There are going to be a lot of things to watch this weekend. These are the storylines and matchups that I have my eye on going into the game this Saturday:
1. It's #3 vs. #1; something has to give! - No, those aren't poll rankings, but they are passing offense for Oklahoma State (#3 in the nation) vs. Nebraska's passing defense (#1 in the nation). The numbers for each team in these areas are pretty sick. Oklahoma State averages 361 yards passing a game with a 69.14 passing percentage and have scored 21 touchdowns throwing. The Huskers, they only allow 117 yards passing a game, a 47.37 passing completion against them and have only allowed four touchdowns throwing.
2. How will Huskers respond? - This game would be a lot more interesting to me as far as litmus tests go because the Huskers haven't played their best ball at home for whatever reason and this game is on the road. That being said, this will be the first game following a loss for this team, a loss where Taylor Martinez was actually replaced by Zac Lee as well, and a loss where there were numerous breakdowns on both sides of the football. This game will show what type of character and resolve this team has to make sure they stay in the Big 12 title hunt.
3. Huskers continue streaks - Yes there are some streaks/ways that I will be focusing on this week. The first is the streak where Nebraska has continued to hold their opponents to less than 21 points (streak is at 14). If the Huskers can keep OSU below 21 points, and that is going to be an incredible challenge (OSU averages 49.5 points per game), then the Huskers win. The other streak/way I am going to be paying attention to is Nebraska's success on the road this season. The Huskers' best games this season have come against Washington and Kansas State and both games were on the road. Both were convincing victories in very difficult environments to play in.
1. Prince Amukamara/Alfonzo Dennard vs. Justin Blackmon - C'mon, Amukamara is widely considered to be the top cornerback in the nation and a top five player nationally. Blackmon is second in the nation in receptions with 9.5 per game and first in the nation in yards receiving per game with 159.17. The Huskers haven't allowed a player to receive 100+ yards in a single game in the past eight games and if they can keep Blackmon to less than 100 this weekend they stand a very good chance of winning. Even if Blackmon does go above 100 the key in my opinion will be the yards per catch number (which Blackmon currently averages 16.75).
2. Taylor Martinez, Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead against Oklahoma State's rush defense - Nebraska never got the running game going against Texas and while Texas' defensive team speed is probably the best that Nebraska will see this season (on the regular schedule) it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Oklahoma State will be the second best. The Huskers got pushed around up front along the offensive line and couldn't keep Texas out of the offensive backfield. The Huskers will have to find a way to move the football on the ground to eat up yards, score points and just about as importantly burn up clock. The other part that is important about these three will come to turnovers. Nebraska can't afford any this weekend. Oklahoma State is 37th nationally in rush defense allowing 124.5 yards per game while Nebraska is still fourth nationally and averaging over 300 yards per game.
3. Pressure by the Nebraska defense - I am sorry, but did anyone see any real pressure on Garrett Gilbert this past weekend against Texas? The Huskers didn't have any sacks. There were a couple of really nice hits on Gilbert, but nothing like Nebraska's D against Texas and Colt McCoy last year in the Big 12 Championship. It's about time to start cutting some people loose or start some rotations along the front four to see who can get pressure. This is really a challenge more to three of the four than it is to all four, I have been pretty impressed by Cameron Meredith this season, but I think that all of the other spots should be up for grabs. It's time to start being honest about the DLine and that is that it's been a bit of a disappointment when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback in an otherwise very talented defense. The Huskers currently have 11 sacks on the year which is on a pace to hit 22. Last year the Huskers had 44 sacks. That's something to chew on.
I know that a lot of people are a little on edge about this game. I know that some of those people have become questioners as opposed to believers before last week. There isn't one single way to explain what happened last week on the field against Texas. It was a whole lot of bad things happening at one time that in the end the damage was too great to recover from. Sure, on paper it doesn't look that bad as a loss at 13-20, but I was in the stands and know what I saw.
I probably should have included something in the matchups about how important it is this week that Nebraska catches the footballs that are thrown to their receivers (around eight passes dropped last week with three or four of them being potential touchdowns). This is a game where at least an effective passing game is going to be needed to open up things in the running game. Oklahoma State is 114th in pass defense and allows 280 yards passing a game. Nebraska isn't a passing juggernaut, but they just need to be effective.
I think that Nebraska's offense can get on track. I have seen as close to greatness, when it comes to this offense, this year. There were parts of the Washington game that really made you think back to early and mid-90s teams in Lincoln with one-two punches at running back with Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green and a decent quarterback in Tommie Frazier under center.
The question is going to actually rest on the defensive side of the ball for Nebraska this week and because of that, because there are a lot fewer questions about this team on defense than there are on offense, the Huskers win. It won't be easy though. In fact, I don't think that it will even be pretty. Give me the Huskers 38, Okie State 24.