The Idaho game is well into the rearview mirror, and the season begins Saturday against the Cornhuskers.
So far we have seen two different Nebraska teams: the one that physically dominated an inferior Nevada team two weeks ago at home, and the team that squeaked by to beat defending ACC champ Wake Forest on the road. I think it's easy to say "Nebraska's great" after the first game and "Nebraska sucks" after the second. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. But where? Let's take a closer look.
USC Offense vs. Nebraska Defense
The Huskers appear to be a little more aggressive than they were last season. They employ the same 4-3 defense, but they are blitzing a little more, probably because they don't have the defensive line that they did last season. They blitzed 31 times last weekend against Wake Forest, which is a lot against the kind of unorthodox spread offense that the Demon Deacons run. Nebraska also used quite a bit of zone blitzing, and most of the time when they did it, the defensive end on the blitz side dropped to the flat to cover the running back.
We probably will see much different alignments against SC because the Trojans often use a more traditional I two wide, one tight end set. Last year, Nebraska utilized a lot of 4-3 over looks. 4-3 over means that the strongside linebacker gets right up on the line of scrimmage in front of the tight end. It is meant to discourage weak side running. Last year, it didn't work, and the Trojans managed to average 4.6 yards per carry, which was almost a full yard over Nebraska's average defensively. I think we will see these same fronts, but I think more blitzing will be incorporated that what we saw last season.
Nebraska is not the kind of team that is going to put its corners on the line of scrimmage and play bump and run with you. They just do not have that kind of ability on the corner. Zach Bowman was that kind of player before knee injuries sapped him of his speed. Now he is the nickel back. I think you will see the Trojan receivers getting plenty of cushion and respect even though they are new, especially Patrick Turner will likely be back in the starting line up. When he teams with David Ausberry, that makes for a physical pair.
The Cornhuskers have a solid defense, but they don't really have any playmakers. Steve Octavien is probably their best player, but he is nothing spectacular. Overall, the Cornhuskers are pretty slow defensively, and even with all the blitzing against Wake Forest, they were not able to get a decent pass rush. I think this group has dropped off severely from last season because they miss Carriker and Moore at the end positions. Those guys were playmakers for Nebraska, and their curreent starters are just guys right now. However, they are still good enough to make things tough for the Trojans if SC is not clicking offensively, especially with the running game.
USC Defense vs. Nebraska Offense
Again, the Huskers were night and day in their first two games. They ran for over 400 yards against Nevada, but could only muster 115 against Wake Forest. They rode Sam Keller to the win last weekend, but as is the case with Mr. Keller, he had some spectacular moments and some ugly ones. What cannot be denied is that he has far more physical talent than Zac Taylor, last year's starter. He can make the deep out throw that Taylor was consistently short on. The question with Keller is mental ability. Can he keep from making the big mistake? A late turnover by Keller nearly cost Nebraska the game against WF.
The Huskers have made a few minor changes to the offense. Gone are the wholesale shifts on every play, which we now see at UCLA, since offensive coordinator Jay Norvell left Lincoln to take the job in Westwood. You will see occasional shifts, and some motion though. Nebraska uses H-backs more often than fullbacks, and sometimes they will use an H-Back with a fullback.
They like to use the "twin" set as well, which is both receivers on the same side of the field. From it, they run a lot of crossing patterns and clear outs for underneath routes. However, they are more likely to throw the ball down the field this year because Keller is better at it than Taylor was.
The Cornhuskers are almost exclusively a zone rush team now. Last year they did a lot of pulling with guards, but that has disappeared for the most part in the first two games. Callahan realized that it worked against the slow teams, but not against teams like SC, Texas, Oklahoma, Auburn, or even Kansas. The familiar Marlon Lucky is the lead back for the Huskers. He has improved quite a bit over last season. Quentin Castille is their version of LenDale White, and he has showed some promise.
With Bill Callahan in charge, the elements of the West Coast offense are in play in a scaled down version. He learned after two mediocre offensive seasons that he could not implement it NFL style, and he was rewarded last year with a very good offense. He has the keys to make the passing game successful again: a talented QB, a solid offensive line, and experienced receivers in Maurice Purify, Terrence Nunn, and Nate Swift. Purify is the speed threat, but he sat the first game due to suspension. The short passing game is what Nebraska likes to utilize.
Callahan was crititized after the SC game last year for being far too conservative and not giving his team a chance to win. Don't expect that to be the case again. At home, the Huskers will take more chances.
I really don't fear Nebraska as a team. They have some nice players on offense and a solid team concept on defense, but they don't have anyone who is a threat to be an All American. I think they are slow, and their lines are not nearly as physical as they were last season. Keller gives them some better ability, but in my opinion, he has a million dollar arm and a ten cent head.
What I fear is USC's inconsistency on the road, especially in the first month and half of the season. The Arkansas game last season was a blowout, but subsequent trips to Arizona, WSU, and OSU netted less than scintilating performances. The 2005 team played ugly first halves against Oregon and ASU and squeaked out a win in South Bend. The 2004 team trailed at the end of three quarters against...Stanford? The Virginia Tech game that year was a chore as well. 2003 featured the road loss to a 2-3 Cal team and another bumbling first half against ASU.
Playing on the road isn't easy. The key is to come out with the mindset early that you are going to jump on top, and then executing. All five of SC's regular season losses in the five years have come on the road, and the Trojans trailed every one of those at the half except for the UCLA game. In fact, they got way behind in the losses to KSU, Cal, and Oregon State. When the Trojans have started fast, they have won going away.
Nebraska will play better than they did last year because they are at home and thise game will mean a lot to them. Don't expect the Trojans to get a ton of sacks because of Nebraska's quick drops. Still, Keller is prone to make some mistakes, and I wouldn't be surprised if he coughed up a couple. The problem for Nebraska is that they don't have enough talent, and they are going to need some mistakes from SC to win the game.
The Trojans are not going to oblige them. Look for Nebraska ton play much better offensively than they did last season, but for Keller to hurt them with mistakes. The Trojans will still have some bumps with their young receivers and an offensive line that needs more time to become cohesive, but they will minimize mistakes. Look for big games from Ausberry, Stanley Havili, and John David Booty, as the Trojans offense struggles to find consistency with the running game, but hits Nebraska when the Husker blitzes do not get to the quarterback.
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