(Sports Network) Two of the top teams in the Big 12 Conference meet in College Station on Saturday night, as the ninth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers come calling on the 18th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies.
Nebraska currently sits atop the Big 12 North Division, and can earn its second straight trip to the conference championship game with a win over the Aggies, who are currently tied with Oklahoma for second place in the Big 12 South. A&M holds the tie-breaker with the Sooners after beating them, 33-19, at home two weeks ago.
The Cornhuskers, who are coached by Bo Pelini and who have won four straight games since suffering their lone defeat of the season (20-13 vs. Texas), will host Colorado next Friday in the regular-season finale, while the Aggies, who are led by Mike Sherman and have also won four in a row since suffering a two- game losing streak (38-35 at Oklahoma State, 24-17 vs. Arkansas), will visit bitter rival Texas on Thanksgiving night.
The all-time series between these two teams favors Nebraska, 10-3, which includes a 5-2 advantage since the formation of the Big 12.
It wasn't pretty, but the Cornhuskers remained relevant in the BCS National Championship picture with last Saturday's 20-3 win over Kansas. Freshman QB Taylor Martinez returned to action and completed 14-of-26 passes for 167 yards while also adding 71 rushing yards on 11 carries. RB Roy Helu, Jr. rumbled his way to 85 yards and a TD, as Nebraska churned out 230 yards on the ground. WR Niles Paul led all receivers in the game with seven grabs for 79 yards, while Brandon Kinnie finished with six catches for 67 yards.
Coach Pelini was obviously happy to get the win, but expressed his dismay at his offense's performance, "Not good enough. There are a lot of things we need to pick up, we weren't very efficient," He continued, "We didn't execute very well, we were sloppy. We didn't play our best, but we won 20-3, and it's time to move on to the next one."
Martinez has enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, throwing for 1,328 yards, nine TDs and only four INTs, while ranking sixth in the conference in rushing with 957 yards and 12 TDs. Helu, Jr, is the league's fourth-leading rusher with 991 and 10 scores. Overall, the Huskers sit second in the Big 12 in scoring offense (35.4 ppg), while leading the league and ranking seventh nationally on the ground (282.3 ypg).
With the offense spinning its wheels a bit last week, the Nebraska defense turned in an exceptional effort in holding Kansas to a mere 87 total yards. It marked the fewest yards allowed by NU since holding Baylor to 84 yards more than a decade ago. The Jayhawks managed just five first downs in the contest, and a net of only 15 passing yards. Lavonte David was the only Husker to log double-digit tackles in the win with 10, two of which were sacks. As a team, Nebraska had a total of six sacks on the day.
Pelini praised the play of his defense against the Jayhawks, "The defense played well. I thought we, front to back, we executed well, we tackled well. I thought it was a really solid performance. You don't hold somebody to under 100 yards without playing good football."
The Cornhuskers now boast the nation's sixth-ranked defense (292.9 ypg), and they lead the country in pass efficiency defense (91.55) while ranking second in pass defense (140.2 ypg). David has been a man possessed for the 'Blackshirts' this season, logging an impressive 106 total tackles, of which 10 have been for negative yardage, including five sacks. His closest teammate is DeJon Gomes with 78 stops. Jared Crick has 6.5 of the team's 26 sacks, and the Cornhuskers have come up with 16 INTs, but only three fumble recoveries.
The Aggies claimed a 42-30 triumph at Baylor last Saturday to improve to 7-3 on the year, which is an improvement over the six wins the team notched last season. RB Cyrus Gray ran for 137 yards and a career-high four TDs against the Bears, three of which came in the second half. Gray, who averages 67.3 ypg and has scored 10 TDs this season, has rushed for 100 yards in four straight games, all of which have been victories. QB Ryan Tannehill improved to 3-0 since taking over as the starter, as he threw for 280 yards and a score against Baylor. Uzoma Nwachukwu caught eight passes for 73 yards to give home 30 catches on the year for 354 yards and two scores.
Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope currently pace the A&M receiving corps with a combined 122 receptions, 1,634 yards and 15 TDs -- 11 of which belong to Fuller, who is one of the 10 semifinalists for the 2010 Biletnikoff Award and who owns the school record for consecutive games with a catch (30).
The Aggies currently rank fourth in the Big 12 in scoring offense (34.9 ppg), while sitting third in passing offense (308.1 ypg). A&M is the league's top team in terms of third-down conversions, moving the chains 45.7 percent of the time.
Texas A&M's defense ran into a buzz saw early in last week's game, as Baylor RB Jay Finley rushed for 168 yards and three TDs. However, he had only 23 yards in the second half, demonstrating the ability of the Big 12's top run defense (A&M at 112.2 ypg) to make adjustments. Of course, the question this week is whether or not the Aggies can force the action at the line of scrimmage against Nebraska's vaunted rushing attack.
Baylor finished with 503 yards of total offense last week, and averaged 5.6 ypc in picking up 291 yards on the ground. The Aggies failed to come up with a turnover in the game, but did post four sacks. Garrick Williams was A&M's most active defender, logging 11 tackles, nine of which were unassisted, while Trent Hunter, Steven Terrell and Von Miller finished with nine stops each.
Michael Hodges and Williams rank one-two on the Aggies' tackles list for the season with 84 and 81, respectively, with the former being credited with 4.5 of the team's 23 sacks.
Coach Sherman liked the resiliency his team demonstrated last week, "We went in at halftime during the Baylor game and just told them what they needed to do in the second half, people thought we went in there screaming but we just talked about keeping composure, not panic, stay the course and we will win this football game."
He also spoke recently about the challenge his team faces this week, particularly against the Nebraska defense, "They lock you up on the perimeter and they work hard to take those receivers out of the game. They play man coverage as good as I have ever seen and they have an excellent secondary. I think they have only given up 149.5 yards passing per game, which in this league is pretty impressive and they have a scoring defense as well so it will be a challenge for us."
Nebraska is the better all-around team in this matchup, but not by much. Expect to see the Huskers go right after the Aggie defensive front in an attempt to establish the run. It may come down to Martinez and his ability to make plays, something the cool freshman has done many times this season.