If you want to summarize what this game comes down to in less than a paragraph, it's really not that hard. Expect a whole lot of emotion early on from the Eagles, this game carrying more hype down there than any game in recent memory. Once that's gone though, it's a real game and if NU has weathered the emotional storm, it's smashmouth offense against smashmouth defense and that's probably how it will end up. Low points, high emotion, offenses plodding along and defenses making most of the big plays.
The game won't be pretty, but for the football purist, there should be plenty to enjoy.
These are the method to the defensive madness for the Golden Eagles.
All three, pre-season favorites for a variety of post-season awards. All there, probable All-Americans and all three, absolutely, positively the people the NU O-line should have been having nightmares about already, leading up to this game.
How this team goes usually depends on just how these three do.
And, let's face it. If not for the defense of Southern Miss., the Golden Eagles would be marginal at best. Long has the tradition of success down in Hattiesburg been built on what their defense can do for the team.
If the defense doesn't have any success, you can forget about the game even being winnable for them and in that case, it could get ugly.
Against Memphis, a very prolific offense, the Southern Miss. defense proved to be finding it's rhythm, coming back off a rather drab start to the season. After getting stomped by California to begin the year, the team giving up 34 points in their debut, the defense has only gotten better, allowing just 12 points the following week to UAB and this last weekend against Memphis, holding that high-powered offense to just 1 touchdown overall.
Leading the way of course is the aforementioned trio, ranking as the top three tacklers, Davis, Boley and Pruitt, respectively. Between the trio, they have thru 3 games amassed 92 tackles, tackles for loss, 2 ½ sacks, 1 interception, 5 pass break-ups, 3 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 2 total quarterback hurries.
The tackle total between the 3 constitutes over 1/3 of the team's total tackles on the season, close to half their total tackles for losses, exactly half their sacks on the year and half their fumbles recovered as well.
Like I said, how this trio does will dictate just how that team does in the end.
Overall, the defense of the Eagles is good, but the talent within those three bodies are what would concern any team the most. Stop one if you can, contain all three if possible, but somehow, someway, they have to be accounted for or any offense is going to have a long day in the end.
That brings us to the NU offense, an offense that has been quite opposite to what was assumed they would be, before the season began. In that, I mean diversified. Because of early-season penalties in the red zone and a passing attack that is about as effective as nyquil would have on soothing the pain of a gunshot wound, Nebraska has been forced to run the ball and to an extent even Husker fans haven't seen.
Well, at least in the Penn State game.
A game that saw Nebraska run the ball close to 30 consecutive times, because as Frank Solich stated after the game, they "weren't comfortable" with the passing game.
Should the coaches feel the same way about their air-attack tonight, Nebraska could already be in a hole before it steps on the field.
While the rest of the Southern Miss. defense won't get a lot of credit, overshadowed by their stellar trio of defenders, the Golden Eagles returned more experience and starters back from last year than Penn State did for their game against NU. Yes, they aren't Boley, Davis or Pruitt, but if those three are as good as expected, it's going to free up the rest of that team to make some plays in light of possibly seeing some open gaps because double-teams are necessitated on any one or more than one of the Eagles' bread ‘n butter players.
The onus is as coach Cotton said, to have a hat for every player coming and for a team that just loves to blitz and from every imaginable direction, that's a tall task to say the least. Cotton stated that there's no telling where the blitz is coming from as they have rushed from inside, outside, from the corner and sometimes, bringing as many as five additional players storming into the backrfield. Outside of bringing in the receivers to block, there's not enough hats to go around.
So, what does that mean for Nebraska?
Simple. It means that Jammal Lord is going to have to learn real fast to recognize the blitz at the line of scrimmage, where it is coming from and being able to adjust accordingly. That means audibles, something Nebraska fans shriek at the mere mention of, Lord not notorious for his prowess at calling the correct play in that type of situation.
He'll have to become good quickly though or NU's struggling offense is going to be struggling that much more, because Southern Miss. is bringing the house, it's only a matter of which door they are coming out of in an attempt to throw the NU offense in disarray.
Other than recognizing the blitz at the line of scrimmage, a lot of blitzes will mean that Lord will have to get used to getting that ball out of his hands quickly or him having to make very fast decisions when deciding to tuck and run. The latter isn't hard for Lord as he is a very instinctive, elusive and strong runner. Making the adjustments on the fly though and finding a receiver down field that he wasn't keying on in the first place, that's always been a problem for the second-year starter.
Ironically enough, that could favor NU's QB somewhat in that it doesn't allow him to think, something even he admits isn't necessarily a good thing. Lord has stated that when a player is wide-open and he has time to think about the throw, that's when the throw is the hardest. Interesting logic, but Lord's best output has almost always been either when he is on the run or in play-action, so it's sound logic in the end.
When it's all said and done though, the most valuable player in this game could be Judd Davies, a guy who's been maligned at times for his blocking or lack thereof. He is going to be key in picking up at least a part of the inevitable blitzes, especially around the outside, if only to act as a "chip" to slow the defender down enough to let the play develop.
Nebraska should be expected to keep to some traditional sets, single i-back formation, fullback lead, two tight-end sets and because of those expected onslaughts of Southern Miss players, I wouldn't forsee NU straying away from this too much throughout the entire game, unless they have a lot of success passing the ball early on.
It will come down to assignments though, hat to hat, picking up the blitzes just enough to open up lanes to either pass or run, myself expecting a whole a lot of the latter. Because, if Lord can read the blitz correctly and has enough plays available to him as audibles, NU can be very effective in as they say, "hittin ‘em where they ain't". That's the key to it all. Reading what's going on, where the defense is looking to hit and figuring a way around it or through it, whatever it takes.
Can Lord do that? He'll have to or NU's offense isn't going to sputter, it will all but flicker into nothingness.
That leads to the defense and the "blackshirts" should have some fun down in Hattiesburg.
While Nebraska has faced Rashaun Woods, that was at the beginning of the season and the tests since then haven't been all that great, even the unorthodox offense of Utah State. Bo Pelini has shown just how he can adjust and how quickly he makes those adjustments, so outside of the actual atmosphere, this should be another day at the office for the number one defense in the country.
Calling a spade a spade, USM's offense just isn't that good, the Golden Eagles not even being able to bring their starting QB to the game, D'Angelo out with a concussion. Dustin Almond did play the entire second half against Memphis, but in that half, Almond passed for just 44 yards on 3 completions out of 14 attempts and rushing, amassed 18 yards on 3 carries. USM's scores in the second half came on a punt return, a 38 yard touchdown gallup by RB, Tim Blackwell and a field goal.
If the NU defense just plays the way it's been playing thus far this year, Southern Miss. might as well bring Boley, Davis and Pruitt on offense for all the good it will do them in the end.
As with any prediction or analysis, there are a whole lot of "IFS" to spread around. If NU can do this and can do that, they can win and do it going away. However, if USM does this or that, they have a chance to make it close and even pull out a victory against the top 15 team.
As before though, you can tear away what certain individuals can do, what they can potentially do and of course, what they are expected to do during the game.
Boley, Davis and Pruitt will be solid. There's no reason to think otherwise. They have proven to be worth every bit of the hype this year and for what is being touted as the biggest game in the history of "The Rock", expect the triumvirate to come out like crazed dogs early on.
In fact, that's the biggest danger NU is going to face in this game, the first quarter. Adrenaline is going to be at maximum levels for the Eagles in the early portion of the game. That can be both good and bad for USM. Good, because that kind of emotion and energy can lead to some big plays, bad because it can give up big plays as well.
How that first quarter goes could dictate how the rest of the game transpires, but if Nebraska has the lead after 1, it's all Nebraska after that. Nebraska has to get by that first quarter until it settles down to a real football game and run their offense and yes, they will probably end up running it a lot.
As the touted trio of Southern Miss. should be typical to what they have shown this year, there's no reason to expect Jammal Lord to be any different. He won't all of a sudden have become an effective passer and great decision-maker over the bye-week, so expect NU to sprinkle in the pass early on to see if it's going to work and if it caves in, it's going to be similar to what NU did against the Nittany Lions. Well, they will try anyway.
I like Nebraska in this game for two reasons. One, because when it comes to defenses, I think Southern Miss. might have the best concentration of talent, but the best unit overall is clearly on the side of the Big Red. Man to man, they are pretty solid, whereas USM can't say that with the utmost confidence.
The second is, in a battle of struggling offenses, because USM's defense does have holes (albeit very small ones), the big play favors NU and that's saying something, because the big play hasn't been a real dependable weapon for the Scarlet and Cream as of yet.
There won't be a lot of points unless they are coming from the defensive side of the ball and I don't forsee anyone doing anything fancy to fabricate them. No fake punts, no double-end-arounds. Just basic smashmouth football and whoever's offense gets hot or I should say in this case, the hottest between the two, that's probably the team that is going to win.
Because of talent, speed and size, front to back, up and down, NU has the edge, but more than anything, it's because the defense overall for Nebraska will trump the ability of the three musketeers for the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.
Nebraska takes this one in what should be a great defensive battle, 17-0.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619