It's here. Washington's return to the post season begins tonight when the Huskies take on the…
Holiday Bowl Preview
Washington Huskies vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
--by Vince Campisi
December 30th, 2010
7:00 PM PST
San Diego, CA
Television Coverage: ESPN
WASHINGTON (6 - 6) (5 - 4)
#18 (BCS) NEBRASKA (10 - 3) (6 - 3)
Weather Report for the Holiday Bowl
Opening: Nebraska by 14.
Current: Nebraska by 14.
09/04/10 - at. Brigham Young - L 17-23
09/11/10 - vs. Syracuse - W 41-20
09/18/10 - vs. Nebraska - L 21-56
10/02/10 - at. USC - W 32-31
10/09/10 - vs. Arizona State - L 14-24
10/16/10 - vs. Oregon State - W 35-34
10/23/10 - at. Arizona - L 14-44
10/30/10 - vs. Stanford - L 0-41
11/06/10 - at. Oregon - L 16-53
11/18/10 - vs. UCLA - W 24-7
11/27/10 - at. California - W 16-13
12/04/10 - at. Washington State - W 35-28
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 - W 45-17
12/04/10 - vs. Oklahoma* - L 20-23
** - in Arlington, TX
The Holiday Bowl will mark the ninth overall meeting between Nebraska and Washington. The series currently stands at 4-3-1, with Nebraska on a three game winning streak. These two teams met earlier this season in Seattle, on September 18th. The #8 Huskers were unstoppable on the ground, racking up 383 yards rushing as Nebraska steamrolled the Huskies 56-21. The game was Nebraska freshman QB Taylor Martinez's coming out party, as he accounted for 150 passing yards and a touchdown as well as 137 yards rushing and three more touchdowns. The meeting also saw heralded Washington QB Jake Locker have the worst day of his career, completing just 4 of 20 passing attempts for 71 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. Having a re-match in a bowl game is rare, especially considering the lop-sided outcome of the first meeting. These teams will also meet next season on September 17th in Lincoln, putting these teams together three times in 12 months.
Washington's offense has not performed as well as was hoped this season, as performance and consistency issues have plagued the group, especially earlier in the season. Improvement has been made over the past few games, however, which has helped the team reach a bowl game. The Huskies are currently ranked 75th nationally in total offense (364.42 ypg), 77th in passing (200.25 ypg), 78th in passing efficiency (124.76 rating), 45th in rushing (164.17 ypg), 93rd in scoring offense (22.08 ppg), 29th in interceptions thrown (9), 30th in fumbles lost (8), and 24th in giveaways (17).
QB: Sr. Jake Locker (179 of 316, 2209 yds, 17 TDs, 9 INTs) came into the season as one of the more heralded players in the nation. Locker ranked 55th in pass efficiency in 2009, throwing for nearly 2,800 yards (21 TDs/11 INTs) and rushing for another 388. He has struggled throughout this season, and his draft stock likely took a slight tumble from early first round to potentially middle-first round. One of his major issues is in his consistency, not showing great drive-to-drive play. He's had difficulties under pressure and rushes into bad throws. He has shown issues with accuracy, often missing guys high. He has also had problems with his field vision, not seeing wide open receivers. Despite being a multi-year starter, he will have problems with recognizing blitzes from the defense. When he is at his best, he can pick apart an opposing defense, but he just doesn't seem to be on his game very often. He's a very good athlete, scrambles well and can do a lot of damage with his feet. He's a tough runner that will take some big collisions and bounce right back up. The coaches tried keeping him in the pocket earlier in the year, but let him rush the ball more as the season moved forward. A rib injury limited what he's been able to do on the ground, but that has been healing well over the break and he should be close to 100%. Locker has rushed for 302 yards and 5 touchdowns on 101 carries (lost 154 yards on sacks and other negative rushes) this season. His ability to run the football will be an important factor in how well the Huskies' offense will perform in the Holiday Bowl. Behind Locker are RFr. Keith Price (19 of 37, 164 yds, 2 TDs) and TFr. Nick Montana. Price is a very fast dual-threat QB, but didn't see much action this year, outside of mop-up duty and when Locker has been injured. Price has rushed for 15 yards on 16 carries (lost 34 yards on sacks and other negative rushes) this season.
RB: The Huskies' running game is led by So. Chris Polk (226 carries, 1238 yds, 8 TDs), one of the top backs in the Pac-10 conference. Polk has eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in each of his first two seasons as a Husky. Polk has quick burst through the hole and keeps his legs churning to pick up extra yards after contact. He has good vision and cutting ability, really turning on the jets when he gets to the outside. Polk exploded in the Huskies' last game against rival Washington State, slashing the Cougars defense for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 carries. Backs in the reserve rotation include TFr. Jesse Callier (73 carries, 424 yds), So. Demitrius Bronson, and Jr. Johri Fogerson (1 carry, 0 yds). Callier is a quick footed back, and has great acceleration once he gets to the edge. Fogerson has good wheels and is tough to catch in the open field. He has been struggling with a hip flexor throughout the season and is likely out for the bowl game. The backs are used occasionally in the passing game, with Polk (20 catches, 158 yds) and Callier (18 catches, 98 yds) being called upon a few times per game. Polk has very good hands out of the backfield and can be a dangerous weapon in the passing game. At fullback is Sr. Austin Sylvester (4 catches, 24 yds), with TFr. Zach Fogerson (2 carries, 10 yds; 1 catch, 7 yds) backing him up. Sylvester is a solid blocker that has great hands.
WR/TE: The Huskies' receiving corps is a solid group and can look like one of the better receiving groups in the Pac-10. Consistency increased over the course of the season, which assisted in the wins earned down the stretch. Starting at the receiver spots are Jr. Jermaine Kearse (62 catches, 1001 yds, 12 TDs), Jr. Devin Aguilar (28 catches, 352 yds, 2 TDs), and Sr. D'Andre Goodwin (42 catches, 500 yds, 4 TDs). Kearse is the go-to guy in the passing game, and it's easy to see why. He's fast, strong, good sized (6'2"), and tough to bring down in the open field. He typically shows good hands and the ability to blow by opposing defenders. Kearse had a monster game against Washington State last time out, with 178 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns on just 6 catches. Aguilar also typically has good hands and will beat most in a foot race. He's more of a possession receiver, though, whereas Kearse is the better home run threat. Goodwin is a solid target, and after not being focused on much early in the year, finally started becoming a major factor in the offense mid-way through this season. Reserves in the rotation at receiver include Jr. Jordan Polk (7 catches, 94 yds), So. James Johnson (1 catch, 3 yds), and TFr. Kevin Smith (1 catch, 18 yds). Depth took a bit of a hit with Jr. Cody Bruns (7 catches, 102 yds) going down with a broken clavicle in the Washington State game. There is a good chance he can play in the bowl, however. At tight end is Jr. Chris Izbicki (2 catches, 16 yds, 1 TD), with RFr. Marlion Barnett (4 catches, 31 yds) backing him up. This is a good group of tight ends, and needs to see the ball more. Izbicki is a tough blocker, but also has good hands and is hard to tackle, often bowling over defenders. Barnett brings a bit more speed to the position, but isn't quite as good of a blocker as Izbicki right now.
OL: Washington's offensive line has had their share of problems this season and has had numerous shake-ups to the starting line-up throughout the year. The line's inability to get a consistent push up-front against sizable defensive lines has been a problem, causing the offense to sputter at times. Like much of the team, the performances have been better over the past few weeks, but a lot of that can also be attributed to playing poorer competition. Starting at tackle is Jr. Senio Kelemete (6'4", 289 lbs) on the left and Sr. Cody Habben (6'6", 290 lbs) on the right. Kelemete is a strong tackle, but doesn't have much swivel in his hips and will get beaten by decent ends. Habben is in his third year as a starter, and is a fair blocker, better in pass protection than bulling ahead as a run blocker. The top reserves at tackle are TFr. Erik Kohler (6'5", 306 lbs) and Jr. Skyler Fancher (6'5", 303 lbs). Kohler had spent time starting at guard this season, but has settled back into a reserve role. He was a big high school recruit and will hope to improve the run blocking on the line. Fancher is a skilled tackle that has had a history of injury problems. Starting at guard is Sr. Ryan Tolar (6'5", 293 lbs) on the left and TFr. Colin Porter (6'4", 307 lbs) on the right. Tolar is a former center that is the team's best rush blocker. He's very strong and has opened some nice holes in his career. Porter has been playing pretty well for a true freshman, doing his best work in rush blocking. Top back-ups at guard include Sr. Gregory Christine (6'2", 288 lbs) and So. Daniel Kanczugowski (6'4", 327 lbs). Christine started earlier in the season, but was consistently pushed around by average defenders and benched before the first meeting with Nebraska this season. Starting at center is So. Drew Schaefer (6'4", 281 lbs), with So. Mykenna Ikehara (6'2", 265 lbs) backing him up. Schaefer is an athletic lineman that should eventually grow into a quality center for the Huskies.
Washington's defense has really played well over the past 3 games, holding their opponents to an average of 16 points per game, helping to pick up three consecutive victories. Of course, none of UCLA, California, or Washington State are considered offensive juggernauts by any stretch of the imagination. In the three games prior (versus Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon), they gave up an average of 46 points per game and not surprisingly, lost all three games. The Huskies are currently ranked 84th nationally in total defense (401.17 ypg), 36th in pass defense (202.42 ypg), 63rd in pass efficiency defense (128.43 rating), 103rd in rush defense (198.75 ypg), 93rd in scoring defense (31.17 ppg), 59th in interceptions forced (11), 95th in fumbles recovered (6), and 92nd in total takeaways (17).
DL: The Huskies' defensive line has suffered a series of injuries this season and will be at one of their weakest points for this week's Holiday Bowl. When they were healthy, they had problems getting a pass rush this season, and were often times been pushed around by opposing offensive lines. Now with the trio of injured starters, this unit's depth is a serious problem as they ready themselves to play against a team that blew them up already this season. They have struggled against running teams that employ wide splits in their offensive lines and have not been very gap sound this season. It's hard to imagine many improvements made for the bowl, considering all of the injuries. Keep an eye on this group in the second half and how worn down they are. Starting at defensive end is Jr. Everrette Thompson (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) at left end and TFr. Hau'oli Jamora (45 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 1 PBU) at right end. Thompson is a big talent, but has yet to live up to expectations. It is possible for him to start at a tackle spot for the bowl game, depending on how things shake out. Jamora has been a nice surprise for the line, leading the defensive line in stops, despite being just a first year player. He's shown above average quickness and very good tackling ability. Top reserves at end include Sr. De'Shon Matthews (7 tackles) and Jr. Kalani Aldrich (3 tackles, 1 FR). This pair hasn't made much of an impact when inserted into the line-up this season and will be depended upon more than ever on Thursday night. Matthews could be a quality end, but doesn't see the field much. So. Talia Crichton (12 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF) was a starter early in the season, but has missed the last 6 games with injury. He is a pure speed rusher and has struggled against big, athletic offensive linemen. He was ruled out for the bowl game earlier this week in practice after re-aggravating his knee injury. Starting at the defensive tackle spots are Jr. Alameda Ta'amu (37 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU) and possibly TFr. Sione Potoa'e (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH). Although experienced, the middle of the line has not been too impressive. Ta'amu is a big (330 lbs) tackle that also has good speed and footwork. Potoa'e hasn't seen a great deal of snaps this year, but was listed as a probable starter for the bowl game before the bowl practices. If Potoa'e doesn't get the nod for the bowl, it will likely be Thompson. The top reserve at tackle is RFr. Chris Robinson (2 tackles). Robinson has shown problems with tackling and over pursuit. A knee injury has limited him, and he is probable for the bowl game.
LB: The Huskies' linebacking corps has been the best unit on the defense throughout this season. Against better teams, there have been struggles in pass coverage, but when the coaches have these backers in position to make plays, they will typically make them. Starting at middle linebacker is Jr. Cort Dennison (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 3 PBU), with TFr. Garret Gilliland (6 tackles) and RFr. Tim Tucker (1 tackle) backing him up. Dennison picks up tackles all over the field, has been very solid against the run, and has good speed to make plays in the backfield. While he is normally a solid tackler, he will whiff on one occasionally. At weakside linebacker is Sr. Mason Foster (151 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR, 2 QBH, 2 PBU, 1 BLK), while So. Jordan Wallace (1 tackle) and TFr. Princeton Fuimaono (10 tackles, 1 FF) back him up. Foster is the star of the linebackers, wraps-up well, and is just a good all-around athlete. He's a hard hitter that forces many fumbles, but isn't immune from a missing a tackle or two. His performance this season was one of the best in the nation among linebackers and he earned 3rd team All-American honors by the AP. Sr. Victor Aiyewa (77 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, 3 PBU) starts at strongside linebacker, with Sr. Matt Houston (5 tackles) and TFr. Cooper Pelluer backing him up. Aiyewa is a converted safety that can absolutely lay the wood. He's very athletic, and his speed is useful on blitzes, where he has been very successful at disrupting the QB. Aiyewa can often be seen making plays behind the line of scrimmage and he actually led the Pac-10 this season with 18 tackles for loss.
DB: The Huskies' defensive backfield has a good group of athletes in the unit that have been steadily improving, but they have had issues in coverage at times this season. Early in the season, they really had trouble defending short routes from the slot, something that continued through most of the season. Like the rest of the team, things have looked better over the past 3 games against lesser competition. Starting at cornerback is Jr. Quinton Richardson (34 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 8 PBU) at left corner and So. Desmond Trufant (46 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 INT, 1 FR, 4 PBU) at right corner. Richardson has pretty good speed, and is a sure tackler, but has left some opposing receivers open this season. Trufant is has some of the most potential in the secondary, but isn't quite there yet and does have some problems in pass coverage. He's a good tackler, but has shown a susceptibility to being burned. Players in the reserve rotation at corner include Sr. Vonzell McDowell Jr. (4 tackles, 1 PBU), So. Adam Long (8 tackles), and TFr. Gregory Ducre (10 tackles, 1 INT). McDowell is the smallest of the defensive backs at just 5'9", and lacks the hops to keep up with taller receivers. Starting at strong safety is Sr. Nate Williams (100 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 QBH, 4 PBU), with TFr. Sean Parker (10 tackles, 1 INT) backing him up. Williams is a solid, All-Pac-10 caliber safety that is an asset in run support. He hasn't made a great deal of plays on the ball while in the air, but the ones he has broken up have shown great timing. So. Nate Fellner (75 tackles, 4 INTs, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 QBH, 8 PBU) starts at free safety, with RFr. Will Shamburger (5 tackles) serving as the top back-up. Fellner is a young player and will struggle at times in both rush support and in pass coverage. He had a big game against Washington State last time out, picking up 9 tackles, 1 interception and 3 pass break-ups. He has arguably been the most improved player in the secondary this season.
Washington Special Teams
Washington's special teams units have not been very good this season, with struggles at times popping up in every area at one time or another. The Huskies currently rank 56th in net punting (36.64 yd avg), 84th in kickoff returns (20.88 yd avg), 102nd in punt returns (4.91 yd avg), 107th in kickoff coverage (24.40 yd avg), and 88th in punt coverage (10.11 yd avg).
K: Jr. Erik Folk has made 12 of his 17 field goal attempts with a long of 54 this season. He isn't known for a powerful leg, and despite hitting on a 54 yarder in the season opener, is 2 for 5 overall from 50+. Inside of 40, however, he is 8 for 8. Folk is also the kickoff specialist, and pushed only 2 of his 53 kickoffs for a touchback, with a 62.8 yard average, kicking between the 7 and 8 yard line.
P: Jr. Kiel Rasp has a pretty good leg and ranks 23rd nationally, averaging 44.0 yards on his 65 punts with a long of 82 this season. 21 of his 65 punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20. Rasp became the starter after Sr. Will Mahan (6 punts, 45.2 yd avg, 64 yd long) tore knee ligaments during a practice after the season opener.
KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit for the Huskies consists of TFr. Kevin Smith (15 kick returns, 21.6 yd avg, 30 yd long) and TFr. Jesse Callier (29 kick returns, 23.1 yd avg, 57 yd long). Jr. Devin Aguilar (4 punt returns, 4.2 yd avg, 13 yd long) works as the top punt return man. The lack of playmakers in the return game has been a problem this season, not helping the offense with field position very often.
Coverage: The Huskies' kick and punt coverage units have not been good this season, taking bad angles and missing tackles. After playing 12 games, the kick coverage unit has allowed an average of 24.4 yards on 50 kickoff return attempts with a long of 80. When the kickoffs are only getting 62.8 yards, this is putting opposing offenses between the 31 and 32. The punt coverage unit has allowed an average of 10.1 yards on 36 punt return attempts with a long of 79. Despite giving up some big returns, they have yet to give up a touchdown.
Nebraska's spread option offense had been very successful this season when QB Taylor Martinez was healthy. He hasn't been healthy since the start of the Missouri game (October 30th), and began struggling with a high ankle sprain and then a turf toe. With him less than 100%, the offense has really struggled to get things going consistently. Against Oklahoma in the Big XII championship game the offense posted just 293 total yards (148 passing, 145 rushing) and 20 points. A total of 5 fumbles (3 lost) and an interception really hurt the Huskers' chances and helped the Sooners put points on the board. Nebraska currently ranks 35th nationally in total offense (414.23 ypg), 109th in passing (154.62 ypg), 42nd in pass efficiency (136.89 rating), 10th in rushing (259.62 ypg), 28th in scoring offense (32.69 ppg), 14th in interceptions thrown (7), 112th in fumbles lost (15), and 63rd in giveaways (22).
QB: RFr. Taylor Martinez (109 for 187, 1578 yds, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) starts at quarterback for the Huskers. Martinez is the fastest of the QB's and when he is healthy, is an explosive playmaker on the ground, rushing the ball 148 times for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns (lost 187 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 really 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. He re-aggravated a high ankle sprain to his right leg against Texas A&M three games ago and also suffered turf toe injury to his left foot afterwards. He played the entire Big XII championship game against Oklahoma, but was largely ineffective. He ended up with a net of negative 32 yards on the ground and had a costly interception in the second quarter that really seemed to change the pace of the game. With the leg injuries, he has been tentative and lacks the burst he showed earlier in the year. Sr. Zac Lee (11 for 20, 102 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 hasn't had many opportunities. So. Cody Green (30 for 48, 295 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT) is another option at quarterback has started two games this season. 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 fits the mold of a true spread QB much more than the spread option offense Nebraska has employed this season. Green has pretty good speed, but doesn't possess the extra burst that Martinez possesses. He has carried the ball 34 times for 98 yards this season (lost 23 on sacks and other negative rushes). One problem that Martinez and Green both have is with fumbling, 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.
RB: Nebraska's group of running backs is deep and talented. They are led by Sr. Roy Helu Jr. (177 carries, 1211 yds, 11 TDs). Helu Jr. has a great combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability. He is a complete running back that can beat defenders by running around, by, and over them. 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 (160 carries, 912 yds, 7 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. He has been excellent in the wildcat this season, and has completed 3 of 4 passes for 35 yards and 3 touchdowns. 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 (24 carries, 67 yds) and Jr. Austin Jones (14 carries, 58 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 (13 catches, 136 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.
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). Paul has missed the last two games with a broken foot, but is expected to play in San Diego. 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. Starting at "X" is Jr. Brandon Kinnie (42 catches, 473 yds, 5 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 (18 catches, 313 yds, 1 TD) is the top slot receiver 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 Jr. Curenski Gilleylen, So. Tim Marlowe, Sr. Will Henry (2 catches, 32 yds), TFr. Quincy Enunwa (1 catch, 10 yds), Sr. Joe Broekemeier (6 catches, 49 yds), and So. Khiry Cooper. Gilleylen has a history of dropping passes, but has great speed and is a nice deep threat. Marlowe is a decent athlete that has done little more than special teams work so far. 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. Broekemeier has caught all 6 of his passes in the last two games, with Paul out with injury. 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 (20 catches, 364 yds, 7 TDs). Cotton is a better blocker than Reed, but Reed is a better athlete and pass receiver. 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 7 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 have a lot of difficulty getting to that level of play, with issues of consistency from snap-to-snap. On the season, they have paved the way for a 6.20 yards per carry average (when taking sacks out of the equation). 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. Starting at left tackle is RFr. Jeremiah Sirles (6'6", 310 lbs), with Jr. Jermarcus Hardrick (6'7", 320 lbs) backing him up. Both have played pretty 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. Sirles has had struggles against top end talent this season, not uncommon for a freshman. 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 fairly 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 four games this season. 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 has had another excellent season under coaches Bo and Carl Pelini. They've had moments where they have looked vulnerable to the run, but they have played like one of the best defenses in the country more often than not. Against Oklahoma in the Big XII Championship game, they allowed the Sooners to put up 454 yards and 23 points, both numbers well above Nebraska's season averages. While the defensive numbers don't look very good, the defense actually did play a pretty solid day, with only a few busted plays. The Huskers are currently ranked 10th nationally in total defense (304.23 ypg), 7th in pass defense (159.92 ypg), 5th in pass efficiency defense (97.99 rating), 52nd in rush defense (144.31 ypg), 8th in scoring defense (17.23 ppg), 5th in interceptions (19), 117th in fumbles recovered (4), and 41st in total takeaways (23).
DL: Nebraska's defensive line play had its share of ups and downs this season, with the loss of Ndamukong Suh being glaring at times. 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 4.54 yards per carry when taking sacks out of the equation. 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. Starting at defensive end is Sr. Pierre Allen (57 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 12 QBH, 2 PBU) on the right, with So. Cameron Meredith (60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 10 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 (12 tackles, 1 FF, 1 QBH) and RFr. Jason Ankrah (2 tackles, 1 QBH) 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 is a step ahead of Ankrah at this point and their development will be interesting to watch next season. So. Eric Martin (24 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 (63 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 1 FF, 10 QBH, 2 PBU) 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. So. Baker Steinkuhler (43 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 PBU) has started every game this year at nose tackle, with Jr. Terrence Moore (14 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 1 PBU) backing him up. However, Steinkuhler has been suspended for the bowl game, leaving Moore and Randle to fill the void. Steinkuhler has had some trouble getting off his blocks this season, but was 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 had problems with injuries early this season, which allowed some of the more inexperienced players to see the field earlier than expected, with mostly positive results. 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 (12 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 (145 tackles, 6 sacks, 7 QBH, 10 PBU) starts at weakside linebacker, with Jr. Matt May (9 tackles) and Sr. Thomas Grove (5 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 backers in the nation 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 (46 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 1 FF, 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, he really had a tremendous season this year.
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 19 interceptions and returning 4 for scores this season. Sr. Prince Amukamara (58 tackles, 1 sack, 13 PBU) starts at LCB, with Jr. Alfonzo Dennard (27 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 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 the Big XII defensive player of the year and is 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), Sr. Anthony West (11 tackles, 1 INT, 1 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. West is a former starter at corner, but fell down the depth chart due to lackluster play. He moved to safety in the off-season, but could factor back into the reserve corner rotation for the bowl game. Starting at free safety is Jr. Austin Cassidy (41 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF), with So. P.J. Smith (38 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 PBU) backing him up. Sr. Rickey Thenarse (34 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 PBU) went from a starter at FS this season to being demoted into a back-up role mid-way through the year, and has now been suspended for the Holiday Bowl. Cassidy went from the back-up "Peso" to being a starting safety four weeks ago. He has provided a smart, sound tackling presence. 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 (93 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INTs, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 QBH, 7 PBU), with So. Courtney Osborne (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) serving as the top back-up. Gomes is an excellent playmaker in the defensive backfield. He's solid in coverage and 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 a few games, looking good for a young player and his size (6'3") is a definite asset. He earned his first career interception in the Big XII championship game.
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 32nd in net punting (38.08 yd avg), 31st in kickoff returns (23.26 yd avg), 15th in punt returns (12.91 yd avg), 98th in kickoff coverage (23.79 yd avg), and 89th in punt coverage (10.15 yd avg).
K: Sr. Alex Henery possesses one of the strongest and most accurate legs ever seen in college football. This season, he is 18 for 19 with a long of 53. He has made 51 of his last 52 kicks from under 50 yards. As he closes out his time as a Husker, Henery is just one game away from breaking most of the statistically significant NCAA career kicking records. He holds an incredible 89.5% career average (NCAA record is 87.8%), 78.8% from 40 yards or more (NCAA record is 72.1%), and 97.7% 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 39 of his 83 kickoffs for touchback this season, with an excellent 68.8 yard average, kicking between the 1 and 2 yard line.
P: Sr. Alex Henery ranks 24th nationally, averaging 43.9 yards on his 63 punts with a long of 69 this season. 26 of his 63 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 has been made up of Jr. Brandon Kinnie (6 kick returns, 23.7 yd avg, 39 yd long) and So. Tim Marlowe (12 kick returns, 22.1 yd avg, 42 yd long) the past two games. At punt returner is So. Rex Burkhead (5 punt returns, 5.2 yd avg, 15 yd long). Sr. Niles Paul (16 kick returns, 25.2 yd avg, 1 TD, 100 yd long) (14 punt returns, 11.4 yd avg, 31 yd long) was been the team's top kick and punt returner before breaking his foot a few weeks ago, missing the last two games of the season. He should be ready to go for the Holiday Bowl, and will likely return to the top of the line-up. These units can be very good, but can also be very inconsistent.
Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams have been pretty porous 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 that has yet to be solved through the course of the season. The kick coverage unit is allowing an average of 23.8 yards on 43 kickoff returns (52 yd long), while the punt coverage unit is allowing an average of 10.2 yards on 26 punt returns (26 yd long).
RBs: Nebraska +
WR/TE's: Washington ++
OL: Nebraska ++
DL: Nebraska +++
LB: Washington +
DB: Nebraska +++
Special Teams: Nebraska +++
Coaching: Nebraska ++
+ = Slight
++ = Moderate
+++ = Large
DT - Chris Robinson - Knee - Probable
OG - Ryan Tolar - Knee - Probable
WR - Cody Bruns - Clavicle - Probable
OT - Senio Kelemete - Ankle - Questionable
S - Justin Glenn - Concussion - Questionable
S - Sean Parker - Shoulder - Out for Season
RB - Johri Fogerson - Hip - Out for Season
RB - Deontae Cooper - Knee - Out for Season
DE - Talia Crichton - Knee - Out for Season
DT - Semisi Tokolahi - Ankle - Out for Season
DL - Cameron Elisara - Shoulder - Out for Season
P - Will Mahan - Knee - Out for Season
WR - Niles Paul - Foot - Probable
QB - Zac Lee - Arm - Questionable
DT - Baker Steinkuhler - Suspension - Out for Bowl Game
FS - Rickey Thenarse - Suspension - Out for Bowl Game
TE - Dreu Young - Back - Out for Season
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.) QB Jake Locker Has to Play Lights-Out - He was 4 for 20 against the Huskers just a few months ago in the friendly confines of Husky Stadium. Now he's going to have to put together a much, much better game on a neutral field. The scary thing is that Nebraska's defense, overall, is quite a bit better than they were when he last saw them. Locker's rib injury should be pretty close to being fully healed, helping both his throwing motion and ability to take hits while on the run. If he can run the ball effectively, the Husky offense should be able to sustain some drives.
2.) Back Seven Has to Help Out the Front-Four - Nebraska gashed a mostly healthy Washington defensive line earlier this season, and now the Huskies don't really have enough experienced players to make a quality two-deep for this game. The back seven, especially the linebackers, really need to help out that depleted defensive front and play gap-sound football.
3.) Get RB Chris Polk Going Early - The Huskies have had their best offensive output when they commit to getting Polk his carries. When too much of the offense is filtered through Locker, they have struggled against better defenses. And as seen in the first meeting between Nebraska and Washington, Locker will need help from his teammates to move the ball against a stingy Husker defense.
1.) Get the Run Game Back on Track - The wheels fell off when QB Taylor Martinez suffered an ankle injury in the Missouri game back in October and Nebraska failed to get their offense turned back around without a healthy Martinez. He should be as healthy as he's been since before the injury, which should bode well for the Huskers. Considering Martinez along with RB's Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead were each over 100 yards rushing against Washington the first time around and will now be playing against a short-handed defensive line, things could get back on track in a big way on Thursday night.
2.) Eliminate Turnovers - Nebraska blew a 17 point lead in the Big XII title game versus Oklahoma in large part due to their incredible ability to turn the ball over in the worst of situations. An interception in the endzone, a fumble deep inside your own territory, etc. No matter who you are playing, you can't afford to be careless with the football. A few ill-timed turnovers are enough to turn the tide in any football game. Keep the turnovers down and don't give the Huskies anything easy - make them earn it.
3.) Be Focused - It can be difficult to get up for a re-match with a team you've already played earlier in the season, especially when you blew them out 56-21 the first time around. It can be even harder after not accomplishing the team's goals by losing the conference championship game to Oklahoma and being placed in what now seems like an almost lose-lose situation. Beating Washington again doesn't gain you much of anything, while losing to them would be a disaster. If Nebraska isn't motivated to win this football game, Washington could sneak up and pull off a very improbable upset. If Nebraska is focused, they should take care of business without it being too close.
Washington has won their last three games, pushing them into their first bowl game in 8 years. There is no question that they will definitely be up for this football game. The real question is how much Nebraska's players will be into this match-up. Every season we see teams placed into bowls they'd rather not have to be in and their level of play suffers accordingly. The positive for Nebraska is that their coach, Bo Pelini, doesn't seem like the type to let his team feel sorry for themselves and lay an egg in the bowl. It would be a surprise to see Nebraska show up flat and uninterested, as they should be looking to wash the bad taste of losing 2 of their last 3 games out of their mouths.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini knows how to prepare his football team for bowl games and is a perfect 3-0 in them as head coach. Washington's Steve Sarkisian spent time winning bowls with the USC Trojans as an assistant, but this will be his first bowl game while running the show.
This should be a lower scoring affair than what we saw in Seattle earlier this season and also will not likely have the same 35 point differential. If Nebraska's QB Taylor Martinez was as healthy as he was in the first meeting, it'd certainly be possible, but he probably still doesn't have that same burst back in his arsenal, and without that, can be a very average QB. Washington QB Jake Locker will make some big plays with his legs and make the game interesting for a while early. However, Nebraska will wear out a thin Washington defensive front and shut the door sometime in the second half with a steady running game. Nebraska by 21-24 points.
Washington - 17
Nebraska - 38
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