December 30, 2010

Match-up watch: Nebraska vs. Washington

NU Run Offense vs. UW Run Defense
Having a healthy Taylor Martinez back under center could make a world of difference for a Nebraska offense that struggled to do much of anything in its 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship. Head coach Bo Pelini said Martinez is as healthy as he's been all season, and we all remember how good he was before suffering an ankle injury in the first half against Missouri.

Though the Huskers' running game wasn't nearly as explosive without Martinez at 100 percent, it did allow for the emergence of a new wrinkle in the offense with the Wildcat. With running back Rex Burkhead now there to help take some of the zone read responsibilities off Martinez's shoulders, NU should be just as effective against a Washington defense it put up more than 380 rushing yards and six touchdowns against back in September.


NU Pass Offense vs. UW Pass Defense
The other obvious benefit of getting Martinez back to full form is in the passing game. While the redshirt freshman's running ability stole all the highlights, he was quietly emerging as a pretty talented passer before the injuries. If you recall back to the Huskers' wins over Oklahoma State and the first half against Missouri, NU's offense was as equally balanced and explosive as it's been in years.

The challenge will be a little more difficult for Martinez and Co. this time around than it was back in September, though. After giving up an average of 43 points in a 1-3 stretch midway through the season, Washington allowed just 16 points and 284.6 yards per during its three-game winning streak. Linebacker Mason Foster led the Pac-10 with 151 total tackles and was named first-team all-conference and third-team All-American.


UW Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Though he only rushed for 55 yards on 11 carries in the first meeting, sophomore running back Chris Polk rushed for 1,238 yards so far this season. Polk's average of 103.2 yards per game rank second in the Pac-10 and 16th nationally, and he went on to earn second-team all-conference honors, and capped off the regular season with a career-best 284 yards against rival Washington State.

It got lost in the shuffle of Nebraska's blowout win in Seattle, but the Huskers had some trouble stopping the Huskies' running game in the first half, as UW actually led for a good portion of the half. Had NU not jumped out to such a big lead and forced Washington to pass nearly every down late in the game, the outcome could have been a little different.


UW Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
After getting thrashed 56-21 by Nebraska, Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said the Huskers' secondary was the best his team had faced in his two seasons at UW and was arguably the best in the country. Considering the Blackshirts held star quarterback Jake Locker to just 4-of-20 passing for 71 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, he definitely had good reason for the praise.

While Locker has been able to rebound from that devastating loss and a rib injury he suffered midway through the season, Nebraska's secondary has only continued to get better. More than anything, it will be key for the Huskies' receivers to match NU's physicality and get off their routes to give Locker some windows to throw to.


Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
While nothing has been said officially, there looks to be a good chance that senior Niles Paul will be back in his kickoff return duties for the first time since breaking a bone in his foot prior to the Colorado game. Whether it's Paul or fellow return men Tim Marlowe and Burkhead, Nebraska has a chance to exploit Washington's kick and punt coverage teams, which have had some issues in giving up big returns this season.

Another thing to watch is senior kicker Alex Henery, who needs just four points to become just the seventh kicker and 12th player in NCAA history to break the 400-point mark for his career. Chances are he'll have a good shot at getting there, as he scored eight of those points on all extra points against Washington the first time around.


Nebraska Will Win If:

It can get it's offense back on track with a healthy Martinez and put up another stifling defensive performance against Locker and Washington's offense. A lot had been made about whether the Huskers would be motivated enough to show up for a rematch against a team it whipped by 35 points already this season. Judging from the team's attitude in practice this past week, finding motivation shouldn't be a problem for a team determined to get its first 11-win season since 2001.

Washington Will Win If:

It can figure out a way to do anything offensively against Nebraska's defense. The Huskies will likely make it a point to try and establish the running game and set up the play-action pass for Locker. If Polk can get some production on the ground and the Huskies can shut down Martinez this time, their chances will get a whole lot better.


This one will likely come down to which No. 3 shows up for Nebraska. If Martinez really is back to as good as new and plays like the potential Heisman Trophy candidate we saw in the first two months of the season, the Huskers become a virtually unstoppable team with its running game, defense and Martinez's big play ability. How well he plays will be arguably the determining factor in how the night ends for Nebraska.

Prediction: Nebraska 31, Washington 3

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