Nebraska's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
In terms of historical fit, it's hard to imagine a more incongruous one then Mike Riley and Nebraska. Riley is basically the last pro-style holdout in a sea of spread-option attacks, while Nebraska is the historical home of the triple-option. Of course, recent years have changed Nebraska a bit, with Bill Callahan first trying to put in some pro-style elements and then Bo Pelini building a spread attack that certainly incorporated some quarterback runs but was, for the most part, a pretty standard offense in today's college football world.
But has Riley changed? Despite reports in the preseason that he would change his offense quite a bit to better incorporate the talent on the roster, for the most part, the offense has looked pretty pro-style. He has probably run the quarterback more than he ever has, sure, but that's still considerably less than the quarterback ran last year for Nebraska.
Overall, the offense has been fairly productive for Nebraska, though not elite. The Cornhuskers average about six yards per play, with 4.6 yards per rush attempt and 7.5 yards per pass attempt. In terms of per play statistics, it's actually very similar to last year's Nebraska offense. Nebraska has also averaged 2.38 points per drive, which is good for 45th in the nation. Overall, considering it's mostly a whole new scheme for Nebraska, the offense was decent enough this year.
The biggest issue for the Cornhuskers has been finding a way to marry junior dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong (6'1, 220) to Riley's pro-style system. So far, the results have been mixed. He has had some very solid games, including a sparkling performance against Minnesota earlier this year, but he has also struggled at times, most notably against Iowa in the regular season finale, when Armstrong threw four interceptions and zero touchdowns. He completed just 54% of his passes this year, and in a system that's predicated on efficiently moving the ball downfield with short passes, that's not a good number. Perhaps most significantly, he didn't run as much this year as he did last year, with just 88 attempts this season after running 145 times last year.
Perhaps the best news for Nebraska heading into the bowl game is that it looks like junior running back Terrell Newby (5'10, 200) will be healthy for the game. Newby had a ankle injury toward the end of the year that sidelined him. He has been very productive for Nebraska this year, with 5.2 yards per attempt on 143 carries. Newby is a fairly explosive running back with the ability to hit big plays, and he's backed up by a true power back in senior Imani Cross (6'1, 230). Cross is a strong, tough runner who has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this year and is used quite a bit on the goal line and in short yardage. Those two get the vast majority of Nebraska's non-quarterback carries, but senior fullback Andy Janovich (6'1, 230) will also get a handful of carries per game, so UCLA will have to stay disciplined and not just key on the quarterback and running back in the run game.
Nebraska has a true weapon in the receiving game in junior receiver Jordan Westerkamp (6'0, 195). Westerkamp leads the team with 63 catches this season and has averaged 13.9 yards per catch. He's a sure-handed player with good speed and overall playmaking ability. Junior Brandon Reilly (6'1, 195) has been Nebraska's next most-consistent receiver, and has been the Huskers' most explosive offensive player, with an averaged of just under 20 yards per catch. On just 37 catches this year he has 716 yards. Junior Alonzo Moore (6'2, 195) and freshman Stanley Morgan (6'0, 185) are the other two players to pay attention to in the main receiver rotation for Nebraska. Moore, like Reilly, is another big play threat, with almost 17 yards per catch and 6 touchdowns this year. Junior tight end Cethan Carter (6'4, 240) also gets targeted a fair amount, and he's been pretty reliable this year.
The offensive line has been pretty solid this year for the Huskers. Nebraska has given up just 13 sacks all season, and the Huskers have produced a mostly good rushing attack. The most talented player on the line is probably senior left tackle Alex Lewis (6'6, 290). Lewis earned second-team All Big Ten honors this year, and his play has been very good most of the year. He has consistently drawn the ire of Nebraska fans, though, with ill-timed penalties throughout his career and an incident this season where he was apparently walking off the field telling fans "I'm sorry we suck" after a loss this year. Junior left guard Dylan Utter (6'1, 285) is one of those fun college success stories, with Utter going from walk-on to starter at left guard within a couple of years. At center and right guard, Nebraska starts two seniors in Ryne Reeves (6'3, 300) and Zach Sterup (6'8, 320), and they have each been fairly good this year at opening holes on the interior. Senior Chongo Kondolo (6'4, 300) can also play guard if need be, as he started the first nine games of the year at right guard. The lone underclasssmen in the starting group is redshirt freshman Nick Gates (6'5, 290), who'll earn the nod at right tackle.
UCLA's defense has obviously had to deal with a significant amount of injuries this year, and that probably took any elite potential away from the defense as a whole. The bright side of injuries is always how certain players fill in and develop, though, and UCLA certainly had some success stories this season.
On the defensive line, Eli Ankou and Matt Dickerson filled in for Eddie Vanderdoes, and while the combination of the two probably still didn't come close to offsetting the loss of Vanderdoes, Ankou in particular emerged as a decent Pac-12 starter, which few would have predicted even a year ago. Dickerson also showed that he has the ability to be a solid interior pass rusher.
At linebacker, the biggest bright spot was Jayon Brown, who might have been the biggest surprise on the whole team. Brown took a spot in the starting lineup early on and by the end of the season might have been the defense's most consistent player. There's something very Eric Kendricks-like in his ability to read plays and react quickly, and he should go into next season as a sure-fire starter. Isaako Savaiinaea was also a bright spot, going from little-used fullback/defensive end to key contributor and, at times, starter. The development of those two players under Scott White has been very good to see.
At defensive back, Johnny Johnson and Nathan Meadors both emerged as very good prospects at cornerback. It wasn't even certain that Johnson could be a rotational player this year after suffering severe shoulder injuries in his first two years, but by midseason, he might have been UCLA's best cover corner. When Johnson went down with an upper body injury late in the year, Meadors flipped from safety to corner and actually looked like a natural cornerback, with great instincts and a real competitive streak.
There were obviously some issues on defense, particularly a really porous rush defense, but there were certainly some bright spots in terms of personnel.
This is going to be an interesting game for Riley. He obviously is still trying to establish his offense and get things ready for next year, so he could absolutely use this opportunity to continue to build his passing attack. That would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do if he is using this game to build for next year.
But if he is trying to win this game, the most obvious thing to do is to build the game plan entirely around Armstrong's legs. The Bruins haven't been good at defending the run this year, and they've been even worse at defending against running quarterbacks. Armstrong is one of the best running quarterbacks UCLA will have faced this year, and he could cause UCLA's linebackers some serious issues if he takes off a bunch in this one.
So the "Even" has more to do with us not knowing exactly what Riley will do, and how he will approach the game. UCLA's pass defense has been near-elite this year, so if Riley goes with a heavy passing attack, we imagine UCLA will win this end of the matchup pretty handily. If Riley does go with more of a rushing attack, with Armstrong given the freedom to run the ball 15 to 20 times in this game, we could easily see Nebraska causing UCLA a ton of issues and winning this end of the matchup.
This probably isn't the type of game for UCLA to spend a whole lot of time blitzing. For the most part against rushing quarterbacks, UCLA has gone with a plan for containing the quarterback and forcing him to stay in the pocket, which we think should probably be the strategy here. Armstrong is a good enough athlete, though, that he can certainly beat a single linebacker in a race, which means that the containment is going to have be very sound.
This is very much the most interesting matchup of the game, and this side of the matchup could very well tell the tale of the entire game.