Big Red Bowl Breakdown: NU TE/WRs

Check out part two of our series as we break down the Huskers by position, and see just how it matches up with their Gator Bowl opponent, the Clemson Tigers.

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Last year it was a running back leading the team in receiving, Marlon Lucky grabbing 75 balls for a total of 705 yards.

 

That was the offense, or at least, that's where the offense was showing the most success.

 

We did see some solid stats from players like former Husker receiver Maurice Purify who caught 57 balls for 814 yards, then junior wideout Nathan Swift who pulled down 36 catches for 520 yards and fellow junior at the time, Todd Peterson who caught 18 balls for 359 yards.

 

What was not nearly as prevalent during that time and basically since former Head Coach Bill Callahan and his "West Coast" system arrived – the tight end.

 

If anyone had ever watched theSan Francisco 49ers of the 80s, with the late-great Bill Walsh orchestrating his attack which would be dubbed the "West Coast", the tight end wasn't just a part of the offense, it was a legit weapon.

 

Former Husker tight end Sean Hill led all the tight ends last year with 18 receptions for 288 yards. In total Husker tight ends got the ball 26 times last year.

 

This year sophomore Michael McNeill got 29 on his own.

 

44 receptions by tight ends this year, totaling 591 yards and eight touchdowns. That total of scores doubles the amount a year prior.

 

What this has all meant is Nebraska running an offense defined by its versatility, finally got the kind of full-flavor in their attack that you could say was always the desire of both Callahan and this year's Offensive Coordinator, Shawn Watson. But up to this year that's been a lot easier said than done.

 

Now, Nebraska was able to throw the ball very effectively last year, but we have to remember that senior quarterback Joe Ganz started the last three games of the season after former Husker quarterback Sam Keller went down with an injury.  This is how he did.

 

25-40 for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns

30-40 for 510 yards and 7 touchdowns

31-58 for 484 yards and 4 touchdowns

 

Three-Game Total: 1399 yards and 15 touchdowns

 

The only reason to bring up quarterback stats here is to illustrate that the overall production is a little misleading from last year. While the team averaged over 320 yards per game in the air for the season before Ganz' three starts they were averaging just over 280.

 

And it should be of note that Nebraska , due to the fact that their defense ranked as one the worst in the entire NCAA, did things on offense from a passing perspective that they probably wouldn't do if the defense was even slightly above average.

 

All the wide receivers have done is have arguably their best year in regard to average production per game, but it's no argument that when it comes to catching the ball, i.e., not dropping it, they have been a vastly improved group. Even senior wide receiver Todd Peterson said at one point this season that outside of the new run-blocking responsibilities which would become a staple of this group, focus on bringing the ball in got the most attention of all. "It just about concentration and focusing on making the catch. Last year we just had a lot of breakdowns in that area," he said. "We have had a chance to work with Joe for awhile now and that's helped, but most of it is just repetition in practice and focusing during the games."

 

For senior wide receiver Nathan Swift, this has been a year to remember. Not only did he go above 900 yards in receiving this year, only the second receiver in Husker history ever do accomplish the feat (Johnny Rodgers totaled 942 yards in 1972), he passed Rodgers in career receptions, Swift at 163 with one game to go, topping Rodgers' 142 during his Heisman campaign.

 

Peterson has been solid in his own right, totaling 690 yards receiving this season, over 300 yards more than last year. And he grabbed 58 balls for 2008, which is a full 40 more than he grabbed in 2007.

 

The production of the running back in this department went down, but it shouldn't be considered a worry-spot, because even though the team lost five out of their top seven receivers from last year who weren't running backs this group hasn't missed a bit. You could say easily, that with the new balance at tight end they have only gotten better, because now nobody has any clue who is getting the ball, and in a variety of down and distance situations.

 

THE MATCH UP

 

If Clemson has a weakness in their top-20 defense, it's not that they haven't had success at stopping the passing game....

 

they haven't seen one.

 

South Carolina ranks as the best passing offense Clemson faced all of this season, and they finished the regular season ranked 54th in the country, averaging 218.5 yards per game.

 

That wouldn't be good enough for a top-10 spot in the Big 12 alone.

 

To their credit they have only given up more than 300 yards passing in one game. The only problem is, that came against The Citadel, a Division II school. But other than that South Carolina was indeed the only team which netted over 200 yards passing against the Tigers, Steve Spurrier's team totaling 212 yards for the game.

 

What is interesting and certainly goes to Clemson's credit, only one team out of all those Division 1-A teams faced, actually got more yards in their game against the Tigers than they averaged all season.

 

Team               Season Avg             Yds vs Clemson          Difference

Alabama           170.7 yards                180 yards                     +10 yards

N.C. State        200.8 yards                152 yards                     -48.8 yards

Maryland          207.4 yards                172 yards                     -35.4 yards

Wake Forest    186.9 yards                186 yards                     -.9 yards

Georgia Tech    95.0 yards                   91 yards                       -4 yards

B.C.                 175.5 yards                 116 yards                     -59.5 yards

Florida St.        185.8 yards                 153 yards                     -32.8 yards

Duke                197.7 yards                 85 yards                       -112.7 yards    

Virginia             203.2 yards                 160 yards                     -43.2 yards     

U.S.C.             218.5 yards                  212 yards                     -6.5 yards

 

 

It's that kind of consistency that led to Clemson's final regular-season rank of 10th in the country in pass defense, but they move up a spot to ninth in the county in pass efficiency defense, one of the big reasons being the 5.12 yards teams are averaging against Clemson per pass attempt, which is better than Florida (5.45), better than Ohio State (5.16) and better than Oklahoma (6.62).

 

But let's take the top three passing performances against Clemson this year:

 

South Carolina totaled 212 yards against the Tigers. Here is how much of their production was divided:

 

Player                                     No       Yds      TD       Lng

WR Kenny McKinley               7          56        0          22

TE  Weslye Saunders               4          58        1          23

WR Jason Barnes                     3          46        0          20

RB Brian Maddox                    2          11        0          9

FB Patrick DiMarco                 1          16        1          16

 

Wake Forest totaled 186 yards

 

Player                                     No       Yds      TD       Lng

TE Wooster, B                         5          36        0          12

RB Pendergrass, B                   5          32        0          19

WR Brinkman, C                      4          31        0          9

WR Boldin, DJ                         3          35        1          28

WR Williams, Marsh                 2          34        0          24

FB Harris, K                            1          11        0          11

 

Alabama , a team noted much more for running the football, totaled 180 yards against CU

 

Player                                     No       Yds      TD       Lng

TE Nick Walker                       7          67        1          21

RB Roy Upchurch                    4          30        0          11

WR Julio Jones                         4          28        1          9

WR Mike McCoy                    2          33        0          24

 

In all three of these games, the tight end ranked as either the top receiver in the game for their respective team or in the case of South Carolina , second. But with all three, the tight end didn't finish the season as the top pass catcher on the club. With the Gamecocks, Saunders didn't finish amongst the top five.

 

Walker averaged just over two receptions per game on the season for Alabama . He got the ball seven times in this contest. Wooster averaged just over two receptions as well, but got over double that average production against Clemson as well. Saunders, who caught four balls in their game against CU, had 15 receptions for the entire year.

 

Nebraska has enjoyed the new versatility the emergence of their tight ends have given them this year, and it would appear at least on paper, that could tell a major story in this game.

 

Another note:

 

Nebraska has had five games in which they totaled more than 300 yards passing:

 

Of those three teams who rank as having had the most success passing against Clemson this season, only South Carolina threw for over 300 yards in a game, and they did it only once this season.

 

AND?

 

It's no secret that the Big 12 is a passing league. It's no coincidence that out of their Heisman candidates going into this season all of them were on the offensive side, including Heisman finalists Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford Bradford ultimately taking the award home.

 

Clemson hasn't faced anything close to that this year. They don't play in a league which features a single team ranking in the top 50 in passing. The irony comes from the fact that the highest ranked passing team in the ACC is Clemson themselves, who finished the regular season 53rd in the country,, averaging 218.83 yards. Out of the 12 teams in the league, eight average less than 200 yards passing per game.

 

Even with this apparent disparity, though, it's hard to know just exactly what you are going to get. The tight end has had very good success against Clemson, which you have to think favors Nebraska, who has two tight ends in McNeill and fellow sophomore Dreu Young, who both come in at close to 6-5.

 

While senior wideouts Peterson and Swift have never blown anyone away with their raw athletic numbers, this year they have been very consistent in catching the ball, and Swift has been consistent after the catch, averaging over 15.1 yards per reception.

 

One of the most obvious factors which favors Nebraska 's passing game in this game could be the one where you just aren't sure if they are more illusion than reality. How many spread teams has Clemson faced, even ones which a West-Coast style as its M.O.?

 

If you haven't faced it, you honestly don't know what you are going to get.

 

But there's no doubting that when you look at the numbers, the production of the receivers, the average yards per game and especially, the effectiveness of the tight end for the Huskers this year – this could be the area where Nebraska might have its biggest advantage.

 

Speaking of big, though, we'll outline in our next segment the war in the middle as the Husker offensive line faces off a talented and sizeable Tiger defensive line which could be better than the fellow ACC team the Huskers faced earlier year in a loss, that belonging to eventual ACC Champ Virginia Tech.


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