(Sports Network) The seventh-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers begin their final go- around in the Big 12 this Thursday night, as they take on the Kansas State Wildcats at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan.
With a move to the Big Ten already set for next season, this is Nebraska's last opportunity to claim a Big 12 title. The Huskers are a serious contender for the league crown, as they are 4-0 and have maintained a Top 10 ranking throughout their non-conference slate. Nebraska though, is coming off a less than impressive performance, closing out its non-conference schedule with a 17-3 victory over South Dakota State, a FCS program, on September 25th.
"I always believe when you walk out there you're going to get better or you're going to get worse. We got worse today," said head coach Bo Pelini after his team's lackluster performance against South Dakota State.
Despite the score being closer than anticipated, the Huskers are still 4-0 for the first time since 2005, and they will have plenty of opportunities to showcase their talent now that a tough Big 12 schedule is set to begin.
As for the Wildcats, they too bring a perfect 4-0 ledger into the contest, with three of those victories coming by nine points or fewer. The team was last in action on September 25th, when it rallied for a 17-13 victory over UCF in Manhattan.
"I sure am proud of the fact that we came back to win the ball game," stated head coach Bill Snyder.
KSU is now a perfect 3-0 at home, and the team is hoping to build off a 27-20 victory over Iowa State in its Big 12 opener back on September 18th.
With respect to the all-time series, Nebraska holds a commanding 77-15-2 advantage over KSU and the Huskers have won the past five meetings, including a 17-3 triumph last season.
Freshman QB Taylor Martinez has lived up to the hype thus far, but some concerns remain around the rookie sensation after a sub par performance against South Dakota State. Martinez paced the ground attack with 75 yards and threw for 140 more, but he had just one TD against three turnovers.
"He made bad decisions, he didn't execute. He didn't execute the offense the way he has been," said Pelini.
Just a freshman, Martinez will surely make his fair share of mistakes, but he must learn from them quickly with a much tougher schedule ahead. Martinez had dazzled with his legs, rushing for 496 yards and eight TDs, so expect opponents to stack the box and force the young gunslinger to beat them with his arm.
Speaking of running the ball, the Huskers have done that at an extremely high rate this season, averaging an eye-popping 309.2 ypg behind 7.0 yards per carry. Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead are both averaging over 7.0 yards per carry and they have combined for 609 yards and seven scores thus far. As a team, Nebraska has scored 16 of its 19 offensive TDs on the ground as well.
Nebraska's pass defense has been sensational this season, especially when considering the unit has faced a couple of elite QBs. The unit is permitting a mere 126.2 ypg through the air, while picking off 10 passes against just three TDs. Those are remarkable numbers, and the group was stout versus South Dakota State as well, allowing just 95 passing yards while recording two INTs.
"No, at times I was," Pelini said when asked if he was happy with the defense. "We gave them some yards and didn't execute. We held them to three points and we should have."
Pelini's disappointment stemmed from the run defense, which gave up 141 yards on the ground to South Dakota State. The Huskers have allowed a pair of backs to rush for 100 yards against them this season, and they are surrendering 138.8 ypg on the ground this season. LB Lavonte David, though, has done his part and he paces the team with 44 stops, including a 19-tackle performance last game.
For the Wildcats, they will surely test the Nebraska run defense, as they are averaging a healthy 216.0 ypg on the ground thus far. Daniel Thomas leads this attack with 628 yards and six scores, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. The steady back though, had his string of three consecutive 100-yard efforts snapped last game, as he was limited to 76 yards on 22 carries in a narrow win over UCF. If the Wildcats are to spring an upset this week, they will certainly need a bigger performance from Thomas.
Carson Coffman picked up the slack with the ground attack managing only 83 yards versus UCF, as he threw a 58-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter to tie the game before winning it on a seven-yard scamper with 24 seconds left.
"Carson made a couple of throws in there that made a difference in the drive and certainly being able to get us into the plays to put the ball into the end zone," said Snyder on the 13-play, 67-yard game-winning drive against UCF.
Coffman has completed 60.5 percent of his tosses this season, but hasn't been more of a manager of the offense, averaging only 159.8 passing ypg. He will surely be asked to do more with the Huskers likely to focus on stopping Thomas and the ground game.
KSU's defense will be challenged this week, as the unit hasn't proven it can not stop the run, allowing 195.5 ypg on the ground. Opponents are averaging 4.6 yards per carry versus the Wildcats, who were shredded for 252 rushing yards by UCF last game.
"I am pleased with our youngsters, defensively we gave up an awful lot of yardage but we were able to get them stopped when we needed to have them stopped," said Snyder.
The Wildcats have been able to come up with the key stops late in ball games, but with better teams ahead, they will need tighten things up. The pass defense has at least been stingy for KSU, allowing only 153.8 ypg through the air. The Huskers however, lack a passing attack, so it will really be up to the run defense to make the difference. LB Alex Hrebec needs to be a big factor for this unit, as he leads KSU with 39 stops for the year.
The Huskers didn't perform well last game, but they just have too many weapons for the Wildcats to handle. Nebraska's defense is also far better and the unit should fare well in a winning cause.