Can the Blackshirts keep the Sooner offense in check?
Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, 7 p.m., Saturday
Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Maybe the football gods are sentimental. In what — for now — projects as the final Big 12 championship game, Oklahoma and Nebraska come together for one more major matchup with big-bowl implications.
Next year, Nebraska will be banging heads with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State for Big Ten supremacy, leaving behind long-term ties and rivalries, none richer than the one with the Sooners.
The two haven’t clashed as often on the big stage of late, with only 2006 featuring an OU-Nebraska title-game pairing in the Big 12.
But the two are used to high stakes games, meeting 20 times to end the season since World War II with the conference title on the line.
Of course, the 1971 “Game of the Century” remains the magical moment in the series, which OU leads 44-38-3. But many more memorable games both preceded and followed that one, typically sending the winner to a major bowl.
And so it is this time — one last time — with the winner earning a Fiesta Bowl bid. For old time’s sake.
Big 12 Breakdown:
Quarterback: OU’s Landry Jones has been labeled inconsistent, due to some measure of struggle on the road. Still, he’s thrown for 3,947 yards and 34 touchdowns, with just 10 interceptions. His yardage total ranks No. 2 at OU all-time, and he’s coming off a school record-tying 468 yards at Oklahoma State. The Huskers are unsettled at the position, with Taylor Martinez battling foot injuries and backup Cody Green more of a caretaker quarterback. Still, Green led Nebraska’s win over the Sooners in 2009, which also represents Jones’ worst career game as a Sooner. Edge: Sooners.
Running back: Nebraska’s two-pronged approach with Roy Helu Jr. (1,120 yards) and Rex Burkhead (822) ranks among the best combinations in the country, combining for 17 rushing touchdowns. Burkhead has also been a factor in the Wildcat formation, throwing for two TDs last week against Colorado. The Sooners counter with their own talented tandem, senior DeMarco Murray and freshman Roy Finch. Murray owns OU’s career records for total offense and touchdowns and is a threat as a receiver. Finch offers a change-of-pace as a shifty speedster. Edge: Huskers.
Receivers: Sooner wideout Ryan Broyles is a Biletnikoff finalist and a big-play threat who leads the nation in receptions per game. He must be accounted for at all times. Kenny Stills, Trey Franks and tight ends James Hanna give Jones more reliable targets in one of the nation’s top passing attacks. Nebraska’s receiving corps took a hit when leading receiver Niles Paul went down with a foot injury in practice a week ago, forcing him to miss the Colorado game and leaving him unlikely to play against OU. Without Paul, the pressure shifts to Brandon Kinnie, Kyler Reed and Mike McNeill to make plays. Edge: Sooners.
Offensive line: The Sooner and Husker offensive fronts are opposites with differing strengths. OU’s line is strong in pass protection, yet struggles to provide consistent running lanes. Nebraska’s front specializes in run blocking, but can allow pressure, a problem if Martinez doesn’t play or is at less than 100 percent. Edge: Huskers.
Defensive line: This isn’t the same Husker front that dominated with Ndamukong Suh wrecking game plans, but it remains solid, led by standout tackle Jared Crick, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks. And pressure is the key against Jones, who becomes erratic when hurried. The strength of the Sooner line is outside, led by end Jeremy Beal, voted Defensive Lineman of the Year by the league’s coaches. Edge: Even.
Linebacker: OU’s Travis Lewis is a run-stopping fool, working on a third straight season of leading the team in tackles. The return of Austin Box seems to have solidified the unit as a whole for the Sooners. For the Huskers, Lavonte David, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, has been a major addition, leading the team in tackles and ranking among the leaders in almost every major stat category. Edge: Even.
Secondary: The Huskers boast one the nation’s top units, led by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Thorpe Award finalist Prince Amukamara at cornerback. Safety DeJon Gomes ranks second on the team in tackles and nickel back Eric Hagg has made 32 career starts. The Sooner DBs are solid, with safety Quinton Carter an AFCA All-American who plays physical, a necessity against Nebraska’s power running game. Edge: Huskers.
Special teams: There may be no better dual-threat kicker than Nebraska’s Alex Henery, who is 66-for-74 in career field goals and is adept at dropping punts inside the 20-yard line. OU punter Tress Way is one of the nation’s best, but placekicking has been a major problem for the Sooners, particularly anything beyond 35 yards. With Paul ailing, neither team’s return game is anything special. Edge: Huskers.
Bottom line: This game offers intriguing matchups of strengths on strengths. Nebraska’s great secondary against Jones and Broyles and Co. The Sooner run stoppers against Helu Jr. and Burkhead. Injuries, however, could swing the outcome decidedly one way, with Martinez needed to offer an added element to the Husker attack. Without him, the Huskers are in trouble.