There will definitely be some emotion surrounding this Nebraska farewell tour as Big 12 conference play starts up. Each team is going to give Nebraska their best to knock off Nebraska one last time before they take off and head to the Big 10 next year. If this game wasn't big enough by itself already the Huskers will have to deal with that as well.
That being said, Kansas State usually plays Nebraska very tough. The Huskers were lucky to get out of last year's game in Lincoln with a win and people who didn't know who Daniel Thomas was before the game hoped that Nebraska wouldn't have to see him again. Too bad Husker fans, Thomas is the 5th leading rusher in the nation and the Huskers will have their hands full trying to stop him. Here are the things that I will be watching in the game on Thursday:
1. Slowing down Daniel Thomas - That's right, slow down Thomas and not stop. Stopping isn't possible, but Nebraska can slow down Thomas, plug gaps and get him to turn his shoulders to the line of scrimmage to get him going East-West as opposed to North-South to slow him down. Even if Nebraska succeeds at doing this they will need be sure tacklers and not let Thomas get out of initial contact for more yards.
2. Start quick on offense - Nebraska has come out and scored on each of their first possessions in the first three games, but failed to do so against South Dakota State. This Nebraska offense definitely runs better with momentum on their side. This will require Nebraska's offensive line to dominate like the offensive line did against Washington.
3. Defensive adjustments - It's going to be a little complicated for Nebraska to do with personnel, considering the injuries at the linebacker position, but the Huskers peso isn't necessarily geared towards stopping the run. Case in point, the Huskers are #10 in total defense with a #3 rating against the pass. However, the Huskers are allowing 139 yards/game on average to their opponents good for #53 in rush defense nationally. Nebraska must make some sort of adjustments because Kansas State boasts the 22nd best rushing offense nationally averaging 216 yards/game.
Three players/positions to watch:
1. Nebraska's offensive line - The performance of the Nebraska offensive line from the Washington game to the South Dakota State was a complete Jekyll and Hyde performance. The Huskers ran for 383 yards against Washington and were only able to rush for 205 yards against South Dakota State. This was due in large part to the effectiveness of the offensive line against UW to the ineffectiveness of the offensive line against SDSU. It's pretty clear that everyone is able to run on UW (#113 in FBS allowing 235 yards per game) so can Nebraska run on teams that are better at rush defense? They will if the Nebraska offensive line can dominate the point of attack. If Keith Williams, Mike Caputo and Ricky Henry can't do that then it could be a long, low-scoring game.
2. Lavonte David, Alonzo Whaley and Eric Martin - The Nebraska linebackers have been pushed all season long because they have had a monumental task of doing the calls, making the checks and taking care of the alignment of the defense. All of that and none of the three players that have played linebacker this year played meaningful minutes at linebacker last year and David is actually a mid-year transfer. The linebackers on Thursday night are going to get their biggest test of the season when it comes to filling the right gaps and being solid tacklers.
3. Taylor Martinez, Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead running the ball - While the Huskers are going to have their hands full trying to stop Daniel Thomas the Wildcats have a nearly impossible task at stopping the Huskers rushing attack. While Nebraska isn't very strong against the run, allowing 139 yards per game, Kansas State is worse (rated #102 in the nation allowing 196 yards per game). The Huskers have actually a nice complimentary set of roles in the offensive backfield between Martinez and both Helu and Burkhead that it's allowing them to limit the number of carries that they each have allowing them to stay healthier and not as banged up by having to carry the ball 20-30 times a game (Taylor leads team in rushing attempts at 53 through four games).
While the bread and butter for Kansas State is with Daniel Thomas running the football the Huskers will likely come out and pound the rock even harder against Kansas State on Thursday night with a three headed monster. While everyone is trying to figure out how Nebraska is going to stop Thomas how is Kansas State going to stop Martinez, Burkhead and Helu?
Central Florida really put together a nice blueprint on how to stop or limit Thomas and what he does when you load the box and dedicate yourself to stopping the run. The question I have is will Nebraska do the same? Because if they do, this would be a major adjustment to how Nebraska has played defense all season using the 4-2-5, selling out to stop the pass with a lot of players in the secondary and walking up a safety to basically play as the third linebacker.
And what else Nebraska needs to pay attention to is how Bill Snyder calls games. He almost has a way of lulling people to sleep with his play calling on some drives, but it all has a reason. A drive or two later, as you see one play you've seen 10 times before, he uncorks a play that no one has seen Kansas State run all season. Snyder is very good at calling something, one time, that no one had seen yet.
The difference on Thursday night will be Nebraska's multi-faced attack in comparison to one player for Kansas State. Even if one is getting 100 yards and Nebraska has one over 100 and two over 70 yards it's a huge swing in Nebraska's favor. More than that, while Kansas State does have some receivers that can make plays with the ball in their hands the Nebraska secondary is as solid of secondary I have ever seen in Lincoln. Huskers win, but it's close. I will say Nebraska 24 - Kansas State 10.