Outside of the kool-aid drinking masses, there seems to be little hope for the Huskers as they get ready to host the No. 1 USC Trojans. From coaching to talent, speed to depth, the game seems so lopsided that it seems to be all over but the crying…even now. But there are ways Nebraska can win. Let's look at a few.
When you are matched up against a team which you know to be more talented, faster and deeper than yourselves, the idea isn't to think about how you match up in the grand scheme of things. It's to think about how you match up at each position. You look for any little ray of hope and try to key off those and see if you have enough to make a realistic game plan. Here are a few rays of hope Nebraska has going into USC.
It wasn't that long ago that the Nebraska offensive line was better at getting the quarterback killed than keeping him upright. During former Husker QB Zac Taylor's first season, he took it on the chin 38 times for the season. That amounts to be about one sack for every 12 drop backs in a game.
This year Nebraska has 67 drop backs and has yet to give up a sack.
With good pass protection that obviously bodes well for Nebraska , as senior QB Sam Keller can go through the progression which is absolutely vital to the success of this team. Keller has been hurried a few times, but from where Nebraska was just a few years ago, the protection has been stellar.
Within that pass protection one can't forget that it doesn't fall solely on the shoulders of the big uglies up front. The running backs and at times, the fullbacks, play a key role in pass protection with a heavy emphasis on blitz pick up.
You can bet that USC will be treating Keller as they might a freshman QB. After all, this is Keller's first year in this system, and as he proved against Wake, he doesn't have such an innate understanding of this offense that running it is almost instinctive.
While there is no definitive answer as to whether or not the pass is meant to set up the run in the west coast offense, it's obviously vital that one aspect of Nebraska's offensive game get going and right away. Considering just the sheer talent and depth of the USC defensive line and the expected blitzes coming from the outside, the passing game might be the only way to get USC out of a run-stopping frame of mind.
If the passing game works, that could set everything else up, so even if Nebraska can't score on every drive, they can put enough plays together to make an impact nonetheless.
It's impossible to say that this facet of the defensive game plan has been all that effective through the first two games of the season. In two contests the team has exactly two sacks. But what we have seen from Nebraska defensively, is about as vanilla as you can get. Combine that with the fact that the teams they faced weren't in pass-happy moods, that equates to the numbers being markedly down.
The linebacking corps is still completely intact, something they couldn't say at this point of the year either of the last two seasons. They have a potentially solid edge rush from a LB at the down position, and they can work the middle of the line as well. The defensive line has to do their job, but you can bet that there will be at least some doubling down in the interior on Ndamukong Suh, though no team has really done that yet to any real degree.
If Nebraska can manage to get that double team, though, that is going to give Nebraska a lot more likelihood in seeing one-on-one match ups at the tackle spots. For someone like senior linebacker Steve Octavien, whose specialty is now coming off that edge in a blitz, this could be a solid situation for them.
The thing about the blitz, though, is that you the Defensive Coordinator\ want to dictate when the blitz gets used rather than having to use it out of necessity, because the front four has been basically neutralized. That's where the effectiveness or lack of it, comes from. Octavien is a hell of a weapon coming off the edge, but if everyone knows he's coming, it's not going to do a lot of good.
Yep, believe it or not, a group which was pretty suspect last year in most categories, could actually be a strength of the team this year.
Last year Nebraska averaged under 40 yards per punt. This year they are averaging almost 45.
Last year the team averaged 17.4 yards per kickoff return. This year it's a full seven yards farther.
While the return defense for both kickoff and punt returns hasn't improved, what has is the amount of touchbacks Nebraska has. Last year the team had 12 touchbacks on 77 kickoffs for the entire season.
This year the Huskers have seven touchbacks in two games.
Last year Nebraska only attempted two field goals from 40 yards or more, former Husker Jordan Congdon making one from exactly 40 yards out. True freshman Adi Kunalic is one-for-one, that one a boomer from 46.
Field position is sometimes half the battle and coaches will tell you that the percentages of scoring go up considerably when you don't have to start on your own 20-yard line or worse. And Nebraska doesn't necessarily have to get to the 30-yard line or better in order to think they have a shot to put some points on the board.
If Kunalic can repeat his game-one performance in regard to just the percentage of kicks he put into the end zone, and punter Dan Titchener can keep up his steady play, that at least gives Nebraska a fighting chance, rather than doing what it did last year, which was many times putting them in the hole. Of course, if Titchener is getting a lot more work than Kunalic against USC, there are only so many bright sides you can draw from that.
Each of these three points probably won't be enough to beat a team like USC. Heck, even two out of three might not get you even close. But if Nebraska can continue to do well what has up to this point worked fairly good to excellent, that puts them in position to make plays.
In a game like this, you often have to think about what coaches and players harp on constantly, but we mostly refuse to acknowledge. It's the little things which could give Nebraska a chance to win. Even against a team with big stars, lots of depth, tons of speed and just the confidence you have as a team from being one of THE teams to beat, the little things can make a big difference.
But that all could be helped by perhaps the biggest ray of light Nebraska has this weekend:
You can bet anything you want that Bill Callahan didn't bring up USC's propensity to audible and do checks at the line just because, when a reporter asked him during this week's press conference about the importance of the crowd. He brought it up, because he knows that his biggest weapon might not even be on the field. Every single team has a game plan in place for road games, so that they can avoid confusion when the noise does get a little much. But there's only so much you can do.
I remember over the last couple of years a few games which I heard from the
sidelines, and that was honestly the only thing I could hear. I couldn't hear
the reporter standing right next to me as he was yelling so he could be heard,
but he might as well have been sending smoke signals.
I don't care who you are, how disciplined you may be or how great your game plan is to avoid just such a thing. Noise is what it is, as they say, and enough of it, especially at key times like third down, fourth down or in the red zone, it is going to be disruptive to an extent.
USC will do whatever they can to try and take the crowd out of the game, because everyone knows how big of a weapon it can be. That may not be the most comforting thing in the world when you are looking at what to bank on in trying to give your team a chance, but sometimes you take what you can get.
I'd say beggars can't be choosers, but ranking 14th in the country, Nebraska hardly qualifies as an impoverished transient just looking for a break. What they are looking for, though, is hope. That special something which could give them a shot to take down the reigning dynasty of Division 1. It's that something that makes something unlikely into something that you can actually comprehend. You'd rather have to rely on simple game management, execution and players making plays at key times. But that's when you are facing another team. USC isn't another team and there's no shame in realizing you might need a little luck fall your way.
Consider luck maybe the last factor, but one that is hardly tangible or something you can try and create for your team. But a little of it wouldn't hurt. A lot of it would be great. If Nebraska gets all of that, they could pull this thing off.