On one side, Nebraska's enters today's game boasting the nation's third-leading rusher in quarterback Taylor Martinez and a cast of talented running backs behind him. On the other, Washington comes in featuring college football's seventh-ranked rush defense at just 43 yards allowed per game. Needless to say, whichever team comes out ahead in this area is going to be in good position to pull out a victory this afternoon.
As good as Martinez's rushing stats are, there's been some concern about the Huskers' inability to grind the ball between the tackles and sustain longer drives through the running game. Accomplishing that won't get any easier against the Huskies, who are anchored by defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu. Ta'amu dominated NU up front throughout the Holiday Bowl, and he could be in for another big day against the Huskers' inexperienced interior line.
To be fair, Washington's impressive numbers against the run have come against the pass-heavy offenses of Eastern Washington and Hawaii, neither of which hold a candle to Nebraska's running game. Even so, based on what both teams have shown in this department through the first two games, the edge has to go to the Huskies here.
NU Pass Offense vs. UW Pass Defense
Nebraska finally discovered some semblance of an effective passing game in the second half against Fresno State last week, which gives a little more confidence to the area coming into today. In particular, the Huskers were able to pull off some huge plays through the air by attacking the Bulldogs deep, as they were essentially daring NU to throw the ball.
Just as Washington's rush defense stats are a bit exaggerated based on its previous two opponents, the same can be said for the its pass defense, which ranks dead last in the FCS at 403 yards allowed per game. The yardage total is notable for sure, but also keep in mind EWU and UH threw 114 passes against the Huskies, 19 more than any defense in the country.
On paper, this looks like a golden opportunity for Martinez to once again make some big plays with his arm, especially with Washington undoubtedly coming in fully intent on stopping the run first and foremost. Still, Martinez is still going to have to make the throws when he gets the chance, and his receivers are also going to have to catch them. As long as they pick up where they left off last week, the advantage goes to the Huskers.
UW Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
The visions of Washington quarterback Jake Locker and running back Chris Polk running up and down Nebraska's defense throughout last year's Holiday Bowl still haven't quite been erased from the memories of Husker fans. While Locker has moved on to the NFL, Polk has been as bruising as ever this season. Even after having his knee scoped over the offseason, Polk has averaged 22.5 carries for 116.0 yards in UW's first two games.
There's no doubt that shutting down Polk will be priority No. 1 for Nebraska's defense, as Washington's offense is built around a power running game that opens up big pass plays. The Huskers got a taste of what to expect when Fresno State running back Robbie Rouse carried it 36 times for 169 yards, but there's no question that Polk will be a much tougher task this afternoon.
After last week's game, both head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini were obviously upset about their defense's performance, particularly the play of the defensive line and linebackers. Usually when the Pelini's get that upset about something, good things tend to result the following week. Look for Nebraska's front seven to come out on a mission today to make Polk a non-factor.
UW Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The hope for the past two weeks was that senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard would be back in the starting lineup after sitting out with a leg muscle injury since early in fall camp. At the moment, it looks as if Dennard is going to be shelved again against Washington, which changes the whole dynamic of this particular match-up. Now, sophomore Ciante Evans and sophomore Andrew Green will get their biggest test of the year against the Huskies experienced receiving corps.
Led by seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, Washington returns its top two receiving threats from last season. Aguilar is the Huskies' top target, and Kearse burned Nebraska for a touchdown bomb last year in Seattle. While he suffered a minor knee injury in the first game, two of Kearse's three catches on the year have gone for scores. Maybe the most dangerous receiving threat is freshman and former five-star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has four catches for 101 yards and a touchdown so far.
Nebraska had all kinds of trouble slowing down Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr last week, particularly having issues with his mobility and making plays out the pocket. Husky quarterback Keith Price is by no means what Locker was last year, and his mobility will be somewhat slowed from a knee injury he suffered in the opener. However, Price has the ability and the receiving targets to make the young Huskers' secondary have a long day.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior kicker/punter Brett Maher has proven he's as good as almost any kicker in the country, so just like when Alex Henery was around, Nebraska more often than not gets the edge automatically in the kicking and punting game. Then you have to add in the emergence of freshman Ameer Abdullah, who is on his way to establishing himself as one of the best return men in the Big Ten. Behind Abdullah, the Huskers currently lead the nation in kickoff returns (42.2 yards per return) and rank 13th nationally in punt returns 16.8).
Washington's special teams have gotten significantly better under head coach Steve Sarkisian, and the Huskies do rank third in the Pac-12 in kickoff returns (25.9). Matched up with the kicking and return games of the Huskers, though, it's tough to consider any team as having the advantage.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the ball effectively between the tackles and grind out some long drives, while also slowing down Washington's running game and forcing Price to beat it through the air. More so than any game so far this season, the Huskers have to find a way to dominate the trenches on both side of the ball and take advantage of opportunities in the passing game when they come about.
Washington Will Win If:
It does the same things Nebraska needs to do in terms of owning the line of scrimmage. Just like the Huskers, the Huskies are going to come in and prove they're the more physical team on both sides of the football. If they can come out and punch Nebraska in the mouth from the opening possession, it could set the tone of a big upset.
With all of the comparisons that can be made between these two teams, there might not be a more vital aspect to the game than turnovers. When you consider Nebraska has had some serious issues with holding onto the football (Martinez in particular) and then put that against a Husky team that ranks sixth nationally in turnover margin at +2.5, ball security will never be more important for the Huskers.