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Can South Carolina's defense slow down Taylor Martinez?
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Capital One Bowl
Nebraska vs. South Carolina
Date: Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
This is one of the better bowls each postseason, matching up powers from the SEC and Big Ten. Both South Carolina and Nebraska will bring a ton of fans, and we should see a physical, “running game and defense” type of game in Orlando. The Gamecocks finished 10-2, losing only to No. 6 Arkansas and defending national champion Auburn. Nebraska went 9-3 in its inaugural season in the Big Ten. This meeting will be the first between the two schools since 1987, and the Cornhuskers have won all three games between the programs.
Bo Pelini has taken the Huskers to a bowl game in each of his four seasons in Lincoln, while Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to the postseason in six of his seven years in Columbia. One interesting note with these two teams is that both defensive coordinators were hired as head coaches in December. Nebraska’s Carl Pelini is headed to Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt, while South Carolina’s Ellis Johnson is taking over at Southern Miss in Conference USA.
Nebraska has never met South Carolina in the postseason, but NU has faced a Steve Spurrier-led team in a bowl game. At the conclusion of the 1995 season, current Nebraska athletics director Tom Osborne led the 11-0 Big Eight champions against Spurrier and the 12-0 Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tommie Frazier-led Cornhuskers dominated the Gators, 62-24, and won that season’s national championship.
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL:
The Huskers rank 13th in the nation in rushing, with over 223 yards per game. Running back Rex Burkhead was one of the more productive rushers in the country, finishing the season with 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is also a huge part of the ground attack, and he ran for 837 yards and nine scores on the season. The potent rushing duo accounted for 433 of Nebraska’s 565 carries on the year.
The Nebraska passing game is limited, but Martinez did throw for 1,973 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Huskers’ leading receiver was Kenny Bell, who had 29 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns this season. Fans know what to expect when Nebraska plays, and the running game will be the key like usual.
South Carolina defense ranks fourth in the country in total defense and second in pass defense. The Gamecocks are led by a solid defensive line, with senior defensive end Melvin Ingram earning All-America honors after a season with 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three touchdowns scored. Safety Antonio Allen led the team in tackles with 81, and the Gamecocks had four different defenders with three interceptions. Despite being stellar against the pass, South Carolina ranks 44th in the country versus the run. Rushing quarterbacks for Navy and Citadel were able to give the Gamecocks some headaches, so stopping Martinez could be a challenge.
WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL:
October was a very turbulent month for the South Carolina offense. First, frequently-suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team. Second, the Gamecocks lost one of the better running backs in the nation when Marcus Lattimore suffered a knee injury in the Mississippi State game. Sophomore Connor Shaw took over at quarterback, and he has been more of a runner than typical Spurrier passer. Shaw played well late in the season and ran for seven touchdowns in South Carolina’s final five games.
Freshman runner Brandon Wilds did a solid job in replacing the heralded Lattimore. The rookie ran for over 100 yards in three of South Carolina’s final five games. Receiver Alshon Jeffery led the Gamecocks with 45 catches for 614 yards and seven scores, but his production dropped off from previous seasons with the inconsistent passing game. This Gamecocks’ team is not the old-school Spurrier passing type, instead relying on the ground attack and stellar defense.
The Nebraska defense is led by All-America linebacker Lavonte David, who topped the team in tackles with 122 while also adding 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. The Huskers did not get a ton of pressure on opposing passers this season, but defensive end Cameron Meredith was solid in leading the team with five sacks. Outstanding senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will cover Jeffery, but the key for the Cornhuskers in this game will be controlling the South Carolina run game.
Nebraska definitely has the advantage in this area. Kicker and punter Brett Maher had an excellent season and was named first-team All-Big Ten at both positions. He was 19-for-22 on field goals, and his three misses were from 50+ yards. Maher also averaged 45.0 yards on 54 punts, including placing 24 of them inside the 20-yard line. The Huskers also have one of the best returners in the nation in Ameer Abdullah. The speedy freshman from Alabama averaged an excellent 30.0 yards per kick return (while taking one to the house) and a solid 7.7 yards per punt return.
South Carolina kicker Jay Wooten was 7-for-10 on field goals and only attempted two kicks of less than 40 yards. Spurrier does not like to settle for three points, and the Gamecocks went for it on fourth down 28 times this year. Punter Joey Scribner-Howard averaged 38.9 yards on 47 punts, with 10 of them inside the 20-yard line. USC does have a solid punter returner in Ace Sanders, who averaged 9.3 yards per return and scored once. Bruce Ellington, who also plays on the Gamecocks’ basketball squad, will return kickoffs.
This will be a very physical game, where a key turnover or rare big play in the passing game could be the difference. I like South Carolina’s advantage in talent, but Steve Spurrier-led teams often struggle in the postseason. He has lost four of his five South Carolina postseason games, with the only win coming against Houston in the 2006 Liberty Bowl.
After winning their first two bowl games under Pelini, the Huskers looked bad in last season’s Holiday Bowl loss to Washington. It’s difficult to see that happening again. I’ll take the special teams edge with Nebraska winning a close, physical battle.
Nebraska 20, South Carolina 17