this week. When he's been able to run effectively, the Buff offense has looked like a very good unit. Nebraska, at times, has been susceptible to the run and the Buffs will need a steady ground presence to win the football game.
2.) QB Cody Hawkins Needs to be Sharp - Hawkins has a history of inconsistent play. He does show great accuracy at times, but at other times can be far off the mark. He'll face the best pass defense he's seen this season on Friday and if he isn't on top of his game, don't be surprised to see a few interceptions.
3.) Focus on Slowing Down the Nebraska Ground Game - With Nebraska's QB Taylor Martinez having a pretty severe high ankle sprain, he's not the same player he was earlier in the year. His lack of mobility has limited what Nebraska's offense has been able to do and allowed a poor Kansas defense and pedestrian Texas A&M defense to hold the Huskers' pretty much in check. If the Buffs can get this done and keep the score low, the chances to win will be great.
1.) Competent QB Play - Whether Martinez, Green, Lee, Kellogg, or whoever else might get the call plays, they have to perform at a level higher than what has been seen the past month. Martinez is operating at very low health after re-aggravating the ankle injury last week, but did play the entire second half, although he wasn't particularly dangerous. Nebraska's offense has to figure a way to take advantage of a suspect Colorado secondary.
2.) Slow Down CU RB Rodney Stewart - He's the key to the Buff offense, when he's off and running, they're very successful. When he's not getting lanes to run through, the Buff offense becomes much easier to defend. You'd have to like your chances in a game where Cody Hawkins is forced to throw to win the game against one of the best pass defenses in the nation.
3.) Cut Down on the Penalties - Nebraska ranks 115th nationally in penalty yards per game (72.45 ypg). Often these penalties have killed promising drives or extended those of the opposition. Last week against Texas A&M, Nebraska committed 16 penalties for 145 yards, both school records. Not all of the calls were legitimate (most notably the late 4th quarter roughing the passer on Courtney Osborne that led to A&M's game winning field goal), but a good number of them were and shouldn't be occurring this late in the season. Considering the performance of Nebraska's offense with Martinez being injured, they can't allow themselves to get far behind in the down and distance.
With Colorado defeating Kansas State and Nebraska falling to Texas A&M last week, this game suddenly has a lot on the line for both football teams. For Colorado, this game stands between them and a potential bowl game; which would be the first bowl game for the Buffs since the 2007 Independence Bowl. A win could also give interim coach Brian Cabral a real chance to take the job permanently. For Nebraska, they need a win over the Buffs to assure their spot in the Big XII Championship game. Nebraska is currently 5-2 in conference, as is Missouri, but since Nebraska beat the Tigers head-to-head, they own the tie-breaker. Missouri plays Kansas this week and is unlikely to drop that game, putting the pressure on Nebraska to clinch on Friday. If Nebraska fails to win the North Division, it would be a step backwards in a year they were expecting to make a big jump ahead. Both Nebraska and Colorado should bring focused and determined football teams to the field, each looking to accomplish an important goal.
Because Nebraska's offense has been so dependent on Taylor Martinez's running ability, having him struggle with a tough high ankle sprain makes it hard to see just what Nebraska might be able to do on Friday. They certainly aren't that explosive squad seen in games against Washington and Kansas State earlier in the season. But there is talent on the offense, especially at running back and they will need to get those guys going early. Colorado is a team that has really had a fire lit under them since the firing of Dan Hawkins, under interim coach Brian Cabral, the Buffs seem to have a new beginning and a 2-0 record. The opposition hasn't been tough, but just getting victories is what is important in this situation. The Buffs have not played well on the road this season, however, with a 1-4 road record. This will be a hard fought game that should be in doubt until the final minutes. Nebraska squeaks out a victory on their Senior Day by 3-7 points to earn a spot in the Big XII title game.
Colorado - 17
Nebraska - 20