SAN DIEGO - If you tuned out of the first Washington-Nebraska meeting before halftime 31/2 months ago, then got stuck in a time machine and just broke free in the hours leading up to tonight's Holiday Bowl, you might be thinking one thing:
Shouldn’t that one-sided blowout be over yet?
No, it’s just starting over again – kickoff is at 7:06 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium – and neither head coach is putting much stock in what happened on that September day as the Cornhuskers rolled to a 56-21 victory in Seattle.
“Different time, different place,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Still, the difference isn’t enough to convince oddsmakers the game will play out any differently. The 17th-ranked Cornhuskers, winners of the Big 12 North Division, are two-touchdown favorites over the Huskies, who come in as the first 6-6 team in Holiday Bowl history.
“It’s not very often that you get to play the same team twice in a year,” UW safety Nate Williams said. “To get that opportunity, we want to take advantage of it as much as we can, to show the nation and to prove to ourselves and our coaches that what we showed in week No. 3 is not how we normally play. That team wasn’t the Husky team, I guess you could say.”
Hungry or fat and happy, motivated or disinterested – one thing about the Cornhuskers that cannot be debated is their bowl-game success under Pelini. Nebraska is 3-0 in the postseason under Pelini.
And in those bowl games, the job has been done by the defense, which has given up a grand total of 17 points in victories over Michigan State (17-3 win in 2003 Alamo Bowl, with Pelini as interim coach), Clemson (26-21 win in 2009 Gator Bowl) and Arizona (33-0 win in last year’s Holiday Bowl).
“I like the schedule we have for bowl games,” Pelini said. “We don’t overdo it. We take a business-like approach to it. I don’t think there’s anything magical to it.”
Well, maybe there is – or will have to be – on the UW side.
While the Huskies’ last bowl game was in 2002, Sarkisian was in the postseason in all seven of his seasons as an assistant at Southern California. And over the past three weeks, he’s laid out a bowl-game preparation template for his team to follow – virtually the same one that USC followed under then-coach Pete Carroll.
The early part of the schedule focused on resting veteran players and developing younger players – something that seemed to get the whole team energized as a primer.
The next week was five days of game-plan installation in Seattle.
The fact that UW arrived in San Diego on Dec. 23 was no coincidence – it was part of the blueprint Sarkisian is following. It gave the Huskies five more days to reinstall or reiterate the game plan, as if it was another normal practice week.
“I think that our football clocks, the way they are structured is it’s really a six-day event, but five days leading up to the (game). What I noticed, and Pete did too, is that sometimes (when) you practice in blocks of two to three practices at a time, you lose that rhythm,” Sarkisian said.
So it’s “the same practice structure, to a point where we really have this thing honed in and understand what we are trying to get down. In turn, hopefully we are executing at a very high level,” he added.
Whether it works and nets a victory – Sarkisian concedes that when it comes to preparing for a bowl game, “there are a lot of ways to skin a cat” – won’t be determined until long after the sun has set tonight in San Diego.
“Every time you play, you’ve got to earn it on the field,” Pelini said. “This is going to be a heck of a football game. I know they’re ready, and I think our team will be ready to go. It’s the team that makes the plays (tonight) that’s going to win the football game – period, end of story. Whatever happened in September, that’s over. That was a long time ago. There are a lot of things that have happened since then.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org
The series: Nebraska leads 4-3-1, including a 56-21 Sept. 18 victory over the Huskies in Seattle. The Cornhuskers have won the past three games.
The coaches: Nebraska’s Bo Pelini (30-11 record) is in his third season. He was a former defensive coordinator at Louisiana State (2005-07), Oklahoma (2004) and Nebraska (2003). UW’s Steve Sarkisian (11-13 record) is in his second season. He spent seven seasons (2001-2003, 2005-2008) as an assistant at Southern California.
Last game: Three Nebraska backfield runners, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez’s 137 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 100 yards or more against the UW defense as the Cornhuskers rolled up 383 yards on the ground – its second-highest total of the season behind the 451 at Kansas State.
Injury report: For Nebraska – QB Taylor Martinez (toe) and WR Niles Paul (foot) are probable. For UW – DE Talia Crichton (knee) is out; S Sean Parker (shoulder) is doubtful; and WR Cody Bruns (clavicle) and LG Ryan Tolar (knee) are probable.
The matchups THE EDGE
When you run, you get hit. And UW’s Jake Locker (ribs) and Martinez (ankle, toe) have missed games since their earlier matchup. Both can still change the complexion of a game, however, with one run.
Washington’s Chris Polk has been as vital to the Huskies’ late-season surge as anybody. His 1,238 yards are most ever by a UW sophomore. ... Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr. almost matched Polk (1,211), and teammate Rex Burkhead is running the “Wildcat” more.
Expect the Huskies to take calculated shots down the field to Jermaine Kearse (62 catches, 1,001 yards, 11 TDs) like they did in the first meeting. ... Brandon Kinnie and Niles Paul are big targets who break tackles for NU. They have had ball-security issues.
One team (Nebraska) has started all 13 games with the same five linemen. The other (UW) hasn’t seen the same five guys start more than two consecutive games together, mainly because of injuries.
Perhaps UW’s biggest worry coming into the game. If Kalani Aldrich plays limited snaps, the Huskies will have seven linemen to rotate. ... For the Cornhuskers, did we mention defensive tackle Jared Crick was a second-team All-American?
In terms of playmakers and always being around the ball, UW’s Mason Foster (151 tackles) and Nebraska’s Lavonte David (145 tackles) are as dependable as they come on the outside. Foster has a better supporting cast with Cort Dennison and Victor Aiyewa.
Let’s see – Locker completed 4 of 20 passes for 71 yards and two interceptions in the first matchup. And that was after the Huskies knew how fast and aggressive Nebraska’s defensive backs were. Led by cornerback Prince Amukamara, the Cornhuskers might be best in the country against the pass.
Both placekickers and both punters have been consistent and huge weapons. Thing is, nobody does either job better than Nebraska’s Alex Henery, who converted 18 of 19 field goals (including 10 of 11 from 40 yards or longer). He averaged 43.9 yards per punt.
Nebraska has had an interesting past four weeks, to say the least. Two players were arrested for DUI. Because he was linked to a couple of head-coaching openings, Pelini stopped talking to the media until he arrived in San Diego. ... Other than tight end Chris Izbicki abruptly quitting the team, UW has had no such drama.
UW has a tall task in front of it. Not only do the Huskies need to get Polk and Jesse Callier established heavily in the offense in order to win, they also need Nebraska to make mistakes. We’re not expecting that to happen tonight as the better team wins – again.