Four weeks ago, I started thinking about the final Big 12 game between the Buffs and the Cornhuskers and immediately was saddened by the prospect that it would mean nothing. Many figured Nebraska would already have the Big 12 North locked up and that Colorado would have no shot at postseason play. Fortunately for Buff fans, interim head coach Brian Cabral and company have righted the ship, making the final conference showdown between the Huskers and the Buffs important, the way it should be, as both teams move to greener pastures in 2011.
The good news is in the process of Colorado turning it around and playing their best football of the season, the Cornhuskers have stumbled down the stretch. With WR Niles Paul out of the game, QB Taylor Martinez's status up in the air and controversy stemming from the Pelini Bros' actions last week against Texas A&M, Colorado should have the opportunity to stick with the Huskers.
After dominating Iowa State and Kansas State the last two weeks at Folsom, Cabral must get his Buffs' team to play with energy and passion away from Boulder. CU has not won a road game since October of 2007. Cabral has already made us believe this is a solid football team and a win against Nebraska ending the three year road losing streak would certainly help his chances of keeping the head coaching job for the foreseeable future.
The Huskers have one of the top running attacks in the nation while boasting the 9th ranked defense. Fortunately for the Buffs, the past two weeks they have been dominant against the opposition's running attack. CU held two solid running teams in Iowa State and Kansas State to just 95 yards on 64 carries. Throw in the fact that the Huskers leading player maker in QB Taylor Martinez is questionable to play, all signs point to Colorado potentially limiting Nebraska on the offensive side of the ball. The Huskers have only averaged 13 points the past two weeks with Martinez being slowed by injury.
The big matchup of the day, though, will be the surging Colorado offense against a top ranked Nebraska defense. The Buffs have exploded offensively the last three weeks behind QB Cody Hawkins and RB Rodney Stewart. Hawkins has thrown for 790 yards and nine touchdowns while Stewart has been unstoppable on the ground. The quick back ran for 195 yards last week against the Wildcats, bringing his season total to 1,230. The last three weeks, he has run for a whopping 493 yards and six total touchdowns. But it is a different defense this week than the last three. Nebraska has been superb, ranking ninth in total defense allowing only 294 yards a game. If there is any good news, the Huskers have been much better against the pass than they are against the run as they're one of the few teams that allows more rushing yards than passing yards a game. Colorado's last two opponents, Iowa State and Kansas State, totaled 337 yards on the ground combined against the Huskers.
Special teams play continues to hamper the Buffs. Colorado has given away field position all year only averaging 34 yards a punt, 92nd in the nation. Nebraska comes in with one of the best placekickers in America in Alex Henery. Buff fans remember Henery well. In 2008, Colorado had Nebraska beat in Lincoln. It was 4th & 25 from the Nebraska 40 yard line, Buffs up one with only a 1:50 left in the game. Henery comes in and drills a 57 yard field goal, ending Colorado's upset hopes.
Now, keys to the game after the jump...
Penalties, Turnovers & Third Down Conversions
Last week, Colorado had two penalties, no turnovers and was 9-14 on third down. It was their best performance in all three categories this year. Nebraska ranks 109th in penalties averaging 7.8 a game, the Buffs rank 82nd averaging 6.4. Nebraska ranks 48th in turnover margin, the Buffs 38th. Nebraska ranks 49th in third down conversions, the Buffs rank 23rd, converting on almost 47% of their third downs. If Colorado can limit the mistakes and convert at a better rate than the Huskers like they have done all year, the CU should be in the game all the way until the end.
When you play the seventh ranked rushing offense and the ninth ranked defense, you know Colorado will have to play well in the trenches to win. The Buffs' line has played great the last two weeks with huge rushing outputs and most important, only allowing one sack. Cody Hawkins has had time to throw and if they can keep Nebraska off of him today, Cody has shown he can be successful. If you can point towards a slight weakness on this Nebraska defense, it is their defensive line so if OG Ryan Miller and OT Nate Solder can move the Huskers front seven, Rodney Stewart should have some success.
As highlighted above, the Buffs' defense has been excellent against the run the last two weeks. They have also been able to get to the quarterback frequently. The last two weeks, Colorado has sacked the quarterback 14 times.
Limit the Big Play Early, Make Someone Other Than Helu and Burkhead Beat You
Regardless of who is at quarterback, Nebraska still has two big play makers in running backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead. Helu has averaged 6.9 a carry this year while Burkhead has averaged 5.8. The good news is starting QB Cody Green is not nearly the spread option threat Taylor Martinez is, allowing the defense to key more on the running back and less on the quarterback. This year, Martinez has totaled 974 yards with a 7.3 a carry average while Green has only averaged 2.8 per carry and 75 yards. Considering that the Huskers #1 receiver in Niles Paul is out of the game as well, Colorado should be able to load the box and make Cody Green beat them.
But the Buffs defense will need to sure up defending the middle of the field. Last week, Kansas State exposed the inexperience in the Buffs' secondary with their ability to attack the middle of the field with slot receivers and tight ends. Defensive backs Tyler Sandersfield, Ray Polk and Terrel Smith will have to play better today.
Colorado has played at a higher energy level the past two weeks under Brian Cabral, they have been physically dominant and have shown more emotion than they ever did under Dan Hawkins. That same energy level and confidence needs to transfer on the road. We will know if Brian Cabral is head coach material if he can get his team to respond on the road like he did at Folsom. Cabral has highlighted this game like McCartney did, has expressed its importance, hopefully his team buys in.
I can see both teams loading up the box in an attempt to stop the run. The first team, in my opinion, to have success challenging the opposition downfield and loosening up the line of scrimmage will win this game. If the Buffs get too conservative, it might play right into the hands of the Huskers' defense. Colorado has play makers on the edge in Scotty McKnight, Toney Clemons and Paul Richardson. If they can get a guy like Paul Richardson going early, the field should open up.
Can't Afford 34 Yard Punts, Special Teams Let Downs
Last year, the Buffs lost by 8 points. Nebraska got two non-offensive touchdowns. Can't allow that to happen this year on the road. In fact, wouldn't it be nice for the Buffs' special teams to outplay the Huskers' special teams?
Go Buffs! Beat the Huskers!