Between the noise, the first game on the road with a redshirt freshman quarterback who has only started three games and facing one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in college football, Jake Locker, this is going to be a big test for Nebraska. It might be their first real test of the season.
So what are the storylines to Saturday's game? There could be quite a few things to look for or follow, but I have my three key storylines to Saturday's game plus three players or positions that I think are also key for Nebraska.
1. What to do about Locker? I've read of or heard about a dozen different ways people would try to stop Jake Locker. The popular theories include an outside pass rush by the defensive ends to collapse the pocket and containing Locker. The problem with containing Locker is that he still completes 60% of his passes. What's more, is that he's improving. Against BYU he was at 54% and he had a 67% passer efficiency percentage against Syracuse. The first thing is you have to contain him. Whether it's a spy or with the pocket, contain is the key. Next, you need to get pressure and it can't just come from one spot. Expect blitzes from different positions and different sides in passing situations. And the third key to stopping Locker is to not stop until the whistle is blown. Locker isn't the most elusive of runners, but he's probably still the most mobile and is in that 4.4 range. You need to keep an eye on this guy.
2. Handing the adversity of being on the road. I compare the game on Saturday at Seattle to the game that Nebraska had last year against Virginia Tech in a way that both scenarios aren't the best places for your team to operate. Both places are just loud. They have rabid fans just like Nebraska does. They are crazy about football. They are also crazy about teams like Nebraska coming to their stadium to take on their team. The Washington crowd is going to be tuned up tomorrow. I have only heard stories about Husky Stadium and it's anyone's guess as to why that place is so loud. Some say it's the aluminum seating. Others contend it's the awning. Whatever it is Nebraska will have to deal with it. Taylor Martinez has been pretty cool in some situations when it comes to handling pressure, adversity and making things out of nothing. I have some things that I will include below about how I think Nebraska will handle the noise at Seattle.
3. Running the two minute offense. While Martinez has looked so good doing so many things on the field if you had to name one that he hasn't done well at the top of many lists would have to be the two minute offense. My count might be off, but in the two or three times I have seen Martinez get the ball in a two minute offense scenario all have been three and outs. More than that, they have been just plain ugly and Nebraska might have been better served taking a knee and running out the clock. If Nebraska has to get into the two minute offense at all against Washington you might look for some changes to not only handle the situation of the two minute offense better, but also to plan for the noise that Nebraska will experience at Washington. Game aside, this is going to be a good scenario for Nebraska to get experience for the rest of the season especially for teams like Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Three players/positions to watch:
1. Taylor Martinez: The report card for Martinez so far this season would have a very high mark, but you think that you might have an asterisk next to it too. At the bottom of the report card, next to the purpose of the asterisk, it might say that it was just too early to tell yet considering the competition and playing all of the games at home to this point if the grade was accurate or not. Still, two wins are two wins. But to get the win this weekend will require even more from Martinez. I am betting that there has been some instruction on Martinez to not stand in the pocket for much longer than two and a half seconds this weekend and some of the reins that had been pulled in through the spring and the summer to get more structured with Martinez taken off to deal with a noisy environment and to instill some confidence in him. Many people are talking about Denard Robinson this year from Michigan. He's rushed for 455 yards and three scores through two games. Martinez has a little over a third as many rushes as Robinson and has rushed for 284 yards and five scores averaging nearly 14 yards per carry. It's time to cut him loose a little bit and take some of the pressure off of the team to win.
2. Lavonte David: David might be the defensive MVP so far this year. Imagine this, he got to Lincoln in July and since then he at least put himself in a position to play this year, but after an injury to Sean Fisher was being asked to start. Then, after an injury to Will Compton he's being asked to lead. Given what we all heard from Eric Martin on Monday, David seems to have about as firm grip as any of the linebackers that he will play next to. Not only that, but last weekend you also saw the possibilities that are there to bring him on some blitzes. David is going to be critical in containing Locker on Saturday, but he will also be important in giving Locker someone to account for from the linebacker position that could be coming on a blitz.
3. Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead: Want to know the key to success on the road? Run the ball. Keep the opposing offense off of the field. Take time off the clock. Grind the other team's defense and wear them out. Between Martinez, Helu and Burkhead there may not actually be a reason to throw the football. But, expect Washington to adjust for Nebraska to some extent and put enough in the box where Nebraska has to take advantage. Still, Burkhead might be the most consistent receiver that Nebraska has and after two Texas routes against Western Kentucky that went for big gainers there wasn't one against Idaho. I would expect Nebraska's game plan will center around running the football and trying to break the spirit of Washington on the field and in the stands.
This is easily the biggest test for Nebraska this season. It's the best opponent that they have seen and it's their first game on the road. There are definitely questions about how Nebraska will do when it comes to handling those two things. Still, there are some believers out there nationally about Nebraska when it comes to their rating. This is also a team that last year when faced with big obstacles performed very well.
That being said, the relatively low spread for the game (+3.5 or +4 depending where you look) is surprising for a number of reasons. You can look at the rating. You can look at how Washington did against a team like BYU to start out their season. You can look at Nebraska and what they are doing statistically. But, what I would like to focus on is what Nebraska is becoming on offense and comparing it to a like opponent.
Even Steve Sarkisian said it last week and that was that Nebraska was starting to look a lot like Oregon. Oregon, huh? OK, so he said starting to look like as opposed to looking like, is like or is better than. Whatever. Let's look at how Washington has fared against Oregon recently. Last year, at Seattle, Washington lost to Oregon 43-19. The year before that in Eugene, Washington lost 44-10. Before that, a loss 55-34. Before that, a loss 34-14.
You get my point.
Oregon, who Washington coaches have likened to Nebraska's offense, has had some amazing success at home and at Washington the past four years. On an average, they have come away from that game a winner by 25 points. I am not basing all of what is going to happen on Saturday to this loose comparison by the UW coach of Nebraska's offense to Oregon's, but I am giving it some thought going into the game.
So, give me Nebraska to win, but not by 25 points. I do think that the Huskers will cover though and I give Nebraska's defense and running game big advantages in the game on Saturday. The two variables that have to be dealt with are the crowd noise and weather. I will say Nebraska 31 and Washington, 17.