McClinton will be priority for the Huskers

At 6-1 and 285 pounds, senior defensive lineman James McClinton doesn't scream prototypical interior linemen for today's Division 1 game. But as Nebraska found out last year, along with teams realizing with frustration this year, this is one guy you have to stop. And Nebraska needs to do that, or what could be a long day already against KU, could get a whole lot longer in Lawrence.

I remember driving down to Columbia for the Missouri game. There's little landscape along the way and the radio stations aren't much better. But on Saturdays, you can at least check out one of the local sports stations covering Kansas , Kansas State or the Tigers. 

And it just so happened that Kansas was playing Kansas State that day. What was interesting about this drive was that as one radio station faded out and another came in, I went from the station which broadcasts all the Kansas State games, to coincidentally enough, the station which broadcasts all the football games for the Jayhawks.

But when you expect to hear names like Reesing and Freeman called out endlessly, it was oddly enough a different name I heard seemingly just as much: 

James McClinton 

McClinton has made life hard for anyone
trying to get yards up the middle.
(Leon Patton pictured/ AP)
On the Kansas State frequency, announcers were speaking in frustrated tones about how the Wildcat's persistence in trying to establish the inside run, was coming to a grinding halt, thanks in particular to one guy. 

On the Kansas side of the dial, it was obviously elation replacing frustration, the announcers talking about how this somewhat undersized player was making All-American-sized plays. 

McClinton ended the game against Kansas State third on the team in tackles with six, two of them for loss. 

I have to tell you, it seemed like they were calling his name every single defensive snap of the game.

Flashback to when Kansas came to Lincoln , the senior DT was no less visible, this time leading the team, notching seven tackles against the Huskers, two of those for loss, one of those being a sack. His efforts were stellar, but it couldn't help the team win in a squeaker, Nebraska topping KU, 39-32.

Now the Huskers head to Lawrence, a place just a couple of years ago which gave Nebraska a defeat which at the time was considered even more embarrassing for the team than the record-setting 70-10 loss to Texas Tech in 2004.

The 40-15 lambasting had Husker fans screaming, coaches reeling and players trying to figure out what was wrong. 

This time around the Huskers aren't favored. Point of fact, they are 19-point underdogs, the largest such margin favoring the Jayhawks, we believe, in the lengthy history of this series. This particular year, it is Kansas who is the team to beat, sporting an undefeated record and a ranking in the BCS Top 10. And, oh yeah, Nebraska is going in with a brand new starting QB. 

Not good news against statistically, one of the top defenses in the country. It gets even worse when the mobility of junior Joe Ganz, considered a potential weapon for this offense, doesn't seem all that potent when you are considering who they are about to face. 

Remember Texas A&M? Remember the 359 yards rushing the Aggies put on the much-maligned "blackshirt" defense? Starting quarterback Stephen McGee, sporting similar mobility to Ganz, had a career-day against the Huskers, running the ball a whopping 35 times for 167 yards. And Jorvorskie Lane , the mammoth running back, considered a short-yardage specialist, notched a career-best in terms of yards on a single rush…three separate times. 

Those two teamed up for 297 of those 359 yards. 

Against Kansas , the dynamic duo "amassed" 46. 

The thing is, Kansas didn't even have to worry about the two that much as unlike the Nebraska game, where the two teamed up to carry the ball an unbelievable 50 times, they only carried it 17 times against the Jayhawks' formidable "D."

And you can thank McClinton, amongst others, for being one of the biggest reasons. 

It's not like the senior interior lineman has big numbers, because nowadays, he really doesn't. But it isn't because teams have figured him out. They have figured him out all right. They figured out that the best way to avoid him is to avoid him, and at all costs. 

It was something Head Coach Bill Callahan recalled of the Jayhawkss last visit to Lincoln . "Even last year when we played them here, he gave us fits," he said of McClinton. "A lot of times you don't get to see that interior line play (on film), because there's so many things going on in a fast period of time. But when you slow the film down and watch this guy, he's making a lot of plays, a lot of plays." 

On the year McClinton ranks second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. Included in that total are 2.5 sacks. The senior DT also has an interception, but other than the finishes on the quarterbacks in the backfields, it's the five hurries that sticks out to you as well. 

He's disruptive…very disruptive. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the linebacking corps and secondary are very much defensive-minded players, meaning that they are in a read-and-react situation. Outside of blitzing, they are responding to what they see the offense doing.

The defensive line is different, because in ideal circumstances, what they are trying to do is force the action at the line. Whether it's plugging up the inside to stop the run, or trying to get up-field to the QB, or simply trying to create containment to keep a quarterback from hurting you outside the tackles, the defensive line is trying to control the tempo of the game. 

When you are successful at doing that, and out of your base defense, the amount of impact t you have on how an offense normally operates, can be considerable. 

Ganz will finally trade his clipboard in,
along with his usual spot beside Bill
Callahan, and take his shot on the field.

McClinton's role, one which he has executed very well over the last two years, is to do just that. He makes offenses change the way they want to establish the run. But at the same time, he has the quickness and strength to get up-field, and in a hurry. Again, for his size, some might not expect that much, but this is one young man who delivers. 

"The thing that jumps out at you when you watch him, he's cat-quick and he'll just jump out of his stance, almost looks like he's being exploded out of a cannon," Callahan said. "He just has that explosiveness that gets on your guard or center like that. It's rare and he can penetrate (and) disrupt." 

That would be bad enough if Nebraska had all the pieces in place on the offensive side. The offensive line performed arguably the best it has all year, even in the losing effort against Texas . For three quarters Nebraska led, one time as much as two touchdowns. But it was what happened during that game which threw a huge monkey wrench into the works, creating a whole lot of questions about the potency of the offense this week: 

Sam Keller done for the year, going down with a broken collarbone. 

The Arizona State transfer was obviously not looked at as the savior of the program, but with his big-game experience, big arm and big body, he was going to give Nebraska that weapon which would truly work well within this type of offensive scheme. 

At times Keller was able to do just that, showing his moxie in the two-minute offense against Wake Forest , along with winning a shootout against Ball State . Like the line, Keller had one of his better games against Texas , but now all that is out of the window, the Huskers now being led by a quarterback who has no starts to his name and less than 20 total attempts for his career. 

Here comes the irony: 

Ganz' mobility is considered an obvious strength of his, the junior QB being easily the fastest signal-caller Nebraska has and believe it or not, we've seen him even run the option in an actual game. If the pocket breaks down, this is just the kind of quarterback you like to have, because he can make play-saving moves to get him out of trouble and keep an opportunity alive. 

Heck, he might even tuck and go, if so inclined. 

The ironic part comes from the fact that this mobile QB will be facing a defense which just faced another equally mobile QB in McGree, and shut him almost completely down. 

And not to add salt to an open wound here, but Texas A&M has a solid two-headed monster in the backfield in Lane comprising the "thunder" and Michael Goodson the "lightning." You throw in McGee's prowess at carrying the football, it's not hard to see why going into the game with the Jayhawks, they were averaging over 260 yards on the ground per game, good enough to earn a top-five ranking in the country in that category. 

Kansas knocked them out of the top 10 

A team which ran with almost impunity on Nebraska, and averaged over five yards per rush, didn't even get to 80 yards against KU and the average rush, just 2.7 yards per. 

If Nebraska is going to have any success in the passing game, especially with a new starter at the helm, the ground game has to be established from the start. And some of that HAS to go right up the middle. The Huskers managed to do that down in Austin , and against some quality interior players like Frank Okam and Roy Miller

KU fans didn't have a lot to celebrate last
year in Lincoln, but they are favored to
pound the Huskers in Lawrence, Saturday
If they can't do that, Kansas puts Nebraska into a perimeter run game, which simply won't work if everyone knows that's what you are going to do. And worse, it makes your offense one-dimensional. 

Against the likes of Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel, Brock Huard and a number of touted collegiate quarterbacks, I've seen the lack of a running game turn even those players into pedestrian participants in the game. 

The deep game is gone, the quarterback is getting consistent pressure and pretty soon the entire offense breaks down. 

That's what Kansas wants to do and their record and defensive ranking would say that they have hit that agenda every single game out this year. 

It's not to say McClinton is THE reason for that, but next to USC's Sedrick Ellis, he could be the best interior lineman the Huskers have faced or will face the rest of the year. If he has the kind of success he's been having for going on the last two seasons, Nebraska won't be able to do anything they want to do, because they will spend most of it trying to keep McClinton from being a factor in the game. 

Can the Huskers handle that? Can they handle him? We're about to find out. If they can't, what was already more than likely going to be a long day for the big red, could just get a heck of a lot longer. 

This kid can flat out play. 

Oh, and regarding Ellis, considered by most if not all to be a guaranteed first-rounder? 

He's 6-1, 285, too. 

Any questions? 

"Most guys have that," Callahan said of McClinton's ability to create havoc on a defense at the line. "But his second move is even faster. He's one of the finest defensive linemen I've seen in this conference this year, there's no question about that."

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