The USC Trojans (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12 South) – ranked No. 24 by the Associated Press (AP) and College Football Playoff committee – close out their 2014 campaign against the Big Ten Conference’s Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten; No. 22 in the USA Today coaches’ poll; No. 25 AP) in the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday, December 27 at 5 p.m. PST in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the fifth meeting between the historic powerhouses, with USC owning a 3-0-1 edge. The Trojans won at Lincoln in 1969 (31-21) and 2007 (49-31). In two Los Angeles meetings, the teams tied (21-21) in 1970, and USC won in 2006 (28-10).
Saturday’s game marks the 37th edition of the Holiday Bowl – it’s USC’s first appearance in the San Diego event, while Nebraska is 1-2 in three prior appearances. NU lost to Arizona, 23-20, in 1998; defeated the Wildcats, 33-0, in 2009; and lost to Washington, 19-7, in 2010. The game also marks the 51st bowl appearance for both Nebraska (25-25 in bowls) and USC (33-17).
On Nov. 29, the Trojans sprinted to a 35-0 second-quarter lead and coasted home with a 49-14 stomping of rival Notre Dame at the Coliseum. Junior QB Cody Kessler completed 32-of-40 passes for 372 yards and 6 touchdowns – the most TD tosses ever allowed by the Irish in a single game. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers closed out their regular season on Friday, Nov. 28, with a stunning 37-34 overtime win at Iowa. NU trailed 24-7 in the third quarter before rallying behind three late TD passes from sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (8-4 at USC, 42-33 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington (including that 2010 Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska). Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Lincoln, the Huskers fired Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, ending a seven-season run in which he never failed to lead NU to at least nine wins. Despite his 67-27 record, a rift with athletic director Shawn Eichorst had been widely reported during the past year. Though the Huskers announced the hiring of former Oregon State head coach Mike Riley on Dec. 4, interim coach Barney Cotton will lead Nebraska this weekend. The long-time assistant (and future UNLV offensive coordinator) has spent the past seven years as associate head coach under Pelini and has worked extensively with the offensive line and the vaunted Husker rushing attack.
Fourth-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tim Beck (he was part of Pelini’s staff during all seven seasons, joining as running backs coach in 2008) oversees a Husker offense that has run the football on 64 percent of its offensive snaps. Unsurprisingly, NU ranks 16th nationally in rushing offense at 248.3 yards per game. That also means Nebraska’s pass offense has struggled statistically, notching just 198 yards per contest, ranking No. 91 in the nation (and, more unnervingly, ninth in the not-so-pass-happy Big Ten). Still NU is putting up more than 37 points per game and features a stellar one-two punch on the ground – with Armstrong a dual-threat at quarterback. The value of the sophomore’s legs is crucial, because he’s most definitely a work in progress with his arm. Armstrong is completing just 51.7 percent of his passes and has thrown 11 interceptions against 19 touchdowns. He’s erratic and can be hassled into big mistakes, though he’s only been sacked 19 times. On the ground, though, the physical Armstrong is Nebraska’s second-leading rusher, gaining 664 yards on five yards per carry in 2014.
The Husker offense, though, really goes as far as senior I-back Ameer Abdullah can take it. Abdullah is Nebraska’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage and made several All-America second-team squads. Amazingly, in Nebraska’s illustrious history, he is the first player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He’s rushed for more than 200 yards in four contests in 2014 and ranks in the top 15 nationally in yards per carry (6.4) and rushing yards per game (126.9). To go along with his 1,523 yards and 18 TDs on the ground, Abdullah has also caught 16 passes, averaging 13 yards per catch with three TDs. Junior Imani Cross (75 carries, 5.1 yards per, five TDs) and sophomore Terrell Newby (63 carries, 4.5 yards per, five TDs) have split reserve carries, but Cross is not on the bowl depth chart and tweeted out an image of himself prepping for what looked like a surgery on Dec. 19. Nebraska has not officially commented on his status, but you can likely rule him out.
At receiver, the Huskers have had only two consistent targets for Armstrong to throw to this season – sophomore Jordan Westerkamp and senior Kenny Bell. Westerkamp leads the team with 41 catches (16.2 yards per, four TDs), while Bell leads in yards per with 17.9 and TDs (five) on 40 grabs. Bell is Nebraska’s all-time leading pass catcher, with 174 grabs and 2,618 yards in his career. Freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El has shown big play flashes, with 15 catches, three for scores. Sophomore Alonzo Moore is the only other Husker receiver to achieve double figures in catches, with 10. Sophomore tight ends Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton are mainly blockers and have combined for just seven grabs – but three for scores.
Nebraska’s offensive line was fairly stable until some late-season injuries left them thin at center and right tackle – certainly a concern for the Huskers going up against Leonard Williams and Co. Still, senior guards Jake Cotton (left) and Mike Moudy (right) provide experienced leadership, as does junior left tackle Alex Lewis. But at center, senior Mark Pelini (Bo’s nephew) is out with an ankle injury and junior Ryne Reeves, who replaced him against Iowa, will also miss the Holiday Bowl. Sophomore Paul Thurston, who saw some time against Iowa, will start, with classmate Dylan Utter another option. At right tackle, with junior Zach Sterup on the shelf, juniors Matt Finnin and Givens Price are both likely to play.
Third-year offensive coordinator John Papuchis also was part of Pelini’s staff during all seven seasons, serving as defensive line coach/special teams coordinator from 2008-11. But like all but one of the coaches on Pelini’s staff, this will be his last game at NU. Against the run-heavy offenses of the Big Ten, Nebraska has put together some stellar numbers against the pass – ranking third nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowing only 47 percent of passes against them to be completed, best in the country. Nebraska’s also been outstanding on third down, allowing teams to convert just 30.7 percent of the time (ninth nationally). However, the Huskers are fair-to-middling elsewhere, allowing more than 176 yards per game rushing and about 25 points per game.
Up front, junior defensive end Randy Gregory is a handful when healthy. The All-Big Ten first-teamer missed two games (including the game at Iowa with a concussion and illness) but is expected to be 100 percent in San Diego. He leads Nebraska with seven sacks among his 50 tackles and has been compared to Utah pass rusher Nate Orchard by the USC staff. Sophomore Greg McMullen has eight tackles for loss (3.5 sacks) among his 46 stops at the other end spot. Junior Jack Gangwish (18 tackles) may sit out part of the game due to an off-field incident but is the only experienced depth at end. At the tackle spots, a three-man rotation of sophomores Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins and junior Kevin Williams sees most of the time. Collins has been the standout, earning second-team all-conference honors with a team-leading 12 tackles for loss among 40 total. Valentine has 39 tackles and Williams 18, and the trio has combined for 8.5 sacks.
Senior WILL linebacker Zaire Anderson is very active and, unsurprisingly, is Nebraska’s leading tackler with 95. He also has 12 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Classmate Trevor Roach (63 tackles at MLB) has missed bowl practices with a foot issue, but remains atop the depth chart and sounds confident he will play. If he can’t go, sophomore Josh Banderas has seen plenty of time this season, including five starts. He has 36 tackles and can also fill in on the weak side. On the strong side, junior David Santos has 50 tackles and is usually the first player off when the Huskers move into a nickel defense.
The Nebraska secondary has played extremely well – and enjoyed great health. Each member of the starting quartet has started all 12 games. The group is led by sophomore free safety Nate Gerry, who leads the team with five interceptions and is second on the squad with 85 tackles. He earned second-team all-conference notice. At strong safety, senior Corey Cooper has 65 stops. Junior Byerson Cockrell is listed as his backup, but is also the Huskers’ top nickel defender, with 26 tackles and an INT. The corners, senior Josh Mitchell (37 tackles, two sacks, 12 pass break-ups) and junior Daniel Davie (36 tackles, five for loss, two INTs), have played well. Junior Jonathan Rose (17 tackles) is also likely to see time at the spot.
Nebraska Special Teams
The Huskers have enjoyed a number of highlights on special teams in 2014. Freshman Drew Brown handles the placekicking duties. He’s made all 55 PATs he’s tried and 12-of-19 field goals overall – but just two-of-seven beyond 40 yards. Brown and junior Mauro Bondi have split kickoff duties, and opponents are averaging just 20.2 yards per return. Sophomore Sam Foltz is the punter. NU has blocked two punts and four placekicks in 2014. On the return teams, Pierson-El has been electric on punt returns, scoring three times and averaging nearly 18 yards per try. He shares kick return duties with the always-dangerous Abdullah.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Kessler certainly finished on a high note against the Irish, as his six TD tosses brought his season total to 36 against just four interceptions. He’s also led the Trojan offense to the best pass completion percentage in college football – creating an intriguing subplot against Nebraska’s stingy pass completion defense. USC’s receiving corps simply ran around, through and over an overmatched Notre Dame defense – especially George Farmer, who battled through years of shuffling lineups and injuries to show the incredible speed we’ve heard about.
With a month to rest nagging injuries – and to work on cohesion along the young, but growing, offensive line – the USC offense figures to be as close to full speed as it’s been in some time come Saturday night in San Diego. The questions, as always with second-tier bowls, are interest and rust. After a roller coaster of a regular season in 2013, USC answered those questions early and often in its Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State. How will the team react this time around, under a stable coaching staff?
Expect USC to look to come out firing in the passing game. Yes, Nebraska’s pass defense has been outstanding against a slew of not-so-effective passing teams. The Cornhuskers likely will try to break up the timing of Kessler and his receivers by playing physical in the secondary and looking to get extra pressure on the quarterback.. That, however, has proven a very high-risk scheme against the Trojans. They’d love to put their excellent third-down defense to the test against USC’s solid third-down offense, but the only offense similar in style and outright speed (similar, but not nearly as talented) that Nebraska faced in 2014 was Miami – and the Hurricanes’ completed 67 percent of their passes for 359 yards in a 41-31 loss in Lincoln on Sept. 30. USC must play to its strengths. In 2014, that’s using the pass to set up the run. If Farmer, Juju Smith and Nelson Agholor find room in the NU secondary, that will only make life easier for tailbacks Javorius “Buck” Allen and Justin Davis – both of whom must be licking their chops to face a Husker defense that’s been gashed for more than 225 yards per game on the ground in its last seven outings – including an astounding 581 by Wisconsin on Nov. 15.
USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense regained a measure of respect by throttling the Irish offense after struggling at UCLA. USC contained Irish QB Everett Golson, forced him to give up two more turnovers and, essentially, took away his running ability from the get-go. After struggling early in the season at Boston College and more recently at UCLA against dual-threat QBs – allowing BC’s Tyler Murphy to dominate with his legs and UCLA’s Brett Hundley to do the same with his arm – it was a big positive to see the Trojans contain such a threat. It was also good to see USC get back to its ball-hawking ways. The Trojans hold a distinct edge in turnover margin over Nebraska coming into this contest.
With USC facing a Nebraska offense with a stellar running back in Abdullah and a quarterback with able legs in Armstrong, the Trojans will spend much of Saturday night keeping a collective eye on Abdullah – and with good reason – but USC cannot let Armstrong beat it with his legs. That’s one reason that the loss of nose tackle Antwaun Woods to a torn pectoral muscle in bowl practices is such a concern. Though USC has the personnel to fill in for Woods, with junior Delvon Simmons likely to get the initial nod and Williams also seeing some time inside, depth is a major factor here – especially if the Huskers get the run game dialed up.
Stopping the run is always job No. 1 against Nebraska. If the Trojans slow Abdullah – since getting nicked up against Purdue on Nov. 1, he’s averaging a more human 93 yards per game – and keep Armstrong in the pocket, the Huskers are will struggle. I expect USC to use some targeted run blitzes in order to throw off the rhythm of Nebraska’s attack. Su’a Cravens is likely to be nearby whenever Abdullah touches the ball. Yes, the Huskers will likely use some trickeration to find big plays – especially under an interim coaching staff with nothing to lose. USC must keep those plays in front of them. But as it is, NU has averaged a very ordinary 158 yards rushing in its past four games – and the Huskers haven’t been able to make up for that shortfall in the passing game, averaging only 151 yards through the air.
An up-and-down season for the Trojans in 2014 was nothing compared to the three-coach, 10-win thrill ride of a season ago. Yes, USC notched emotional wins at Stanford and Arizona. The Trojans also suffered painful defeats to Arizona State and at Utah in the closing seconds. Fittingly, USC even split its rivalry games. Unlike a season ago, when a raging and focused Trojan team arrived in Las Vegas to win one for departed interim Coach Ed Orgeron, this USC team doesn’t have anything to play for other than going out on a good note and setting a positive tone for the 2015 campaign.
On the other sideline, USC sees a team that is in a similar spot to where it was a season ago. There are some intriguing differences. When Orgeron left his team following the hiring of Sarkisian, he went out emotionally, but not by tearing down the internal organization of USC’s athletic department. Pelini roasted the Nebraska brass in a final meeting with his players – and it seems many of his players carry a similar opinion of the Husker athletic department. In Las Vegas, USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton was coaching to keep his job at Troy – and he unleashed an aggressive game plan that likely helped him earn the same spot on Sarkisian’s staff. Saturday, Cotton (whose name sounds like it was picked out of a Coen Bros. movie script) and the vast majority of the NU staff are already halfway out the door as Riley is bringing most of his Oregon State staff east. Will the Trojans face a Husker team that is as focused and heated as USC was a year ago? Or will Nebraska struggle to find the motivation to be competitive?
While both teams have been through an emotional wringer this season, USC should be in a better mental state entering this showdown. The Trojans liked the taste the ND game left in their mouths, and I’m sure they don’t want to go out on a down note. With USC fans responding to the Trojans’ first San Diego bowl appearance – and the normally reliable Nebraska fanbase giving its version of a collective shrug to the Holiday Bowl committee – there should be plenty of motivation for the USC team when they enter Qualcomm.
I can’t pick USC in the runaway that this could become if Nebraska isn’t ready to play – the Trojans have just been too up-and-down themselves, and if the Huskers are out to avenge Pelini’s honor, this game could turn into a very entertaining shootout reminiscent of past Holiday Bowl classics. However, if the Trojans get off to their normal hot start (USC is outscoring opponents 157-36 in the first quarter this season), I expect we’ll find out pretty quickly just how much the Huskers’ hearts are into this one.
USC 37, Nebraska 24
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).