Colorado has split the last eight games with Nebraska, one of the best runs by the Buffs in the history of the series (18-47-2). Still, the Cornhuskers have won three of the past four, and are coming to Boulder already having punched their ticket to the Big 12 championship game against Texas.
Arguably, Nebraska has nothing to play for Friday, except a ninth win (and a better bowl bid if the Cornhuskers do not earn the automatic BCS bid with an upset of the Longhorns). Still, the Cornhuskers will be looking to cement their status as the “Kings of the Big 12 North”, a title ceded to them by perhaps the weakest division in the BCS.
"Dominant" Nebraska is, in fact, 10 years removed from their 1999 Big 12 championship, and most Cornhusker fans are painfully aware that the program has not gone a calendar decade without a title since the 1950s.
The 2009 Cornhuskers have been far from over-powering, with an offense that has been mediocre for much of the season. Nebraska has utilized a suffocating defense to win its games, and will be looking to shut down a weak Colorado offense.
If the Buffs are to pull off an upset, they must take advantage of every scoring opportunity.
Nebraska junior quarterback Zac Lee has played in every game this season, but has not played every offensive down. Freshman Cody Green has seen action in six games, including three Big 12 games.
After Lee threw three interceptions in a 9-7 home loss to Iowa State, Cody Green was given the start against Baylor, a 20-10 Nebraska victory.
Both quarterbacks played in the Cornhuskers’ next game, a 10-3 win over Oklahoma, with Green sitting out the last two games.
If not for their improving running game, the Cornhuskers would be in trouble offensively, as the passing game is not effective. Junior running back Roy Helu, Jr. has over 1,000 yards rushing, and has averaged over 100 yards per game the last three games—all wins. Shutting down Helu will be the first cause of business for Colorado on Friday.
One constant with the Nebraska offense, as you can see from above scores, is that the Cornhuskers have played a significant number of low-scoring games. The Cornhuskers are averaging 25 ppg over the course of the season, but that total has been inflated by high non-conference point totals against Sun Belt opponents Florida Atlantic (49 points), Arkansas State (38), and Louisiana-Lafayette (55).
In Big 12 play, Nebraska has gotten past three touchdowns on the scoreboard only twice (27 against Missouri; 31 against Kansas). In seven conference games, Nebraska is averaging only 17.4 ppg (the Buffs, with only two Big 12 wins, are averaging 20.5 ppg).
The unit keeping Nebraska from a disappointing season is the defense, ranked in the top 10 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense, led by its two defensive tackles. Senior Ndamukong Suh has gotten all of the publicity (remember when Suh was touted as a Heisman candidate back when Nebraska was 4-1?). Suh is a monster, and will be pitted against the Buffs’ Ryan Miller this weekend.
Despite the stories devoted to Suh, he may not even be the best player on the Cornhuskers’ defensive line. Sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick has nine sacks, 18th best in the nation. Suh has 6.5 sacks, the same number as Colorado’s Marquez Herrod.
The ‘ol “win one for the Gipper” hasn’t worked for Colorado the past two games, so there is little reason to believe that it will work extra magic against Nebraska. The issue of Dan Hawkins’ future is the elephant in the room.
Hawkins this week indicated his regret that Cody had been recruited to Colorado. This is not the talk of a coach whose son will be a senior next fall, especially if the father planned on being around to coach him.
Also, despite this weekend being a potentially big game for hosting potential recruits for the 2010 class, no official visits are planned for this weekend. Read into that what you want about the future of the coaching staff…
This is not to say that the Buffs do not have a great deal to play for. There are a number of seniors (17) who will be putting on the black and gold for the final time. It’s the final game of the season and it’s a home game.
The Buffs have been pulling out all of the stops, motivation-wise. Former head coach Bill McCartney, and former Buff All-American linebacker Kanavis McGhee addressed the troops. From all indications, McCartney and McGhee made an impression.
“He told us (Nebraska) was a game we had to be ready for,” said running back Rodney Stewart of McCartney’s talk. “It’s our rival. It was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.”
Senior defensive tackle Taj Kaynor said, “[McGhee] was just talking about his passion for CU, and what it means to be a Buff, and how our priority is to beat Nebraska. I really connected with him on that, and I feel the same way.”
Passion and adrenaline, though, can only take you so far. Let me take you back to this past weekend:
It was rivalry week in Bozeman, MT. The hated Grizzlies from Missoula were coming in to face the Bobcats. Montana was 10-0, ranked third in the nation. Montana State was 7-3, ranked 23rd. The Grizzlies had already clinched the Big Sky’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs, but the Bobcats needed a win to earn an at-large berth.
Early on, as is often true in rivalry games, it was a defensive struggle. The score at the end of the first quarter was—I kid you not—2-2. Both defenses forced safeties and neither offense could move the ball. At halftime, Montana lead Montana State 9-5, then opened up the third quarter with a touchdown drive. As good teams do, Montana slowly, methodically, but with a certain degree of inevitability, took control of the game.
The final score was Montana 33, Montana State 19. The Grizzlies are home this weekend for the first round of the FCS playoffs; the Bobcats are just home.
I would very much like to see the Buffs come out this weekend with passion and intensity, and I believe I will. How long the Buffs will be able to sustain that intensity, though, remains to be seen.
As odd as it may sound, I actually give Colorado the edge in this category against Nebraska. True, Colorado’s 2009 season will come to an end around 5:00 PM on Friday, while Nebraska still has the Big 12 title game and a bowl to look forward to, but I believe that actually works—for this game only—in the Buffs’ favor.
Nebraska’s win over Kansas State last weekend ended the debate over the Big 12 North. The Cornhuskers will be traveling to Dallas next weekend to face Texas. The Longhorns have been dismantling Big 12 competition, averaging 38.3 ppg in conference. In the past four conference games, Texas has put up 41 vs. Missouri, 41 vs. Oklahoma State, 47 vs. Baylor, and 51 vs. Kansas.
Those numbers will get the attention of any defense.
The “Blackshirts,” if they have been given back their moniker, would be forgiven if they were not looking past Colorado to the nationally televised game against the Longhorns. Win the Big 12 North, and the Nebraska name will be restored; get routed, and the Big 12 North slinks home for another long winter.
Fans in Lincoln have been talking up the Texas game—this week.
Colorado and its fans can be hopeful that the Nebraska players are not as prepared for the Buffs as they might otherwise be…
Two other factors in terms of scheduling and preparation favor Colorado. The Buffs played on Thursday night last week, while the Cornhuskers played the de facto Big 12 North title game against Kansas State on Saturday night. The Buffs have had two extra days to prepare for their rival.
Also, with no game next week—or in the next nine months—there is no reason for the Buffs’ players (and coaching staff) to let it all hang out. Trick plays, new formations, motivated players—could be a good formula for the Buffs.
The numbers that matter against Nebraska start and end with the Cornhuskers’ defense. The worst defensive number for Nebraska is 17—as in the Cornhuskers’ ranking for passing defense.
In the other significant defensive categories—rush defense, scoring defense, and total defense—Nebraska is ranked better than 17th.
For those worried about Tyler Hansen’s health, Nebraska is ranked 14th nationally in sacks, at almost three per game. Colorado, meanwhile, is ranked 117th in the country at giving up sacks.
Obviously the Colorado offense is going to have to produce some big plays against the Nebraska defense. The Buffs will not be able to count on 10-play drives if they hope to be successful.
Are there any positive numbers for Buff fans?
Well, as noted, the Nebraska offense has been far from imposing. The Cornhuskers are in the bottom half nationally in all of the major offensive categories, including passing offense (85th), total offense (82nd), and scoring offense (73rd).
Colorado cannot give up the big play, the cheap touchdown. The Buffs’ defense must keep Nebraska to field goals when the red zone is penetrated, or—better yet—force turnovers. The last team to beat Nebraska, Iowa State, forced eight turnovers (four in the red zone).
Give Colorado eight turnovers against Nebraska this Friday, and I like the Buffs’ chances.
Otherwise, it’s a tough sell.