Football purists should love watching the Nebraska defense. Obviously, Heisman Trophy finalist Ndamukong Suh is one of the most dominant defensive players of the last decade. Watching him toss offensive linemen around like rag dolls is worth the price of admission alone. The rest of coach Bo Pelini's well-coached unit key off of Suh's ability to wreak havoc in the interior, and you won't find a team anywhere in the country that tackles better than the Cornhuskers.
When Arizona has the football:
Arizona's move to a wide-open spread attack under coordinator Sonny Dykes has been the story on the offensive side of the ball in recent years for the Wildcats. In 2009, however, the running game really clicked, generating nearly five yards per attempt. In three of four losses, opponents stifled U of A's ground game, holding the Wildcats to 3.63 yards or fewer per rush. Meanwhile, sophomore signal caller Nick Foles put together a solid season, completing 66.1 percent of his passes to go along with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. ‘Zona doesn't win games by relying on Foles' arm, so establishing the run is key in this game.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they're facing one of the best run defenses in the country. NU gave up just 2.77 yards per rushing attempt, ranking sixth overall in the country. Suh excels at penetrating the middle of the line of scrimmage and generating tremendous push against opposing offensive lines, typically rendering efforts to run inside moot. The ‘Husker D is equally stout against the pass, allowing the sixth fewest yards per passing attempt in the country in 2009, 5.4. The bottom line is that few teams have had success moving the ball by land or air this season.
When Nebraska has the football:
There's no way to sugarcoat this: Nebraska's offense flat-out stinks. The ‘Huskers don't run the ball well at all. Quarterback Zac Lee leads a passing offense that has somehow managed to be even worse than NU's run game. Against quality competition this year, Pelini has emphasized playing an ugly game that relies on field position and conservative play-calling to work the clock and keep the score down. It ain't sexy, but it's the best the ‘Huskers can do, given their shocking offensive incompetence.
Arizona coach Mike Stoops made his bones as the defensive coordinator under brother Bob at Oklahoma, which shows which side of the ball truly has his heart. His Wildcats finished 31st overall in total defense this year, allowing an average of 5.0 yards per play. How good U of A's defense really is may not matter, though; Nebraska's offense is that bad.
To be honest, there aren't many off-the-field angles at play in this game. The match-up features two programs on the rise, both of which aspire to bigger things but likely expected a semi-prestigious bowl bid this season. The heartbreak of Nebraska's loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game may yield a minor hangover effect for the ‘Huskers.
What will happen:
Nebraska's top-tier defense can keep it in just about any game, especially if it can put NU's putrid offense in advantageous field position. The ‘Huskers need cheap points off of turnovers to win games against a quality opponent. A game in the teens probably favors NU.
If Arizona can take care of the ball, the Wildcats should have just enough offensive firepower to secure a close win.
My pick: Arizona 20, Nebraska 17