Nebraska, Georgia face off in Bowl game rematch
The Sports Xchange
NCAAF Team Report - Nebraska - INSIDE SLANT
Nebraska and Georgia enter the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl -- a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl, won 45-31 by Georgia -- mere shells of the teams that began the season with high expectations.
Nebraska (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) was picked to win the Big Ten's Legends Division, but finished tied for second behind champion Michigan State, and lost its head-to-head meeting with the team it tied in the standings, Iowa.
Georgia (8-4, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) was a preseason Top Five team, but lost back-to-back games to Missouri and Vanderbilt in October.
Both teams have lost their starting senior quarterback -- Taylor Martinez (foot) for Nebraska, and Aaron Murray (ACL) for Georgia.
Running back Keith Marshall and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley also suffered season-ending ACL injuries for Georgia, as did Nebraska All-American offensive guard Spencer Long.
That was just the beginning of Nebraska's problems with offensive line injuries. Starters Jeremiah Sirles, Jake Cotton and Cole Pensick all suffered knee sprains that sidelined them at one point, and backup guard Mike Moudy, after replacing Long, was out with an injured shoulder.
Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong, receivers Jamal Turner and Alonzo Moore, defensive tackle Thad Randle and tight end Jake Long are other key player who've missed time -- some more than others -- with various injuries for Nebraska.
Same goes for Georgia wide receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, running back Todd Gurley and backup tight end Jay Rome.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said that at one point, his team had at least a half-dozen players with MCL injuries.
"I don't know if I've ever been around that in my whole coaching career," he said. "We had some bad luck in that area. It really hit us hard in a couple spots.
"It's part of the game, but I think we had more than our share. It was just unusual."
Now, which team heals the most and regroups from a disappointing season to make a statement on New Year's Day?
The fact this is a bowl game rematch takes a little luster off the matchup, although Pelini said the familiarity of the teams should make it more attractive.
All Pelini wanted was a good football team with tradition, and there's no argument Georgia provides that, healthy or no.
"Hopefully both teams will be getting some guys back a little closer to being healthy and 100 percent," Pelini said. "It should be a heck of a game, and that's what fans pay to come see."
NCAAF Team Report - Nebraska - NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Ameer Abdullah has been Nebraska's most consistent and most valuable player on an offense that entered the season with high expectations but was beset by injuries. Abdullah battled through an ankle sprain en route to a Big Ten Conference-best 1,568 rushing yards. It's not a stretch to say that without Abdullah, Nebraska doesn't make a bowl game, given his big plays in close victories over Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.
--Nebraksa DE Randy Gregory is listed at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, although it's more likely Gregory is closer to 240 pounds. Despite his slight frame, the transfer was Nebraska's top newcomer on defense, collecting 9.5 sacks on the season, part of his 17 tackles for loss. Coaches like to move around the versatile Gregory, at times standing him up as an outside linebacker. Gregory came from junior college, but is a sophomore two remaining years of eligibility.
--Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is among the most under-rated receivers in the Big Ten Conference. The senior workhorse surprisingly didn't earn any postseason conference recognition despite his 10 touchdown receptions. He's a physical receiver who cherishes blocking as much as he does catching passes.
--Georgia QB Huston Mason will make his second career start in the Gator Bowl. Mason helped rally Georgia to an overtime win over Georgia Tech in his first career start, completing 22 of 39 passes for 299 yards with two TDs and an interception. The fourth-year junior is the heir apparent to senior QB Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury against Kentucky. How Mason responds to the pressure of playing in a bowl game remains to be seen.
--Georgia RB Todd Gurley is closing in on his second straight 1,000 yard season. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore has rushed for 903 yards and 10 TDs despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Gurley has also shown his versatility catching passes out of the backfield this season with 344 yards receiving on 30 catches and five receiving TDs. Gurley will face a test against a Nebraska defense that is allowing just 3.9 yards per carry this season.
--Georgia TE Arthur Lynch has put together a strong senior season for the Bulldogs with 24 catches for 390 yards. Lynch also is tied with Todd Gurley and Rantavious Wooten for the team high in TD catches with five. Expect starting QB Hutson Mason to look to Lynch as a safety valve over the middle early and often during the Gator Bowl.
--Georgia SS Josh Harvey-Clemons is starting to put things together after an inconsistent start to his sophomore season. Harvey-Clemons finished the season third on the Bulldogs in tackles with 66, with a team-high three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and one interception. At 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, Harvey-Clemons has the combination of size and quickness to make plays in the secondary. Look for Harvey-Clemons to shadow Nebraska dual-threat QB Ron Kellogg III.
BOWL HISTORY: Nebraska is 24-25 in bowl games and has lost three straight bowl games, including last year's 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. This is the first time Nebraska has faced the same opponent in a bowl in back-to-back years since facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I want to play a good football team, and a team that has a lot of tradition. I don't know why anybody would complain. What you're looking for are good matchups." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on his team's rematch with a Georgia team the Huskers played in last season's Capital One Bowl.
NCAAF Team Report - Nebraska - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Junior running back Ameer Abdullah is the heart and soul of Nebraska's rushing attack. Abdullah recorded just the third 1,500-yard rushing season in Nebraska history with 1,568 rushing yards. It's the highest single-season rushing total by a Nebraska running back since Ahman Green in 1997. When healthy, quarterback Tommy Armstrong can be a threat on the option, making Abdullah that much more of a threat.
Due to a season-ending injury to RB Keith Marshall in October, the Bulldogs have relied heavily on sophomore RB Todd Gurley (903 yards, 10 TDs in nine games) down the stretch. Behind Gurley, Georgia's RB options are freshmen J.J. Green (365 yards, 3 TDs) and Brendan Douglas (337 yards, 3 TDs). For the season, Georgia is averaging 176.1 yards rushing per game on 4.8 yards per carry.
Scouting the passing game: By the season's final game, Nebraska was playing with a third-string senior walk-on at quarterback, Ron Kellogg, and was without one of its top receivers, slot man Jamal Turner, for the final five games. Combine that with an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries, and Nebraska's drop-off in passing production was understandable. That said, the quarterbacks needed to make better decisions, and didn't, always, resulting in easy interceptions.
Given the numerous injuries to WRs during the course of the season, Georgia still managed a solid passing game in 2013. The Bulldogs finished the regular season ranked second in the SEC in pass offense at 313.8 yards per game. Georgia quarterbacks have done a good job spreading the ball around with six different receivers finishing the season with 20 or more catches. WR Chris Conley leads the Bulldogs in receptions (42) and receiving yards (605) with four TDs.
Scouting the run defense: Because Nebraska had to replace three senior linebackers from last year, it shouldn't have been much a surprise that the Huskers struggled early in the season defensively, particularly in stopping the run. Coaches tried various combinations at MIKE linebacker, and over the last few games found an answer in redshirted freshman Michael Rose. He contributed with a career-high 16 tackles in Nebraska's final game against Iowa, and assumed the leadership role needed at the position. As a whole, Nebraska's rush defense also improved over the final four games, when it allowed an average of 118.0 rushing yards, compared to an average of 182.6 over Nebraska's first eight games.
Georgia has been solid against the run in 2013, ranking sixth in the SEC in run defense at 148.5 rushing yards allowed per game. LBs Ramik Wilson (128 tackles, 11 tackles for loss) and Amarlo Herrera (107 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) have been sure tacklers for most of the season. Inside, NT Garrison Smith has been effective in occupying blockers and making plays with 58 tackles and 9 tackles for loss.
Scouting the pass defense: Nebraska entered this season figuring its secondary would be the strength of an otherwise young defense. For the most part, that's held true. Senior cornerback Stanley Jean Baptiste was impressive early in the season -- he had an interception in each of Nebraska's four nonconference games -- that Big Ten teams didn't throw his way often. Transfer Randy Gregory, despite his slight frame, blossomed at defensive end, giving Nebraska's pass rush a desperately needed boost. Gregory had nine sacks in Big Ten play alone.
The secondary has been the weak link to the Bulldogs defense throughout the 2013 season. Georgia finished the 2013 regular season ranked 10th in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 232.8 yards per game. CB Damian Swann and S Quincy Mauger will need to provide leadership to keep the pass defense organized for the bowl game.
Scouting the special teams: For a team that's playing with backups to backups on offense, because of injuries, Nebraska could do itself a big favor by shoring up some shoddy special teams play, which, ideally, would create better field position. Yet, Nebraska's punt return unit remains one of the nation's worst, averaging a meager 3 yards per carry. Lack of return yardage is only part of the problem. Returners have muffed punts, let catchable punts roll near the goal line and field punts inside their 10-yard line, a cardinal sin.
Georgia PK Marshall Morgan has put together an excellent sophomore season, making 18 of 20 field goals and 7 of 8 from beyond 40 yards. Ps Adam Erickson and Collin Barber have shared duties this season, combining to average 41.4 yards per punt with 11 downed inside the 20 yard line (the Bulldogs have had two punts blocked this season). In the return game, Georgia has done nothing special with no punt or kickoff returns for TDs this season. On the flip side, Georgia's kick coverage teams remain suspect. The Bulldogs have given up a combined 3 punt/kickoff returns for TDs this season.
Intangibles: Nebraska is coming off a 38-17 loss to Iowa to end the regular season, a defeat that had some wondering about the future of sixth-year coach Bo Pelini, despite the injury-riddled Huskers' 8-4 record. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst doused any speculation by voicing his support for Pelini in a released statement the next day. With that cloud no longer lingering, can the Huskers regroup and make a statement against an SEC team beset with the same injuries and disappointing season?
Georgia will be playing close to home in Jacksonville and should have good fan support for the game. Season-ending injuries to key offensive playmakers Malcolm Mitchell (WR), Justin Scott-Wesley (WR) and Keith Marshall (RB) derailed a promising season. But the Bulldogs (8-4) finished the regular season strong with back-to-back wins over Kentucky and rival Georgia Tech. A win over Nebraska in the Gator Bowl would give Georgia some positive momentum to carry over into next season.
--QB Taylor Martinez missed Nebraska's final five regular-season games and played in only one game since Sept. 14 because of a foot/toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez hasn't been ruled out of the Gator Bowl, but also said it's too early to tell where he is with his recovery.
--WR Jamal Turner should return close to 100 percent after a calf strain sidelined him for Nebraska's final five regular-season games. Turner, Nebraska's top slot receiver, was also slowed early in the season by a hamstring pull, the reason he's caught only 13 passes this season, after catching 32 as a sophomore.
--QB Tommy Armstrong should also benefit from a few weeks off. The redshirted freshman left Nebraska's Nov. 23 game at Penn State with an ankle injury and didn't play in the season finale against Iowa, leaving Nebraska with third-string senior walk-on Ron Kellogg calling signals.
--TE Arthur Lynch, PK Marshall Morgan and LB Ramik Wilson were named to the All-SEC first team on Monday. QB Aaron Murray and RB Todd Gurley were picked to the All-SEC second team.