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.
Nebraska’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
The Huskers run mostly a 4-3 scheme built around a big and strong defensive line. Nebraska’s defense isn’t very good, with a propensity for giving up explosive plays. The Huskers give up an average of 5.7 yards per play, which is pretty bad and a significant step back from last year when Nebraska gave up a much more respectable 5. 2 yards per play.
The biggest issue statistically has been dealing with passing attacks. For the most part, Nebraska’s stout front has been able to shut down opposing running games, but the defense has been much more susceptible to big pass plays, with an average of 7.5 yards given up per pass attempt. Nebraska gives up an average of 2.05 points per drive, which is fairly mediocre.
As we said, the Nebraska defense is built in large part around the defensive line, which is a big, physical, talented group. The defensive tackle combination up front has been particularly good this year, with juniors Maliek Collins (6’2, 300) and Vincent Valentine (6’3, 320) manning the two spots. They’ve combined for 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, but their main contribution comes in terms of occupying blockers and freeing up the linebackers to make plays in the running game. That tandem up front is the main reason that Nebraska’s defense was as good as it was against the run. For a 4-3, Nebraska also has good size at both ends as well, with junior Greg McMullen (6’3, 280) and senior Jack Gangwish (6’2, 265). Again, they’re pretty good against the run, but if there’s an issue, neither is a particularly good pass rusher, which might start to explain why Nebraska’s pass defense has been mediocre this season. Junior Ross Dzuris (6’3, 250) and redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun (6’4, 255) will both work into the end rotation quite a bit as well.
Nebraska has had to mix and match in the linebacker corps quite a bit this year, much more so than the Huskers have needed to do up front. Five players have started at least two games in the linebacker corps this year. The mainstay has, for the most part, been true freshman Dedrick Young (6’1, 220), who was the team’s fourth-leading tackler this season. Nebraska will also likely start junior Josh Banderas (6’2, 235) and sophomore Marcus Newby (6’1, 235) alongside him, though junior Michael Rose (5’11, 240) could potentially start in place of Newby. The linebackers have benefitted from the excellent play from Nebraska’s defensive tackles up front, which has allowed the young, relatively inexperienced unit to gel throughout the year. Sophomore Chris Weber (6’3, 220) is another key member of the rotation, and he’ll back up Banderas inside.
Teams have been able to attack Nebraska’s secondary this season. As a rule of thumb, whenever a team’s three leading tacklers are all members of the secondary, it isn’t a sign of a healthy unit. Stretching back all the way to fall camp, there were real worries about the Huskers’ ability to defend against the deep ball, and that’s really been born out by their play this season. The unit is led by a pair of upper-classmen safeties in junior Nathan Gerry (6’2, 205) and senior Byerson Cockrell (6’0, 185). The starting corners are both relatively inexperienced, with a pair of sophomores in Josh Kalu (6’1, 185) and Chris Jones (6’0, 180). Gerry is probably the best player in the group, with four interceptions, 75 tackles, and seven pass breakups. Nebraska actually got some bad news before the bowl game that senior cornerback Jonathan Rose was dismissed from the team and won’t be playing in the bowl game. He actually started five games this year and was a fairly capable, talented player.
UCLA’s offense goes into Saturday’s game with a little bit of uncertainty. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone had a serious medical issue last week with a blood clot found in his lung, and it’s uncertain how much of a role he’ll be able to have in terms of play-calling on Saturday. We’ve heard running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu will likely take over play-calling duties and the overall offensive coordinator role if Mazzone is unable to coach, but we’ve also heard that Mazzone fully intends to be in the press box calling plays.
In any case, UCLA’s offense had another fairly productive year in Jim Mora’s fourth year at UCLA. A big part of that was the very solid year from freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who had a couple of bad games but was, for the most part, very good to excellent all season. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of progress he has made in the last few weeks, since he showed so much game to game during the season.
Running back Paul Perkins had another productive season, if it wasn’t quite at the level of last year. Once again, he averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and gained over 1200 yards, despite being a little dinged up over the last half of the year. The running backs as a group might be the strongest unit on the team, with solid contributions coming from Nate Starks and freshmen Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi as well.
The offensive line was the best it has been in many years this season, and provided UCLA with the best pass protection it’s had in quite some time. Alex Redmond, who started most of the last three seasons, left the team after the regular season and has signed with an agent, so he won’t play in the bowl game. Fred Ulu-Perry left the team prior to the USC game to return home to Hawaii, and it now sounds as if he will transfer to Hawaii. Kenny Lacy also won’t play, from what we’ve heard, which leaves some combination of Caleb Benenoch, Poasi Moala, and walk-on guard Cristian Garcia to man the three guards spots. Conor McDermott and Benenoch have both put in their names for an NFL Draft evaluation, and it’ll be interesting to see what they decide.
This will be wide receiver Jordan Payton’s last game as a Bruin, and he is seven catches away from the single season record for catches.
This advantage is based on what we think UCLA should do here, not necessarily what UCLA will end up doing. Nebraska’s weakness is clearly against the pass, and if UCLA comes in with the game plan of attacking the Cornhuskers through the air, the Bruins could have a lot of success.
The issue is that this year, UCLA has occasionally shown some stubborn refusal to go away from the run, and against Nebraska, that could be an issue. With UCLA’s limited depth at guard, and Nebraska’s strength on the interior, a steady diet of interior runs early could stall UCLA’s offense, and give Nebraska time to build a lead. UCLA should pass to set up the run, especially in this game given the strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska’s defense.
UCLA has the potential to put up a lot of points on this defense, and it could result in a really nice game for Josh Rosen heading into next season.
Sophomore kicker Drew Brown (5’11, 180) has made his last ten kicks, with all but one of them coming from 41+ yards. He missed his first two kicks of the season in the opener, but has been very good since then, with 20 makes in 24 attempts after the opener. He has good range out to about 50 yards and has been fairly automatic recently. Ka'imi Fairbairn won the Lou Groza award, but has missed two kicks in the last two games. Still, he’s been very good this year, so we give the slight edge to UCLA in the kicking game.
Nebraska has one of the better punters in the country in junior Sam Foltz (6’1, 200), who averaged nearly 45 yards per punt this season with 15 of his 53 punts downed inside the 20. UCLA’s punting situation has been pretty close to disaster level at times this season, so we’ll give the edge to Nebraska here.
Nebraska has been solid, if unspectacular on kick and punt returns this year, with Stanley Morgan handling kickoffs for the most part and Jordan Westerkamp handling punts. Morgan averages a respectable 24.7 yards per return and Westerkamp averages 10.6 yards per punt return, but neither player has come close to breaking a touchdown this year. UCLA’s been good when Devin Fuller has handled return duties and bad when pretty much anyone else handles returns. We’ll give the slight edge here to Nebraska, since we’re not sure if Fuller will handle returns.
It’s always a weird thing to try to guess the score of a bowl game, especially a mid-tier bowl game. Motivation becomes one of the biggest factors to dissect, and so many factors play into that. Will Nebraska be motivated because it’s actually happy to be in this bowl game after a 5-7 season? Will UCLA be sufficiently motivated to finish 9-4, with a fourth straight nine-win season? Will neither team be motivated, and will this be as unwatchable as the last time UCLA played in the Bay Area bowl game?
From a matchup standpoint, we think it’ll be a fairly close game. Yes, UCLA can and should score on Nebraska’s mediocre defense. But Mike Riley is a good enough tactician that we think he has come to the same conclusion we’ve come to -- namely, Nebraska should run as much as possible, especially with quarterback Tommy Armstrong. If Nebraska does that, we think the Huskers can and should score on UCLA’s porous run defense.
From a motivation standpoint, we really have no idea. This is the classic bowl game for UCLA to lay an egg, but aside from that game against Baylor in 2012, the Bruins have been pretty good in bowl games under Jim Mora. Nebraska might just be ready for the season to be over.
So, given that we don’t have a great feel for the motivation on either side, we have to go with the team we feel is more talented. UCLA wins its ninth game of the season, giving Mora his fourth straight nine-win season and sending the Bruins into the offseason on a high note.