The keys to the biggest game thus far

To say this is a big game for both Texas Tech and Nebraska, that's belaboring the obvious. For Tech, it's their continuing struggle for respect and for Nebraska, it's to get some back that has been lost over the last few years. And it's a conference game, which means every win is a must.

Texas Tech has a great offense.

Mike Leach's offense is one of the
most prolific in the country.
Yep, that's true and the statistics are gaudy beyond reason. They pass for a million yards, are capable of putting up a gagillion points and you know that no matter how good of a team they are facing, that defensive coordinator is having a few sleepless nights.

So, if they are so potent, where are the national titles or even conference titles? Is this really a gimmick offense that is relegated to an "also ran", because there are teams out there that have the man power and the speed to match up?

I think that last part is key, but that's really for any offense or defense in the country. As Nebraska has proved itself over about three decades, the offense can be unique, but if your players are the best, any offense will work.

Tech has been steadily bettering their recruiting efforts, finally seeing that getting good defensive players was the only way that they were going to get over that hump. And while they lost a key player in Adell Duckett to graduation, the Tech defensive is on the whole, very improved.

It was just a few years ago when Tech could throw for a thousand, score a ton, but still lost game after game. Their defense, considered almost laughable, couldn't stop anyone at any point of the game. So, while their offense was good, Tech wasn't even close to the complete package.

They are steadily getting closer to being just that.

Nebraska has a great defense.

Yep and like Tech's offense, Nebraska's got some gaudy statistics to bear that argument out, leading the country in sacks, tackles for losses and ranking second in keeping teams from scoring.

It's their offense that has been maligned and up to the Iowa State game there was plenty of reasons.
Adam Carriker leads the best sack
masters in the country


In this West Coast offense, the pass is king and the run compliments what you can do in the air. It's more balanced than that of Texas Tech, but conceptually, both rely on the passing game to put points in the board.

The Iowa State game proved that at least for one contest, junior college transfer QB Zac Taylor could indeed get the job done with the short timing routes that this offense relies on to move the ball down the field. He did it to the tune of an all-time single game record, chucking the ball for 431 yards.

Nebraska all but abandoned the running game to do that, a running game that up to this contest was their only working weapon on that side of the ball. Can do they it for a second time in a row?

When you look at both from the outside, it's pretty obvious where the crucial match ups are going to be. But, as with any game, there are match ups within the match ups:

NU D-line vs. TT O-line: The "splits" the Texas Tech offensive line utilizes are almost infamous now, linemen spaced apart from each other as much as three to four feet. That design is so that just by the formation, you are spreading out the line of the defense. That means farther to go to get to the quarterback, thus the more time he usually has to throw.

You are asking yourself, though, with splits like that, someone should be able to exploit the middle.

That's true, but the Tech offensive linemen are very well coached and they are very quick at collapsing inside if they see a blitz coming or one of the interior guys is trying to shoot the gap. The only way to counter that is to be quicker off the ball than they are.

There is one bad side to these split and it deals with a running game, something Tech has when properly utilized. Don't think that Tech is the kind of time that can just line up and smash it down your throat. That's not what they are trained for, built for and with those splits, can effectively do snap after snap.

The run works, because nobody is looking for the run as Tech passes ad nauseam. So, when running back Taurean Henderson gets his carries, he's not looking for lanes to run through from blocking, rather lanes that open up, because defenders are coming from different angles to get to the QB.

In order for the Nebraska D-line to get that pass rush they are absolutely going to need, they are going to have to do a few things:

First, one of the interior linemen, whether it's Le Kevin Smith or Titus Adams or even the back ups in Ola Dagunduro and Barry Cryer, at least one of them has to be a big enough force in the middle that Tech is going to have to double team them. If Tech can win the interior battle in one-on-one situations, that's bad news for NU.

If they can effectively draw the double team, that means just by habit, one of the interior guys, logically the guard, will have to instantly collapse down to help out the center in defending either the starters or the back ups.

With the already gigantic splits, that could open up an even bigger gap between the guard and the tackle and if the tackle closes inside to narrow the gap, that means there's going to be room on the outside for one of the rush ends or a blitz from either the linebacker or safety spot.

Solving these splits and forcing double teams is the key for his group to be effective, both on the inside and on the outside. If Nebraska has to rely entirely on the blitz to get pressure, that will open up receivers to go crazy in the middle of the field.

Jarrett Hicks had a field day
against Husker defenders
last year.
NU secondary vs TT receivers:


The Husker had all kinds of problems last year, because they tried to play man coverage against the Red Raiders. They got burned, over and over again. They won't make the same mistake twice as defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove's group will give them the catchers, but try to limit the yards.

It's an effective strategy against this group as you want to create as tight a box as you can of the open opportunities the receivers have and if they do get the ball, tackle effectively and quickly.

There's going to be a lot of nickel and dime packages in this game, so with names you come to expect like Grixby, Green and Bowman, you can add other names to the mix like Tiedtke, Shanle, LeFlore and anyone else who Cosgrove thinks has the speed to keep up with Tech's vast group of quality receivers.

The key to zone coverage is keeping everything underneath, not allowing any big plays over the top. That's not going to stop Texas Tech as they can get enough yards on nickel and dime passes to move the ball down the field, but if they can do that, what Nebraska can do at the line and with their linebackers could make for a very effective defense overall.

The Linebacker:

If it's dime, you have one linebacker on the field, middle linebacker Corey McKeon. In zone coverage, he's obviously covering the short middle portion of the field. But, depending on what his line is doing, that will dictate how he is used, because thus far, McKeon is Nebraska's best QB blitzer from the linebacker spot.

You should expect him to be utilized like that against Tech as he's got the speed, physicality to split gaps and he's as tenacious as Nebraska has anywhere on the defensive side of the ball.

The Intangibles:

From the get-go, Nebraska has to put pressure on the Cody Hodges. The only way to stop this offense other than keeping it off the field, is to make sure that Hodges never feels like he's in a comfort zone.
Nebraska needs to keep
Cody Hodges in check
If he gets that, you can write this game off even before it begins.

They need to get in his head and make sure that he feels the pressure coming, even if it's not coming on every single play. They just need to be enough of a presence in the backfield that he thinks it will be.

Turnovers have to be forced on defense, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Kansas was able to do it against Tech, but still lost the game. Nebraska has to do that, try and confuse Hodges at the line and if they are lucky, they can create enough confusion that at points of the game, the hand-signal system they are using will have to be traded in for audible adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

That brings up maybe one of the most important factors and that's the crowd. Yes, Tech will be using hand signals almost predominately throughout the game, but there's only so much you can relay to your players through that method. There will be times when Hodges will have to audible and if the crowd is anything like it was against Iowa State, that's going to be near impossible.

I have no doubt that the crowd did play a part in the Iowa State victory, but they can play even a bigger part on Saturday. If they are in it and stay in it throughout the game, that will make things that much more difficult for the Tech offense.

NU offense vs TT defense:

Tech is underrated for obvious reasons. Their offense and the fact that it gets all the publicity is the main one. The fact that they are still as of yet not a dominating defense is another.

Don't kid yourself, though, into thinking this is the Tech defense of old, because the statistics will assure you that they are not. In total defense they are 18th. In pass defense they are 10th. And in scoring defense, they are 9th in the country. The only statistic that gives the Huskers some breathing room is the fact that they are 33rd against the run.

Now, take into account the competition they have faced and you'd say that those statistic mean nothing. But, I'd say that overall, the speed of Tech's defense is better and their play is certainly better as a few years ago, sometimes you wondered why they took the field at all.

Nebraska has its own issues on offense, sporting an offensive line that while seemingly better at pass blocking, hasn't proven it can run block consistently and Taylor still manages to take crushing hits game after game.

Plus, the receivers and tight ends haven't been blocking as well as they should have, limiting what the running game can do down the field.

Tech is 12th in the country in turnover margin, so the defense will have its chances. The offense just has to make sure that it takes care of the ball.

NU O-line vs TT D-line:

Tech isn't real big at the line, nor have they proven themselves to be a force thus far this year. With the fact that this is not your typical Nebraska offensive line, this could be a bit of a stalemate. That's obviously not good for Nebraska as they have to establish the run early, because thanks to the Iowa State game, there will be even more emphasis from defenses on getting to Taylor and quickly.

The one thing that we didn't see from the offensive line against Iowa State or any other team for that matter is finishing off blocks with a purpose. There are not many times where you can that there were defensive lineman all over the field, lying on their back. They have to initiate that from the outset of this game, forcing Tech to try and see what they can get on the outside. If they can do that, they will potentially open up the running game in the middle, plus they will also create more throwing lanes for Taylor.

Ross will have to rely on passing game
to have success on Saturday.
What this unit CAN'T do is let this defensive line dictate anything at the beginning of the game. Even at home, this contest absolutely requires that Nebraska get momentum on offense early and keep it going. Three and outs aren't any good for anyone, because it means they haven't put points on the board and it also means the Tech offense is coming back on the field.

It also wouldn't hurt if this line could figure out how to run block five yards from the goal line.

The Backs:

We have been saying this for most of the year with only marginal success in seeing it realized, but for a big back type like Cody Glenn, this could be the perfect kind of game for him. He's a short yardage specialist, has worked out of the fullback role and has good enough feet for a north/south runner like he is. Plus, he offers a very nice contrast to Cory Ross's style, which is very much slash and dash.

Nebraska has potentially a lot of diversity in the backfield with Glenn and superstar recruit Marlon Lucky. It's untested diversity, though. Can you take a chance on putting players that green in a game of this magnitude?

You'd think what happened to quarterback Beau Davis against Tech last year would have taught them how successful that philosophy is.

The Receivers:

If 10 different Huskers catch balls on Saturday, it's all good for Nebraska. That means that Taylor is in the groove and is seeing the field very well. It also means that there are probably not a lot of balls being dropped, something Nebraska has had issues with this season.

What these receivers need to do more than anything, though, is run their routes and all the way to the end. Even if it's a running play and they are just supposed to block, they need to do that and make sure they finish the play off right.

It's not certain how much Tech will try jamming the wideouts at the line, but if they do, obviously getting off those jams quickly is key.

Nebraska will face a different defense, though, and it's not different in the team, but different in the mind-set they have towards what Nebraska is going to do. Prior to the Iowa State game, I'm not sure you could have said that, but based on the success Zac Taylor had throwing the football, the receivers are going to see a lot of things on defense they might not have otherwise seen.

The jams at the line are one thing, but linebackers cheating a little more to cover certain guys is another. Also, deep threats like Hardy will probably be played really soft at the line and there's going to be plenty of help over the top to make sure he doesn't get deep.

The middle of the field is going to be a madhouse as you can expect that is where Tech thinks Nebraska is going to do a lot of their damage. The middle of the field was almost totally vacant with Iowa State and Taylor was hitting those spots all game long.

Tech won't make the same mistake, so they will be playing a little softer out of the box, so if there are a lot of crossing routes, which there probably will be, the Red Raiders will at least have players in position.

Remember, Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney said after the game that everything they practiced in preparing for Nebraska was everything they DIDN'T do. Tech won't make the same mistake.

The intangibles:

It's only one game, but in that game Zac Taylor showed that once he gets into a groove, he's going to complete his share of passes. The offensive line needs to let him find that groove early in the game. Taylor's confidence and performance are absolutely vital, because as he goes, this offense goes.

Cory Ross is a great back and a nice compliment to this offense, but against an offense like Tech's, you need to have an attack that can score and quickly at times.

Ross's success will come from Taylor's, so if Zac gets confidence early from hitting some passes and finishing a play on his feet, that bodes very well for the Huskers.

Turnovers are always key, but when you look at last year's contest against Tech, you can see how bad turnovers can kill you, especially if you give them a short field. Ball security is a must.

Time is of the essence and the longer the offense can hold onto the ball, that means that much less time Tech will have it for their offense. Nebraska did a pretty good job at starting off the game against Iowa State with a good drive, even though didn't finish it off as well as they might have liked. But, the more time they have it means the less time Tech has it and that is good for everyone in scarlet and cream.

Touchdowns over field goals is another must. Let's forget the fact that the field goals aren't a given right now, but to drive the ball 80 yards in 14 plays, while taking valuable minutes off the clock, and then getting only a field goal, that simply won't due.

Especially not against a team that is absolutely deadly in finishing drives off like Tech.

The play calling has been very interesting in the red zone this year, head coach Bill Callahan showing virtually no confidence in his team's ability to run out those tough yards close to the goal line. Someone needs to figure that out, because against good offenses, you have to capitalize on opportunities and field goals won't cut it on Saturday.

Special Teams

You can't underestimate the value of special teams that work versus those that don't. Last year's punt return game was abysmal. This year's is not. Last year's field goal kicking was suspect. This years is
Zac Taylor will have to have similar
success to what he had against Iowa
State for Nebraska to keep pace with
Tech.
still that to a degree.

Punter Sam Koch is a lock for dependability as I believe him to be one of the best punters in the nation. He's another in a long line of good punters at Nebraska, Koch showing that innate ability to get the ball deep when he has to, hang it up when he has to and pin teams within their own 20.

The kickoff coverage team is also good when walk-on Jake Wesch remembers to keep the ball in bounds. The wind shouldn't be much of an issue on Saturday, so Wesch should be good at getting the ball deep, if not nailing it consistently through the end zone.

In kickoff returns, much like punt returns, Nebraska has some solid choices in that area and Tech isn't stellar as they rank 33rd in covering kicks, but 82nd in covering punts.

This is an area where Nebraska could make a heck of a difference.

The intangibles

While the field goal block is valuable and can't be overestimated in its importance, it's not something you can plan on game to game. But, because Nebraska has had success in that area, that will have an effect on just what Tech might decide to do in fourth down situations, depending on where the ball resides.

Momentum is key on special teams as far as I am concerned, because if you can create short fields for yourself and long fields for the other team's offense, not just literally, but mentally, that's an edge. It's not just the difference in distance to drive, but starting in a hole changes the way even a Mike Leach is going to call plays.

You don't call the same plays on your own one yard line that you do on your own 40.

Ball security is also a must here as if you fumble in the return game, that means you are giving the other team the ball and almost always, in your own territory. Nebraska needs to avoid that to say the least. With the effectiveness Terrence Nunn has had, ranking as the second most prolific punt return man in division 1-A, if NU holds onto the ball, they can do a lot of damage in this vital part of the game.

Overall

Keep the ball, run the clock, finish with touchdowns not field goals. On defense, make sure Cody Hodges knows what the nose hairs look like of every rush end Nebraska has. And for the love of all that is good, tackle, tackle, tackle.

The fans could be the not-so-silent
weapon against Texas Tech on
Saturday.
The one thing you can't do is stop Tech from getting their yards. They will get them. It's almost impossible to stop. You can, however, limit their points. Keep them between the 20s, don't let anything go deep and keep the pressure consistent in the backfield.

Lastly, use what you have and in Lincoln, it's the crowd, it's the momentum if they want to take it and it's the confidence they should have right now in knowing that on both sides of the ball, they can do a lot of things.

It's one thing knowing that in one game and another to translate it to the next game against the best team you have faced this year.

There's a lot of tangible stuff riding on this game, but for both teams, it's about tests and passing them to prove you belong. For Tech, it's their first road game, definitely in a hostile environment and coming off a game against Kansas, that while a win, wasn't typical to their dominating style offensively.

For Nebraska, it's about respect, but it's also about continuing the run of success this year as they try to a little redemption and this game will go a long ways in doing that, plus it will get the Huskers REALLY noticed again.

Not many expect Nebraska to win this one. Heck, some don't expect it to be close. So, for those reasons and so many more, Nebraska has their own destiny in their hands. Now, what they do with that destiny is a matter of curiosity, but they haven't done too bad thus far.

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