By Olin Buchanan Rivals.com
Rematches aren’t typical in bowl games, particularly rematches of a blowout.
But that’s the case in Thursday’s Holiday Bowl, where the University of Nebraska will try to duplicate a 56-21 victory it posted at the University of Washington on Sept. 18.
Of course, much has changed since then. The Cornhuskers may be without their best receiver and return man, and the youthful Huskies now have another season of experience behind them.
In the first game, Washington senior Jake Locker had his worst day as a collegiate quarterback, completing just 20 percent of his passes. But he played well and completed 63 percent in his final two regular-season games. Whether that’s enough to change the outcome of the first game remains to be seen.
Nebraska (10-3) vs. Washington (6-6)
WHEN: Dec. 30, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego.
TV: ESPN (Chris Fowler will do play-by-play, with Todd Blackledge as the analyst).
THE LINE: Nebraska by 14.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Nebraska 4-2, Washington 1-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Nebraska T-33rd, Washington 42nd.
BCS RANKINGS: Nebraska 18th, Washington unranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Mountain West
COACHES: Nebraska — Bo Pelini (3-0 in bowls); Washington — Steve Sarkisian (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It’s a rematch, so it will be interesting to see if Washington, which lost decidedly to the Huskers in September, can fare better the second time around. Huskies QB Jake Locker should be healthy — or at least healthier. He closed the regular season with strong games against California and Washington State, which hints that he could pose a challenge for Nebraska’s defense.
KEY STATS: Despite Locker’s late-season showing, Washington averages just 200.3 passing yards to rank only 77th in the nation in pass offense. Nebraska allows an average of 159.9 passing yards to rank seventh in the country in pass defense. But the Huskers were torched for 342 passing yards by Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Nebraska rush offense vs. Washington rush defense: The Huskers average 259.6 rushing yards per game to rank seventh in the nation. Three players could end the season with more than 1,000 rushing yards; RB Roy Helu Jr. already has 1,211, and QB Taylor Martinez needs 58 yards and RB Rex Burkhead needs 88 to get there. Martinez has had time to heal from injuries that slowed him late in the season. Washington’s Mason Foster is a warhorse and heads a solid group of linebackers, but the Huskies are soft against the run, ranking 103rd in the nation in that category. Five opponents rushed for more than 200 yards against the Huskies, including Nebraska, which rolled up 383. Edge: Nebraska.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Washington pass defense: The Huskers have thrown for fewer than 165 yards in six consecutive games, and their leading receiver, Niles Paul, may not play because of a foot injury. Junior WR Brandon Kinnie is the only other Husker with more than 20 catches. Statistically, Washington’s pass defense is solid — the Huskies allow 202.4 passing yards to rank 34th in the nation. But at least part of that is because opponents prefer to run. The Huskies still allowed more than 200 passing yards to seven teams. SS Nate Williams earned All-Pac 10 recognition. Edge: Washington.
Washington rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense: The Huskies’ running game is built around RB Chris Polk, who rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. Locker wasn’t the rushing threat he’d been in past seasons, but injuries contributed to that; he did rush for 110 yards in an upset of USC. Overall, the Huskies averaged 164.2 yards per game. LB Lavonte David, a junior college transfer, accumulated tackles at an impressive rate, but the Huskers still had issues against the run. Six teams ran for more than 150 yards against Nebraska, including Western Kentucky. Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter rushed for 201. But in the past two games, the Huskers held Colorado to 99 rushing yards and Oklahoma to 112. Edge: Nebraska.
Washington pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: Locker passed for more than 200 yards in seven games, including the past two. He had 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. The Huskies have a good group of receivers, led by junior Jermaine Kearse, a big-play threat who averaged 16.1 yards per catch and had 12 touchdowns. Pass protection was inconsistent. Despite the problems in the Big 12 championship game, Nebraska’s pass defense remains among the best in the nation. Prince Amukamara may be the premier shut-down corner in the country, and nickelback Eric Hagg also received all-conference recognition. The Huskers also posted 31 sacks; T Jared Crick led the way with 9.5. Edge: Nebraska.
Nebraska special teams vs. Washington special teams: Paul’s possible absence would leave Nebraska without its best return man. That would be an obvious minus. But K Alex Henery is a definite plus. Although he was not chosen first team all-conference, he may be the best kicker in the nation. He converted 18-of-19 field-goal attempts, with a long of 53 yards. His miss was a 51-yarder that was blocked. He also averages 43.9 yards as a punter. Adi Kunalic is the Huskers’ kickoff specialist, and 39 of his 83 attempts were touchbacks. Nebraska’s coverage units are mediocre. Washington K Erik Folk hit 12-of-17 field-goal attempts; he was perfect on eight tries inside 40 yards and also converted from 54 yards. P Kiel Rasp averages 44.0 yards. The Huskies are so-so in coverage and on returns. Edge: Nebraska
Nebraska coaches vs. Washington coaches: In three seasons as Nebraska’s coach, Bo Pelini has restored the Huskers to national prominence. They’ve posted 29 victories in his tenure and have back-to-back 10-win seasons. They’ve also won three bowls under him. That includes the 2003 Alamo Bowl, when he served as interim coach. Meanwhile, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has restored some verve to the once-proud Huskies, who had endured a winless season the year before his arrival. Sarkisian has posted 11 wins in two seasons and has led Washington to its first bowl appearance since 2002. Edge: Nebraska.
X-factor: Although most of the on-field indicators point to a Nebraska victory, there is a real question of motivation. Nebraska entered the season with national championship aspirations; at the least, it was thought the Huskers would be in a BCS game. But they blew a 17-point lead in the Big 12 championship game and settled for the Holiday Bowl for the second straight season. How focused and intense will they be, especially against an opponent they’ve already beaten by five touchdowns? On the other hand, Washington is thrilled to end an eight-year bowl drought and surely relishes the chance for redemption for that earlier blowout loss to the Huskers.
Nebraska will win if: The Huskers ran at will against Washington in the first game and need to get the ground game going again. They also must contain Washington’s running game and force Locker into obvious passing situations against one of the country’s best secondaries.
Washington will win if: The Huskies absolutely have to do a better job against the run. They allowed Nebraska 383 rushing yards and six touchdowns, including runs of 80 and 65 yards, in the first meeting. The Huskies need to mount a consistent running game to control the clock and give the defense as much rest as possible. Finally, they need to stay close and hope for a chance to win it late. Two of their victories have come on last-play scores, and another was in overtime.