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2006 Season Preview: Nebraska

The season previews continue with a look at the Horns' October 21st trip to Lincoln to battle with Nebraska.

When Nebraska Has The Ball

Bill Callahan's West Coast offensive style is well documented, but let's look a little closer at what the Huskers like to do, as well as the key personnel.

"Key" Losses It would be interesting to highlight key losses for Nebraska on the offensive side of the football. Fortunately, or unfortunately - depends on your angle - there aren't any. Why? Not a single offensive player for Nebraska was on the First or even Second All Big 12 team. Zero. With no outstanding offensive players in 2005, they technically couldn't lose any outstanding players. Like I said, depends on your angle.

From Bad To Worse?
It wasn't just a lack of star power on the Nebraska offense last year; they were genuinely bad for most of last season. The main culprit? A below average offensive line, which "helped" Nebraska to an embarrassing 96 rush yards per game, and just 2.7 yards per rush.

Of course, those numbers "count" the 381 rushing yards lost to Nebraska's astounding 50 sacks allowed. No typo there. Fifty is correct. So the rushing totals are a touch better than the initial numbers presented, but the problem is clear.

The 2005 Zac Taylor throwing motion.

The Huskers now face breaking in a new running back, where Marlon Lucky, Cody Glenn, Kenny Wilson and Leon Jackson are all battling to be the starter at tailback. There's some talent in the group, but if the line play doesn't improve, there won't be much room to maneuver anyway. Against Texas' monster defensive line, the Huskers' hogs better be significantly better than last year.

We're Not In Kansas Anymore
The line is expected to improve after losing only right guard Brandon Koch and tacke Seppo Evwaraye. The latter had lost his job by the end of the year to Matt Slauson anyway, though, so it's not terribly relevant.

With a more experienced line, the Huskers hope to improve the running game, but the real source of optimism, of course, is the Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan and the three game winning streak that completed the Huskers' 2005 season. That helped erase painful memories of Nebraska's humiliating 40-15 defeat in Lawrence to the Jayhawks.

But was it really much to get excited about? In the Alamo Bowl, quarterback Zac Taylor did throw three touchdown passes, but the Huskers were outgained in the game, were sacked five times, and managed just sixteen first downs.

The high hopes in Lincoln seem to be fueled by a strong feeling that the key players from last year's decent offensive team return, and those players will only be better with experience. Perhaps, but without any real stars, and with questions remaining on the offensive line, I probably shouldn't be the only one that's wondering if this offense is really ready to take a big step forward.

So It's The Passing Game, Right?
The Huskers do actually return some interesting talent at wideout, and will work in some prized freshmen into the rotation, but the key of course is Taylor. For all the confidence some seem to have in him, there's not much in the numbers to suggest an above average quarterback.

As a junior, Taylor completed only 55% of his passes, with a 19-12 TD-INT ratio. That's not especially bad, but it's not good, either. Unlike his predecessors at the university, he's not much of a runner, so you can scratch "dual threat" from the resume.

It's reasonable to expect improvement from Taylor, but his ceiling is almost assuredly a pretty low one, given his track record. Comfort in the Callahan offense is sure to help, and the army of fleet receivers will make him look better than he is from time to time, but fast, physical defenses will continue to give this offense fits.

Which means, as in 2005, the defense will be what makes or breaks this team. So let's get to it...

When Texas Has The Ball

Linebackers Galore
It's the defense that's got me thinking Nebraska can win the North division this year, and it starts with a stable of talented and experienced linebackers. Bo Ruud, Corey McKeon, and Stewart Bradley all return, while Steve Octavien is fully healed from a broken leg suffered during last season's opener against Maine. All four can play the position well, and will give defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove a solid nucleus to build on.

Sacking Consistency
Not to be outdone by their counterparts on offense, the Huskers' defensive linemen put on a sack show of their own, tracking down the quarterback 38 times last year. Both Adam Carriker and Jay Moore return, giving the Huskers talent and experience at ends that only Texas can match in the conference.

So... What Do We Do?
We'll know by this point whether or not Colt McCoy's ready for big time college football, but this will be his first serious road test - provided you don't count the showdown in Dallas with OU. Can he handle what will assuredly be a raucous, hostile crowd? He'll need to be solid, but the Huskers weren't dominant against the run last year. With both tackles graduating, the Hukser line may be vulnerable in the middle - I'd expect Texas to give "running the ball down their throats" every opportunity to succeed. Passing is inherently riskier than rushing; we won't do much of it unless we have to.

Selvin, Jamaal, and Henry will get LOTS of touches in this game. Unless and until Nebraska completely stuffs the Texas run game, we'll keep going at it. And why not? Our line is terrific, our backs are elite, and our quarterback is green. Given Texas' significant advantages in the "Texas D versus Nebraska O" matchup, this is one of those games when we're very likely to see a conservative Texas gameplan.

Texas Can Win The Game If: The running game is reasonably effective and turnovers are limited. This is one of those dangerous road games where Texas has significant advantages, but not enough so that costly turnovers that spark their opponent's otherwise outmatched offense can't lead to an upset. You can throw three picks against Rice and still win. Do it in Lincoln... trouble.

Nebraska Can Win The Game If: The defense has their best game of the year. A turnover or two is probably needed for Nebraska to win this game. They aren't going to win a drawn out field position battle game with Texas because their offense won't be able to sustain enough drives against this talented defense. If turnovers or big plays on special teams give the Huskers a couple few short fields to work with, they can hang in this game, and win it. Otherwise, Texas will wear this team down.