What will matter are three keys that I have thought long and hard about and probably won't come as any revelation to anyone. For Nebraska to win this ball game you will have to see a distinct advantage in rushing yards, turnovers and sacks.
First of all, rushing the football isn't something that Nebraska teams are unfamiliar with unless you look at last year's stats. For years and years, Nebraska's offense was about three yards and a cloud of dust. However, there seemed to be some problems last year in establishing the run.
There are a number of reasons that Nebraska was unsuccessful in establishing the run last year. The first is that that line simply was never healthy and may or may not have been able to handle the blocking schemes. Coach Dennis Wagner has had it as bad as any coach on this team in his players staying healthy. This year though might be the exception.
There really hasn't been a serious injury or illness to a starter, until recently with Kurt Mann, which Nebraska had to have a back up step up. The immediate concern with losing your center is about the exchange with the quarterback. This was an area where Brett Byford noticeably struggled at in the 2005 spring game, but seems to have overcome.
Beyond losing Mann though, there has been a good deal of players emerging this year. The key cog to this year's line was going to be Matt Slauson. However, Greg Austin and Mike Huff have really grown within the system and have really helped the interior of the line that drew a lot of criticism last year.
Look for the offensive line plus the four-headed monster at running back to try and establish the run tomorrow night for one very big reason. With running the football comes controlling the clock. The longer that the USC defense is on the field and the offense off increases the chances that Nebraska could be successful in getting a victory.
The success of running the ball may come with yards, but you must also hold onto the ball. That brings me to key point number two. Nebraska can not afford to turn the ball over especially in running the football. Nebraska's advantage here might be the different looks and styles of runners that USC will see as well as fresh legs.
While Marlon Lucky has emerged to be the number one running back the three others, Cody Glenn, Kenny Wilson and Brandon Jackson, have all been very key in bringing in fresh legs to run the football and bringing their strengths to the field. You also gain flexibility with a player like Lucky to have two or more running backs on the field at the same time.
While many tout USC to have an advantage in the running back area I respectfully disagree. It might not be because one of our backs is more talented or faster than any one of USC's running backs, but the position collectively has four players getting consistent reps at Nebraska. That is where the advantage comes in. More time for running backs should lead to less mistakes.
While the first two key areas for me are on the offensive side of the football the last is on the defensive side and may be the most important. Nebraska must pressure the USC quarterback. More than that, they need to hit him. The Blackshirts need to hit him hard and hit him often.
What happens when you hit a quarterback over and over again? He beings to grow uncomfortable and pretty soon he doesn't want to be hit anymore. He rushes things. He loses concentration and ultimately you are aiming for the quarterback to start making costly mistakes. Nebraska's up-front four may be one of the best in the nation and should be able to get after the quarterback.
Now, Nebraska hasn't had ideal situations to get after the quarterback so far this year, but could that be by design? There hasn't been an excessive amount of stunts, blitzes or even defensive line rotations to this point this season. Some might say that you don't need to against Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State and others will probably say it's because they don't want to show anything.
If anyone thinks for a minute that USC only got this one week for game preparation with the players and the coaches then you can just keep believing what you read. Think about the adjustment and the planning that went into scheming for Texas Tech last year as opposed to the year before. I have total faith that this game received similar interest from this staff.
I would expect an active up front four with some mixed looks. To me, I wondered what it might be like to come after USC with more of a 3-4, but the injury to Philip Dillard has me questioning who might get that look at the other linebacker position. Obviously, Steve Octavien comes to mind and you will probably need his athleticism on the field if he wants to stick to his responsibilities.
Nebraska isn't as deep as what you might like at linebacker or defensive end for that matter, but I don't think that that will keep Nebraska from trying to keep fresh legs out there on the field. Expect Ndamukong Suh to play a key role. When I reviewed the tape of Nicholls State I was totally impressed with his ability to shed the double team and his athleticism.
End in the end though, expect activity out of the ends that so far this year have been quiet. Adam Carriker and Jay Moore are often referred to as one of the best pair of defensive ends in the nation. Barry Turner and Clayton Sievers have shown that they can get after the quarterback too, being featured more on nickel situations, and could provide a spark to rushing the quarterback.
Nebraska will need to continue to pound the rock. More than that they can't make costly mistakes and turn the football over in their attempt to establish the running game. If the running game gets established and Nebraska continues to grind it out over the USC defense and not put the ball on the ground then it should lead to an advantage in time of possession.
As important though, Nebraska must pressure the USC passing game to not only get the quarterback to start making mistakes and act too quickly, but to relieve some of the pressure on the defensive secondary who will be undoubtedly guarding the best corps of receivers they will see this year. Three seconds to the USC quarterback and receivers could feel like an eternity to the Nebraska secondary.
I have made my prediction in the Big 12 picks and won't state it here for the record. That is not what this piece is about. I think that talk is cheap and I, or any writer for that matter, will have nothing to do with the outcome of the game come Saturday night.
I will say that people are blowing out of proportion the advantages that USC seems to think that they have at running back or tight end. Sure they have special players, but I think that Nebraska are close to equals when it comes to quantity. I think that USC will see a lot of quantity on Saturday night from players that have had roles in previous games so far this season.