Bo Pelini was very good about dancing around questions when it came to playing non-DI opponents, but he's right. There isn't a lot that you can achieve. If you go out and win by 60 you are just drumming the little guy. Go out and win by just a few and that raises some doubt about your team. And of course there is the other alternative of losing to them and you can kiss National Championship dreams good-bye.
So the Huskers can't go from an emotional high to barely up for the Jackrabbits when they take the field Saturday night. And in the game on Saturday here are the three storylines that I will be paying close attention to:
1. A lot more to lose than to achieve for Nebraska. I have already hit on it and so have the media that come to talk to the Nebraska coaches on Tuesday when it comes to the risk of playing a D-IAA team. There is limited upside. Winning big is going to get the "yeah, but it was South Dakota State" right behind it unless it's less that 24 or 28 points. Losing however is a scenario that is basically unfathomable after the impressive win against the Huskies. Still, what Nebraska needs to do by come out and get enough points to win early enough to get rest for the starters and reps for the other guys comes with risk. There's risk of injury of course that you don't want to take with the starters and there's also the risk of pulling the starters too early and a couple of quick scores the other way requires you to put the starters back in. Huskers need to show little to no drop off from 1s to any other team when the substitutions start to take place.
2. Penalties and turnovers. It's really a pretty simple premise that Nebraska needs to go out, execute and not become their own worse enemy. How Nebraska becomes their own worse enemy is go out, get costly penalties and turnovers that set up South Dakota State to get points. The Jackrabbits are not strong offensively in either running the ball or passing the football and they struggle mightily to stop the run (they allow 222 yards per game). The Huskers just need to go out and play their game.
3. No need to risk injuries, get others reps. Finally you might see some guys that burned redshirts like Andrew Rodriguez and Quincy Enunwa get some real good time out there on offense and you'd like to see Ciante Evans get plenty of time at cornerback as well. I also wouldn't mind seeing players like Matthew May, Thomas Grove and Alonzo Whaley in there at linebacker as much as you can because Lavonte David and Eric Martin are still getting comfortable as well, but you have to get some reps to other guys. There are also some guys that to this point you thought would have had a bigger impact like Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed at tight end that you would like to see Nebraska get involved.
The players/positions to watch:
1. Ricky Henry, Mike Caputo and Keith Williams - I want to see how this trio follows up a dominating performance against Washington on Saturday against South Dakota State. Nebraska is going to want to run the football a lot on Saturday and I could see a lot of that happening between the tackles. The execution of the run is still something that Nebraska needs to find that way to just go into any game and do it. That comes with reps. That comes with building confidence in the plays that are being called and playing along side the other players on the field. This offense is still gelling to some extent and that is a little bit scary that they have not yet reached their potential, but are still very explosive.
2. Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler - If you had to ask me where the biggest letdown might be on defense this year I would have to say that the interior defensive line positions. It's pretty clear how valuable Ndamukong Suh was not only to his team, but also to the players around him that enjoyed success when teams decided to double team him all day. Crick is third in tackles with 16 and Baker is first in sacks with 3.5, but it's definitely not the kind of defensive line presence that Nebraska enjoyed last year that got a push inside out and make pocket passers bounce around all day and never feel truly comfortable in the pocket.
3. Second string secondary - I think that Nebraska faces a bigger challenge next year than trying to find some way to replace the production that Suh took with him to the NFL in the 2011 secondary. The Huskers will have to replace a lot of faces back there and the Huskers have to keep developing the players that they have in Evans, Antonio Bell, Courtney Osborne and P.J. Smith. I hope that there is a chance to get these players the majority of the time in the second half on Saturday so that they can not just get ready for 2011, but for any time they could be called on to give this season in a pinch or injury situation.
The matchups for the Jackrabbits against the Huskers are not good ones. Nebraska has a lot of success running the football and the Jackrabbits can't stop the run at all. The Huskers are also a very solid team on defense when it comes to the run, but especially the pass, and the Jackrabbits are only averaging 77 yards per game rushing (101st out of 117 D-1AA) and have only thrown for one touchdown while throwing for five interceptions.
The Jackrabbits are going to need some help from the Huskers to really stay in this football game at all. They are going to need Nebraska to get those turnovers when on scoring plays and in the red zone to stall drives. They are going to need Nebraska to turn the football over, just like the Iowa State game last year, and then make it hurt.
But that can't happen enough for the Jackrabbits to come close to winning this ball game. Nebraska is going to score, a lot, and South Dakota State is not. Be sure and print out your roster to figure out who is in the game for Nebraska at any given time. I would expect to see a lot of time given to players that haven't had a lot of opportunities this year. Huskers win big, 48-3.