On Saturday afternoon (2:30 P.M., ABC) in Lincoln, the #6 Missouri Tigers (7-0, 3-0) will take on the #14 Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-1, 2-1), in a showdown that has been called the Big 12 North Championship Game. The Cornhuskers are coming off of a 51-41 road win over Oklahoma State. On Monday, Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini talked about this week's game.
"Obviously, there's a lot at stake," said Coach Pelini. "It's a big football game. It'll be a challenge."
The story for Nebraska this season has been the story of RSF QB Taylor Martinez 6'1" 205. Coach Pelini finally has the running quarterback that he has coveted. Martinez has been sensational this season, especially when matched up against some of the weaker defenses the Cornhuskers have played this season. Martinez, who is very fast, is a threat to run on every play. He leads Nebraska's 5th-ranked rushing offense (290 yards/game) in every category, including carries (100), rushing TDs (12), yards/carry (8.7), and rushing yards/game (124.3). Martinez can pass, too. His passer efficiency rating (157) ranks 3rd in the Big 12.
Nebraska runs the football on 69% of their offensive plays. Even when Martinez drops back to pass, he often runs the football. Nebraska averages 63 offensive plays/game, certainly more of a ball control approach. Their passing game is primarily play action, predicated on successfully running the football to draw defenders toward the line of scrimmage, and then going over the top for big plays. This is illustrated in Martinez's passing statistics, which include a mediocre completion percentage (59.5%), and a bulging yards/completion (15.85 yards/completion).
On Monday, Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel talked about Martinez.
"He's just real impressive," said Coach Pinkel. "He's a guy that can make plays. When things break down, he can make plays. He's got great instincts. I'm just very, very impressed with him.................. He presents a lot of problems, because he's so good at instinctively getting out of trouble, instinctively just taking a gap and running. He's obviously a great athlete. He's just a very, very impressive guy."
Martinez's favorite targets are senior Niles Paul 6'1" 220 (3.7 receptions/game, 13.8 yards/reception, 1 TD), junior Brandon Kinnie 6'3" 220 (3 receptions/game, 13.4 yards/reception, 3 TDs), and senior Mike McNiel 6'4" 235 (1.6 receptions/game, 17.4 yards/reception, 3 TDs). Sophomore TE Kyler Reed 6'3" 230 has caught 5 passes this season, but 3 of them have been for TDs, and he's averaging 34.8 yards/reception.
Niles Paul doubles as the Cornhuskers' leading return man, and he's enjoyed success there, as well. Senior Alex Henery 6'2" 175 handles both the place kicking and the punting duties. He has a big leg, and does an very good job in both capacities.
Martinez shares the rushing duties with powerful RBs, senior Roy Helu Jr. 6'0" 220 (6.8 yards/carry, 5 tds), or sophomore Rex Burkhead 5'11" 210 (6.2 yards/carry, 3 TDs), each of whom averages just over 10 carries/game. The combination of Helu/Burkhead and Martinez gives Nebraska a formidable thunder and lightning attack in their run game. And, you can't lose track of their receivers, especially their tight ends, who like to try to get lost in the scrum, and then sneak behind the defense for big plays.
Defensively, Nebraska is very effective against the pass, despite not really having a great pass rush. The Cornhuskers rank 2nd in the Big 12 (3rd NCAA) is pass defense, surrendering a mere 140.71 yards/game through the air. Yet, their 1.71 sacks/game is tied for 8th in the conference, and ranks 72nd nationally. The Cornhuskers are tied for tops in the conference with 12 interceptions, and their pass efficiency defense (90.1) is tops in the conference, and 2nd in the NCAA. Opponents have completed just 48.1% of their passes against Nebraska this season.
The Cornhuskers' defense is led by junior WLB Lavonte David 6'1" 210 (78 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 6 PBUs), senior S DeJon Gomes 6'0" 200 (63 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU), P.J. Smith (36 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 PBU), senior CB Prince Amukamara 6'1" 205 (27 tackles, 7 PBUs), and sophomore DT Jared Crick 6'6" 285 (31 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3.5 sacks). Senior DB Eric Hagg 6'2" 210 (20 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs), and junior CB Alfonzo Dennard 5'10" 195 (15 tackles, 3 INTs, 6 PBUs) are also major contributors for the Cornhuskers in defending the pass.
Nebraska has been vulnerable against the run. The Cornhuskers rush defense (79th, 165.14 yards/game, 4.1 yards/carry) ranks behind every FBS opponent that Missouri has played this season. Probably related to their innefectiveness against the run, the Cornhuskers have stuggled defensively in the red zone, where opponents have scored 85.7% of the time (10th in the Big 12).
Nebraska is the nation's 18th-ranked total defense (305.86), and the nation's 17th-ranked scoring defense (17.86 points/game).
"They're obviously a great football team," said Coach Pinkel, referring to Nebraska. "Defensively, they're one of the best in the nation. In several defensive categories, they're in the top twenty in the nation. As they were a year ago, they're just a very good defensive football team. Offensively, they're one of the best rushing offenses in the country................... They have a great scheme. It's very difficult (to defend), and with the quarterback they have, he adds to the problems.""
The blueprint for attacking Nebraska, both offensively and defensively, has been demonstrated, first by South Dakota State, then by Texas. The Longhorns were able to contain, and nearly shut down Martinez, holding him to 21 yards rushing on 13 carries. And, Texas ran the football on 74% of their offensive plays. Only Oklahoma State has had much success throwing the ball against the Cornhuskers, and most of that was a few big plays to Justin Blackmon.
"It's never easy," said Coach Pelini, talking about the challenges presented by the next game. "You just got to try to improve yourself every week. Obviously, the number one goal is to win football games."
According to Jeff Sagarin, Nebraska's strength of schedule is #41. Their victory over Oklahoma State last week is their only win over a team ranked within the top thirty.
[NCAA Ranking in Brackets]
424.86 [32nd]___ Total Offense___ 459.14 [17th]
138.43 [79th]___Rushing Offense___ 290.00 [5th]
15___________TDs Rushing__________ 21
286.43 [16th]___Passing Offense_ 169.14 [100th]
138.48 [37th]__ Passing Efficiency__ 149.36 [27th]
12___________TDs Passing____________ 9
34.71 [T-24th]___Scoring Offense____ 38.86 [10th]
339.14 [38th]___ Total Defense___ 305.86 [18th]114.57 [23rd]__ Rushing Defense__ 165.14 [79th]
4_________ TDs Allowed Rushing_________ 8
224.57 [76th]___Passing Defense___ 140.71 [3rd]
108.04 [15th]__ Pass Effic. Defense___ 90.10 [2nd]
7_________ TDs Allowed Passing_________ 613.14 [5th]_____Scoring Defense___ 17.86 [17th]
+0.86 [19th]__ Turnover Margin_ +0.29 [T-43rd]
13 / 7_ ______ Fumbles/Lost_______ 24 / 9
4_________ Interceptions Thrown_________ 3
11________ Interceptions Gained________ 12
23.84 [29th]___Kickoff Return Avg.__ 25.16 [17th]
5.65 [93rd]____ Punt Return Avg.___ 15.88 [12th]
38.94 [24th]___ Net Punting Avg.___ 38.68 [31st]
3.00 [9th]_______Sacks By____ 1.71 [T-72nd]
1.00 [17th]_____ Sacks Allowed____1.29 [T-33rd]
29:27 [72nd]___ Avg. Time of Poss.___ 29:57 [60th]
37.5% [T-39th]__3rd Down Conv.__ 42.5% [38th]
60.0% [T-37th]__4th Down Conv._ 60.0% [T-37th]