USC-Nebraska: The day before preview
LINCOLN, Neb. - This is a battle to see who hits the alarm clock first.
Both teams seem to be sleeping. Nebraska didn't light up the sky with its three-point escape at Wake Forest. And USC plodded its way through the Idaho game with its eyes seemingly at half-mast.
Both teams need a Red Bull. A Rock Star. And a couple of Jolt Colas.
Sam Keller seems to be still trying to gel into Bill Calahan's offense, much less his new surroundings in the NU backfield. The Husker defense has had its moments, but let's be honest, a backup QB for the Demon Deacons was one ill-advised pass away from beating the Big Red.
And USC? Still injury-riddled, this team had a redshirt frosh QB for Idaho (Nathan Enderle, a native Nebraskan, no less) play a decent game, going 16-for-34 with no picks. They also chased the heels of unsung running back Deonte Jackson all night. It wasn't the performance of a team looking to state its case. Maybe this is their opportunity, right?
Well here's what is on the line for each team and why a win on Saturday would mean so much.
5 Must-Win Reasons:
1- Not to state the obvious but, this would be a marquee win for Bill Callahan.
Not many in Huskerland are convinced this outsider has the program "back" by any stretch. But imagine what a win here would do? It would certainly prove the program has arrived, once and for all. A loss - especially similar to last year's bloodletting - will put Callahan on the rotisserie, even with that new contract extension.
2- Redemption for Sam Keller.
Still haunted by the five-pick performance vs. SC in '05, Keller still hasn't seemed all that comfy in the pocket here either. For NU to win, Keller must, must, must revert to the form that should've kept him in Tempe - but will make him a home with these fans here.
3- Affirmation of being Lucky.
The running game has gotten all kinds of headlines so far. Vs. Nevada, it was all the Bugeaters could rely on as the passing game looked as shaky as a newborn deer. Marlon Lucky is averaging 161 yards per game and six per carry. That's like numbers from the Husker mid-80s. Here's where an All-American campaign can pick up steam.
4- The defense can prove it can shut down a high-quality QB.
I'm sorry, but holding two teams to 30% passing and 124 yards isn't that impressive when it's a first-time starter for Nevada and a 2nd stringer for Wake Forest. Now, derailing John David Booty's Heisman campaign? That's a feather in the cap... and a harbinger of bad times to come for Big 12 opponents.
5- The Husker crowd can prove they're truly behind their team.
Gotta admit, that crowd for last year's NU-Texas game was as loud as I've ever heard in my 30 years of going to Nebraska games. But this is one of those games where a crowd becomes one. USC relies so heavily on pre-snap reads and audibles, a raucous Husker nation can make a difference.
1- A win here will keep up with the Joneses.
SC's week off had them sitting in front of the televisions watching teams like Oklahoma and LSU make statement wins and get mad love from media all around the country. Win here in Lincoln and the media keeps them in the conversation. Win big?... Well that keeps them at the top of that talk.
2- Put the defense in the spotlight.
Very similar to point No. 1 here, the defense, expected to be the tops in the country (Okay, we hear you Musberger), can put that notion in cement with another clampdown of NU. This is especially needed since Idaho managed some offensive success despite the vast difference in talent.
3- Get rid of the "soft" stigma. (For another week)
Yep, SC still gets that from time to time. A soft, West coast offense fueled by sushi. And sure they're stable of high school All-American running backs is banged-up and bruised. Still, with Nebraska's inexperienced (and injured) defensive line and SC's land-movers up front, led by massive Sam Baker, the Trojans could neutralize the noise with a punishing run game in this one.
4- Speed kills.
One thing that jumped out at me in the win at Arkansas last year was the vast difference in speed between the two teams. Though Nebraska has some burners, it's the incredibly quick feet of the Men of Troy linebacking corps that can be awesome to watch. Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing will be the keys to pressuring Keller on blitzes and covering the flats in the Husker passing game.
5- Will prove their status as road warriors. Again.
The one solid argument that USC has over anybody in the national title hunt the last few years is that they aren't scared to take their show on the road in the non-conference. Here they are again in a loud stadium of a BCS conference team. Not to downplay a W this weekend, but it's further proof that these kinds of big-game conditions are old hat to them.
Why do I get the feeling that Nebraska is the sexy pick for this game? Greg Amsinger has them winning. Pete Fiutak has them pulling the upset. Kirk Herbstreit won't make his pick official until right before Corso puts on a mascot head, but he seems to be intimating it's a Husker win too. Wow.
But this isn't the Bugeaters I grew up with. This isn't the days of the Osborne option, where if a team had only a couple of days to prepare, there's no way they could emulate the speed, power and technique of the Cornhusker offense. This is McBraska, where their offense is just like everyone else's now. It's an NFL-like offense that Pete Carroll and Co. have had two weeks to prep for. Plus USC saw it last year and handled it pretty well.
And big game atmosphere? In my best Fargo-esque speak, oh-yah-you-betcha. This will have that wide wonder of P.T. Barnum bringing the big top to town. It will be a sea of red electricity. Gameday will be there. No. 1 will be there. The extra light stands will be there. Night game magic and a couple hours worth of grain alcohol in the air.
I'll never forget the wild atmosphere from night-before to tailgate to kickoff that surrounded last year's game between USC and Arkansas in Fayetteville. There was a buzz like I'd never felt. That was truly the loudest stadium I'd ever been in. It was Hog red from wall-to-wall and hog calls all day long. That whole town was rockin'.
But USC walked into Reynolds Stadium and never flinched. Even with a brand new John David Booty at the helm, they controlled the action from the get-go, slowly bleeding the life out of the eventual SEC West division champs with an obvious quickness advantage.
Pete and his boys seem to love atmospheres like this.
Whether they break hearts (37-34 at Notre Dame in '05) or they obliterate dreams (the 50-14 rout of Arkansas), these guys know when to keep their cool in a hostile environment. And they know how to win with targets the size of Montana on their backs.
This is a game where Nebraska gains some ground, but learns there's still a few more steps to climb.
USC comes out of this one alive, 31-17.
Early turnovers in either half can be a spark to any wild environment. If the Trojans don't take care of the ball on the first drive of either half, NU cashes in and can pull the W.