Nebraska-Colorado Preview: Buffs and Cornhuskers Bidding Big 12 Goodbye

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Nebraska-Colorado Preview: Buffs and Cornhuskers Bidding Big 12 Goodbye
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Friday's final regular season Big 12 game for both Colorado and Nebraska gained considerably more intrigue this past weekend. By defeating Kansas State 44-36, Colorado kept its post-season hopes alive. Nebraska, by falling 9-6 to Texas A&M, failed to clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game. A Colorado victory would mean bowl eligibility; a Nebraska victory would mean the Cornhuskers will play in their sixth Big 12 championship game.

Both teams have a great deal to play for… not that the rivalry between Colorado and Nebraska needs any additional buildup.

Will it be a decent game? Nebraska is 9-2, and has been ranked the entire season (currently 16th in the BCS). Colorado, meanwhile, has been out of the national limelight for the past five seasons. The Cornhuskers are 20-point favorites against a team which hasn’t won on the road since 2007.

On paper, Nebraska should dominate.

Rivalry games, however, are not played on paper, so …

Here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.” for the game:

T – Talent

Pick a number, any number … 3, 5, or 17?

What will be the number of the quarterback who takes the first snap for Nebraska on Friday? Will it be No. 3 (Taylor Martinez)? No. 5 (Zac Lee)? Or No. 17 (Cody Green)? Martinez has been the starter for most of the season, but the freshman suffered an ankle injury several weeks ago. He sat out the 31-30 overtime win over Iowa State, and has been ineffective for the most part ever since. In the 9-6 loss to Texas A&M last weekend, Martinez went 11-for-17 for 107 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Even more significant, Martinez, who is 26 yards shy of becoming only the third freshman quarterback in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards, was held by the Aggies to only 17 yards on 11 carries.

If Martinez can’t go, Nebraska has two other alternatives. The first option, according to offensive coordinator Shawn Watston, is Cody Green. The sophomore was the starter against Iowa State, completing 7-of-12 passes for 79 yards. Green also saw playing time in the Texas A&M game, hitting 6-of-11 for 57 yards. If Green isn’t the answer, the ball may be placed into the hands of senior Zac Lee. Lee has thrown only 16 passes all season, and has sat out the last three games with a hand injury.

UPDATE: After Wednesday's practice, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini stated that it was likely that Cody Green would be the starter against Colorado.

From the above numbers, you could draw the conclusion that Nebraska has not been effective throwing the ball … and you would be correct. The Cornhuskers are ranked 106th in the nation in passing. Niles Paul, the Cornhuskers’ leading receiver, has 39 catches for 516 yards and one touchdown – and Paul suffered a foot injury in Tuesday's practice, and will not be available for the game against Colorado. Next on the Nebraska receiving list is junior Brandon Kinnie, who has 36 receptions for 407 yards and three touchdowns (curiously enough, all three scores came in the same game, against Oklahoma State).

So, Nebraska’s offensive success comes on the ground. The Cornhuskers are dominant in the running game, racking up 269 yards per game (7th in the nation). Nebraska has three rushers amongst the top 100 in the country – Roy Helu Jr. (26th, at almost 100 yards per game), Martinez (36th, 88 yards per game); and Rex Burkhead (83rd, 65 yards per game). The key has been Martinez. When the freshman quarterback was at his best, he dominated games. In a rout of then-undefeated Kansas State, Martinez rushed for 241 yards and four touchdowns on only 15 carries. In his last three games, however, Martinez has 104 yards on 34 carries. Clearly, a healthy Martinez is a weapon. A hobbled Martinez is not.

This will place the bulk of the responsibility on Helu Jr., who already has over 1,000 yards rushing for the season. Helu, a senior, had ridiculous numbers against Missouri - 28 carries, 307 yards, three touchdowns – but hasn’t had a 100-yard game since. In the last three games, Burkhead has been getting more carries, with the sophomore up to 721 yards rushing on the season.

So, when Nebraska has the ball, look for the Cornhuskers to run and run and run. If the Colorado defense – 28th in the nation against the run – can force Nebraska to pass, the Buffs will have a good chance at the upset.

Still, it will take some measure of success from the Colorado offense to make their upset dreams reality. Nebraska’s offense, as we have seen, has had spotty results, relying instead upon its defense to win games. The Cornhuskers enter the “Exit Bowl” ranked in the top ten in the nation in pass defense (second), total defense (ninth) and scoring defense (ninth). Nebraska is giving up less than 17 points per game, led by junior linebacker Lavonte David. A junior college transfer, David leads the Cornhuskers (and is ninth in the nation) in tackles, with 120 tackles, including 14 against Texas A&M.

A more familiar name to Buff fans is that of Jared Crick. The senior defensive tackle was named the All-Big 12 preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and was a semi-finalist for the Lombardi Award. Crick leads the team in sacks with 7.5, with five of those coming in the last five games.

If Colorado is to be successful against the Blackshirts, it will likely have to come on the ground. Rodney Stewart is up to 13th nationally in rushing, with 1,230 yards. While Stewart has stated that he is willing to take on the load of the running game (97 carries in the past three games), the Buffs would be well advised to try to get other players involved in the offensive attack, as Nebraska is too good and too quick to allow one player to beat them.

With a low scoring game apparently in the offing, the game might come down to special teams. It will come as no surprise, then, that the Buffs’ opponent has a decided advantage. Alex Henery is a name Colorado fans will long remember, as it was Henery who kicked a school-record long 57-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining in the 2008 game in Lincoln to keep the Buffs from pulling off an upset. This year, Henery is 15-for-16 on field goal attempts, with his only miss a blocked 51-yard attempt against Missouri. Henery is also in the top 25 nationally as a punter.

The only advantage the Buffs might have in special teams is not of their own doing. Niles Paul, the Cornhuskers’ leading receiver who is out for this Friday’s game, was also the team’s leading punt and kickoff returner. (Paul had a 59-yard punt return in the 28-20 win over Colorado in Boulder last season).

Despite the unknowns at quarterback, and the loss of their top receiver, the Cornhuskers will be heavily favored to defeat the Buffs when the teams square off on Friday. For Colorado to stay with Nebraska, the game plan will be simple – run the ball effectively; stop the Cornhuskers from running effectively.

Easier said than done…

I – Intangibles

Will the Colorado meltdown in Lawrence prove to be the best thing that ever happened to the program?

Had the Buffs held on to defeat Kansas three weeks ago, it is likely that Dan Hawkins would have been on the sidelines against Iowa State and Kansas State. Would both of those games resulted in victories had Hawkins been head coach? We’ll never know.

What Colorado fans do know is that the Buffs have played well under interim head coach Brian Cabral. Colorado defeated both the Cyclones and the Wildcats to put together the Buffs’ first two-game conference winning streak in three seasons, and first back-to-back wins over Big 12 North opponents since Gary Barnett was head coach.

Now, the Buffs are not only playing with renewed enthusiasm and confidence… they have something to play for.

Colorado is 5-6, one win away from bowl eligibility. While a sixth win will not guarantee a bowl bid (see below), a loss is guaranteed to end the season. As a result, the Buffs have nothing to lose and everything to gain by playing well against Nebraska. The offense is finally clicking the way Buff fans thought it would back in August (123 points in the past three games), and the defense, while not dominating, has done just enough to protect leads the past two weekends.

The Buffs, though, are not the only team running out onto the field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Friday with something to gain from a victory. With its 9-6 loss to Texas A&M last weekend, the 9-2 Cornhuskers will need a win over Colorado in order to claim a berth in the last Big 12 championship game. True, if Missouri loses to Kansas, the Cornhuskers will play in the title game even if they lose to the Buffs, but that scenario is not likely. Missouri will play Kansas on Saturday, so even with a loss on Friday there is hope for the Huskers to play in the title game, but they will not want to take any chances. The Colorado game for Nebraska is therefore a must-win contest, not just a “really would like to win” game.

Still, it has not been a great week in Huskerland. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has been widely criticized for his antics during the Texas A&M game. The Cornhuskers were penalized a school-record 16 times, and Pelini was often caught by sideline cameras berating officials – and his own players. The Nebraska chancellor asked for – and received – a public apology by Pelini.

Will the distractions surrounding the Nebraska head coach help or hinder the Cornhuskers already faced with a short week of preparation? Time will tell…

P – Preparation/Schedule

Whether or not Nebraska wins on Friday, the Cornhuskers will have at least one more game to play as a member of the Big 12 conference. A win means a Big 12 title-game berth and a possible trip to a BCS bowl game. A loss will likely relegate the Cornhuskers to a minor bowl and the musings associated with a regular-season ending two-game losing streak. Nonetheless, win or lose, Nebraska has at least one road trip left in their season.

Not so the Colorado Buffs. A loss will end Colorado’s final campaign in the Big 12 with a 5-7 record. With a win, though, the Buffs...

…might still be done for the year.

A victory over Nebraska would give Colorado a 6-6 record. Bowl eligible, but no guaranteed bowl trip. Presently the Big 12, which has eight bowl tie-ins, has six teams – Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Texas A&M – which have the seven wins necessary to guarantee a bowl trip. That number will likely rise to eight this weekend, as 6-5 Texas Tech (versus Houston) and 6-5 Kansas State (versus North Texas) can earn their seventh wins by taking care of business against non-conference opponents. 5-6 Colorado and 5-6 Texas are in the same boat – needing a win to just to qualify for a bowl. Only Iowa State (5-7) and Kansas (3-8) are out of the running for a bowl bid.

In years past, the Big 12 could count on two BCS bowl bids to give the conference a 9th bowl slot. This is unlikely to happen this fall, as the highest-rated BCS team in the conference right now, Oklahoma State, is ranked 9th in the BCS standings. With TCU and Boise State looking to take two of the four at-large BCS bids, the Big 12 champion will likely be the only team playing in a BCS bowl in the 2010 season.

So if the Buffs are 6-6, and all of the Big 12 bowl tie-ins are spoken for, are there other places the Buffs could land? Yes.

Welcome, Colorado, to the Pac-10.

The Pac-10 presently only has three teams with seven wins and a guaranteed bowl bid: Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona (USC has seven wins, but is not eligible for a bowl game). Without a conference championship game, several Pac-10 teams still have two regular season games to play, with Oregon State (5-5), Washington (4-6), California (5-6), and UCLA (4-6) still harboring bowl dreams (Arizona State is 4-6, but is already out of bowl consideration, as two of its victories came over 1-AA schools).

As a result, if Colorado defeats Nebraska, the Buffs could be heading off to an unlikely bowl which would normally host a Pac-10 team, such as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (versus a WAC team in San Francisco), the Sun Bowl (versus an SEC team in El Paso), or the Las Vegas Bowl (against an MWC team in Las Vegas).

Looking for irony? How’s about Colorado versus Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl?

Dare to dream…

S – Statistics

When you are playing Nebraska, your team faces some serious reality checks…

- Since the start of the 2009 season, Nebraska has allowed only 12 touchdowns (in 13 games) at home. Nine of the 13 opponents have been held to ten points or less, with an overall average of 9.8 points per game.

- Only two teams have scored more than 17 points against Nebraska in Lincoln in the past two seasons – but both (Texas Tech, 31-10 in 2009; Texas 21-13 in October) won their games.

- In the last 13 home games, the Nebraska defense has forced 26 turnovers.

- Nebraska has recorded 17 sacks in the past four games (Colorado has 18 over that same time frame).

- Nebraska opponents are completing only 49.83 percent of their pass attempts, the third-best number in the nation. The Cornhuskers lead the NCAA in pass efficiency defense.

But there are also some hopeful numbers for the Black-and-Gold

- Colorado had a season-high 476 yards of total offense in last weekend’s 44-36 win over Kansas State. Colorado rushed for 251 yards against the Wildcats, and are 55-2-1 all-time when rushing for over 250 yards.

- All five of the Buffs’ offensive linemen – tackles Nate Solder and David Bakhtiari, guards Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins, and center Mike Iltis – played every snap against Kansas State, and all five graded out at 90 percent or better. There were also no penalties called on the offensive line, and there was only one sack (on a snap over Cody Hawkins’ head).

- Colorado has scored in 12 straight quarters, and has averaged 41 points per game its last three outings. In Nebraska’s last three games, the Cornhuskers have scored a total of 57 points (including an overtime touchdown) for an average of 19 points per game.

- Colorado has faced a “win or stay home” regular season finale 12 times previously, going 6-6 in those games. The last time Colorado won such a game came in 2007, when the 5-6 Buffs faced the 5-6 Cornhuskers. Colorado won, 65-51, to earn an Independence Bowl bid, while Nebraska’s season – and the tenure of head coach Bill Callahan – came to a close.

Can the Colorado offense overcome the Nebraska Blackshirt defense? Can the Buffs’ defense stifle the injury-plagued Cornhusker offense? Can Colorado, with a new head coach and a new outlook, overcome the last specter of the Dan Hawkins’ era – the road losing streak?

A national television audience will find out Friday afternoon.

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