Published Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 10:11 pm / Updated at 10:28 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Bowl gives defense a shot at redemption
Husker Rewind
During the season, Sam McKewon breaks down Nebraska football news and previews the next opponent.

LINCOLN — Here's a thought to stuff in your Christmas stocking: If Nebraska's defense does peel its burnt-cheese edges off the pavement in time to stand up and stop Georgia's offense in the Capital One Bowl, it'll be a prominent, red-and-black feather in coach Bo Pelini's cap.

That's because this is the best offense Georgia's had, well, ever.

The Bulldogs have already scored 12 more touchdowns and 34 more points than any other team in school history. They'll need 23 first downs for the school record. They're averaging 7 yards per play — currently a school record. Quarterback Aaron Murray's 65.4 percent completion rate is second all time. Georgia averages 5 yards per carry, 9.7 yards per pass attempt, and scored 24 touchdowns in two minutes or less.

If the athletes on the Bulldogs' defense — Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, the giant Kwame Geathers — get more of the headlines, it's the run-downhill-to-throw-deep offense that does more of the heavy lifting.

The game within the game as we run headlong into bowl week is this: Pelini's complex, match-read defense — excellent one game, befuddling the next — against Georgia coach Mark Richt's complex, pro-style offense. Richt — every bit the offensive coordinator at Florida State that Pelini was the defensive coordinator at LSU — likes young coaches on his side of the ball as much as Pelini does.

Richt has former Bulldog quarterback Mike Bobo calling the plays. Bobo, 38, is essentially a wunderkind, a full-time assistant by age 27, a Georgia lifer, perhaps Richt's successor. The Bulldogs' offensive line coach is 37 and was a four-year starter at Alabama. Running backs coach Bryan McClendon — who coached up true freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall this year — just turned 29.

You know how Pelini rolls. There might not be a younger defensive staff in the country. But they're all on same page — Bo's page. That's why, after the 70-31 debacle against Wisconsin, they were all equally stunned by the meltdown.

There are no easy answers for Bo in this game.

Georgia is comfortable spreading out and running into an emptied-out defensive box. It's comfortable throwing downfield to lanky wide receivers. It's comfortable testing safeties up the seam. It's comfortable getting the ball in space to Gurley and Marshall, two explosive athletes who combined for more than 2,000 total yards, and letting them work. It's comfortable working corners in the slot.

All the things an offense could do to exploit the weaknesses of NU's defense, the Bulldogs can, except one — Murray doesn't run the zone read. Murray's second nationally in passing efficiency, though. That makes up for it.

I understand the notion that the bowls don't mean much — that they're glorified exhibitions and all the other desultory terms people chasing headlines like to use — but there is something of value in watching Pelini and his roller-coaster defense bite into this challenge. Georgia's offense isn't a big gimmick or a series of three-card monte plays. It's Wisconsin with more speed, more experience and a little less beef. Bo wanted this game and this opponent, and he pitched it to his team as a chance at redemption. The Capital One Bowl doesn't get the capital letter treatment, but there is meaning in this. The kind, maybe, that you get when you look in the mirror.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

>> Quarterback Taylor Martinez: Captain Magic. Martinez as captain is an upset, but the game doesn't lie, and Martinez's teammates know it. He saved their bacon more than once this season.

>> Running back Rex Burkhead: Healthy and smiling. Good to see. Look for more on Rex's off-the-field work from World-Herald staff writer Jon Nyatawa on Christmas.

>> Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: Still working late after every practice. It'll pay off for him. Ditto for Charles Jackson and Imani Cross, who often do the same.

>> Offensive tackle recruit David Knevel: Much will be expected of the Canadian giant, the most gifted offensive line recruit of the Pelini era not named Baker Steinkuhler.

>> Left guard Jake Cotton: The scar on his knee is so prominent, it made me wonder if he'd play at all this year. Barney Cotton's second Husker son is a quiet one, but I suspect his rehab story is worth hearing. He had to work hard to put himself in position to play in the bowl game. Which he likely will.

>> Oregon wide receiver Daryle Hawkins: The Omaha Central product is third on the team in receptions. I fear that, as a senior, Hawkins may not have a bowl game to play in. The NCAA is circling in on Ducks coach Chip Kelly and that little Texas scouting service he used a few years ago.

>> North Dakota State defenders Christian Dudzik and Kyle Emanuel: Both Nebraska natives start on the No. 1 defense in the FCS. The Bison — who would beat Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Purdue tomorrow — will play for a second straight national title Jan. 5. Both of these kids could have helped the Huskers next year — and not just on special teams.

Three concerns

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>> Local players getting away: The end of the “I see you” section should underline my point enough. Since Bill Callahan's arrival — much less Pelini's — Nebraska hasn't invested enough scholarships in in-state players.

>> Playing a road game in the bowl game: I expect Georgia to have twice as many fans as Nebraska, which puts the Huskers at a greater crowd disadvantage than they had at UCLA or Northwestern. I can't blame NU fans for not going. Orlando is expensive — and crowded! — during the holidays.

>> UCLA beating Nebraska again on the recruiting trail: The Bruins already snatched away three offensive linemen the Huskers wanted — Christian Morris, Kenny Lacy and Scott Quessenberry. Now, Los Angeles superstar running back Terrell Newby has NU and UCLA in his top three. (The third is Oregon, which has a five-star running back already in its fold).

Newby's terrific, electric. Aaron Green all over again — but a tougher runner. Nebraska needs that athlete in the Big Ten. Ohio State's getting them. Michigan's getting them.

Three questions

>> Is there new hope for defensive tackle recruiting? Apparently so. Hutchinson (Kan.) defensive tackle Ben Bradley — who was assumed to be off NU's radar and heading to Tennessee — is still in the mix because he didn't sign with the Volunteers' new coaching staff. He'll make a decision later this week. And Nebraska's still in it.

A 6-foot-2, 315-pound four-star, Bradley was the lesser-known teammate of Toby Johnson, the No. 1 junior college recruit until he tore his knee. Bradley's built like a fire hydrant and has a solid swim move. He goes to his right too much. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski would have to teach him how to actually play the position. But the raw tools are there.

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>> Did Adam Taylor just touch off a recruiting frenzy? The 2013 Nebraska commit romped for 276 yards and five touchdowns in the Texas 5A state championship Saturday, immediately prompting concerns that the Katy High School star will be whisked away by Texas.

I doubt it. Taylor got burned in the recruiting process once by LSU. Nebraska didn't burn him, sold him on the family atmosphere and earned the commit based on that. Taylor's mindset and quiet nature seem a fit for the Huskers.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder wears No. 28 and runs like Adrian Peterson. Well, he does — straight up-and-down, hard to topple once he reaches full speed.

But AD is a once-in-a-generation athlete, able to change direction breathlessly without losing speed. And Peterson could run away from nearly any defensive back. Taylor doesn't have quite that talent. But he doesn't fool around as a runner, and he attacks a hole. He's an interesting addition to the Huskers.

>> How did Barry Alvarez do hiring Utah State's Gary Andersen? I'm supposed to call it a home run because most everything Alvarez touches turns to gold. We'll see. All three of the major teams in Utah are now built the same way — physical defenses, hot-and-cold quarterbacks, decent running games — and Andersen did it as well at Utah State in recent years as his competitors did at Utah and BYU.

But Andersen is a risk. The coaches who best make the jump from the mid-major Division I schools to BCS conferences generally have a lot of BCS assistant experience under their belts — like Brady Hoke at Michigan — or fall feet-first into an embarrassment of talent. Like Urban Meyer at Florida. (Meyer had the BCS experience, too.)

Andersen will have neither as he heads to Wisconsin. He's spent most of his career in Utah. On the talent front, don't kid yourself: Bret Bielema knew when to get out. The Badgers don't have the players of Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska or even Michigan State. And without elite offensive assistants around to develop midlevel talent on hand, you saw how UW's offense choked and sputtered until the Big Ten championship. It's a tougher job than it appears.

Three stats

>> 21: Fumbles lost for Nebraska. Tied for last in the nation with Memphis. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck cited a “high-risk offense” for some of the turnovers, and frankly I agree — NU needs more takeaways. But ball security is a learned skill. The Huskers — especially Martinez — need to learn it better.

>> 20: Forced fumbles by Georgia. That's No. 3 in the country. The Bulldogs recovered 16 of them. That's No. 2 nationally. Linebacker Jarvis Jones, just another guy, has seven forced fumbles by himself. That's No. 1 among defensive players. Makes you feel a lot better, right?

>> 553: The number of snaps Georgia athlete Malcolm Mitchell has taken this year. That's 226 on offense, 178 on defense and 126 on special teams. The sophomore leads the Bulldogs in catches with 40.

Opponent watch

Bo Pelini would have some appreciation for Georgia's current white bulldog mascot, Uga IX. Why? Because the pooch formerly known as “Russ” was an interim mascot. Twice.

The first time was in 2009, when Russ' half-brother, Uga VII, died of what the Georgia media guide called “heart-related causes.” Russ led the Bulldogs to a 30-24 win at ACC champion Georgia Tech.

Uga VIII — formerly known as “Big Bad Bruce” — took over the next season, but only for six games. He died of lymphoma. Russ manned the doghouse for the rest of that year, all of 2011 and two games in 2012 as an interim. For Georgia's win against Florida Atlantic, he got the official Uga IX designation.

The Uga English bulldog mascot wasn't officially introduced until 1956, though Georgia had used Bulldogs since 1944. Georgia won its 1980 national title with Uga III roaming the sideline. The school's first mascot in 1892? A goat.

Forecast

Full bellies and long, worried chats about the state of Husker football between renditions of “O Holy Night” and “Silver Bells.”

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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