Gator Bowl 2014: Nebraska's Defense Has Much to Prove vs. Georgia

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IDecember 30, 2013

Nov 16, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers defender Randy Gregory (44) celebrates after a quarterback sack against the Michigan State Spartans in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

It's not often that a team gets a do-over in college football, but after last year's 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, Nebraska gets that rare chance as it's set to take on the Bulldogs in this year's Gator Bowl. 

There may be no group more anxious for this rematch than the Huskers defense, a unit that gave up over 500 yards of total offense and over 400 passing yards to the Bulldogs in last year's contest.  

What will be different this year is the fact that Georgia will be looking to do more in the ground game, especially with star quarterback Aaron Murray out with a torn ACL. 

It means a rush defense that gives up an average of 161.2 yards a game (eighth in the Big Ten) will be challenged by one of the best running backs in the country, Todd Gurley. 

Gurley, who missed three games this season with an injury, averages 6.3 yards a carry and finished the regular season with 903 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games.

The sophomore was off to a huge start to the year before his injury, rushing for 450 yards and four touchdowns in the first four games of the season. 

January 01, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA;  Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive tackle Thad Randle (53) tackles Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley (3) during the second half of the Capital One bowl at The Citrus Bowl. Georgia defeated Nebraska 45-31. Mandatory
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

In the finale against Georgia Tech, Gurley had the most attempts since a Week 2 matchup against South Carolina, rushing 20 times for 122 yards and three touchdowns in the overtime win. 

Nebraska's run defense has struggled with good rushing attacks all season long and ended the season giving up big games to some of the Big Ten's better running backs and running teams. 

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford went for 152 yards and three touchdowns, Penn State's Zach Zwinak went for 149 yards and Iowa racked up 156 yards as a team in the regular-season finale, with Mark Weisman scoring twice on the ground. 

Youth up front has been part of the problem against the run, but it appears as if some defenders have finally had the lightbulb go off and are ready to see more playing time moving forward. 

One player that could help make a big difference is freshman defensive tackle Maliek Collins. According to Brian Christopherson and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star, Collins has been seeing time with the No. 1 defensive unit leading up to the Gator Bowl.

Adding Collins to the mix gives Bo Pelini more flexibility at the defensive tackle position and the coach sees that group as almost interchangeable at this point.

Between Maliek and (Aaron) Curry and Thad … and obviously Vincent (Valentine), I think those guys have gotten better, and they’re going to make each other better. They’ve done that and they continue to work hard. I like that group.

That group needs to step up and be stout against the run for the Huskers to have a chance against Georgia's run game, which is averaging 176.1 yards per game. 

Nebraska also can't sleep on the pass game, even with Murray out. His replacement, Hutson Mason, proved he's capable of winning games too. 

Mason threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Bulldogs to a 41-34 OT victory over rival Georgia Tech to end the regular season. 

The good news is the Huskers' pass defense has been a strength all season long, ranking fourth in the Big Ten (205.8 yards per game) and giving up just 16 touchdowns through the air. 

Nov 9, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers cornerback Ciante Evans (17) and safety Corey Cooper (6) tackle Michigan Wolverines tight end Jake Butt (88) in the third quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Adding more depth up front can only help the secondary that features two All-Big Ten performers in Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.  

It also appears that Nebraska will have a full complement of healthy players, another issue that has hurt both sides of the ball for the Huskers. 

Between health, young players stepping up and their memory of last season's bowl game loss to Georgia, there should be more than enough motivation for the Huskers defense. 

Now it's time for this group to put it all together. Without an improvement defensively, Nebraska's chances of revenge against Georgia are pretty slim. 


Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter @ andycoppens