In October, Nebraska’s defense finally earned and celebrated its Blackshirt tradition after shutting down Michigan, 23-9. Needless to say, though, it has not been a perfect season for the Cornhuskers, especially in stopping the run. Though they are the nation’s top-ranked pass defense in a pass-deficient league, they are just 96th against the run.
Worse news: Todd Gurley is a star.
Georgia’s freshman running back exploded onto the scene this season, leading the already star-studded SEC in rushing (1,260 yards, narrowly edging Heisman winner Johnny Manziel) to go along with 16 touchdowns. And he did it against top competition. Of Gurley’s eight 100-yard games, two came against ranked opponents (Florida, Alabama) — the Bulldogs played just three ranked teams all season.
So for a defense that allowed Wisconsin’s Montee Ball 202 rushing yards, Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell 188 rushing yards and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin 217 rushing yards, what will Nebraska do against, perhaps, the most physically gifted runner of the bunch? Georgia is a very balanced team offensively, so overplaying Gurley is not likely to be the best option. The Cornhuskers will need to keep the freshman reined in.
Player to Watch
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez has made significant strides in his third season, cleaning up his throwing mechanics and transforming into a true dual-threat quarterback. Despite throwing at a much higher rate, he’s improved his completion percentage, improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio and is taking far fewer costly sacks.
He finished the season as the second-highest rated passer in the Big Ten (minimum 100 pass attempts), finishing with 2,661 yards and 21 touchdowns. That did not take away his wheels, either, as he is just 27 yards shy of surpassing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. He’s the type of quarterback which can give any defense problems, even one as talented as Georgia’s.
The Bulldogs rank 17th nationally in scoring defense, but they have not seen many dual-threat players like Martinez. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw did a number on them back in October, but they also did well against the likes of Missouri’s James Franklin and Florida’s Jeff Driskel.
Now, Martinez, as evidenced by his career numbers, is a better overall runner than those SEC counterparts. He must limit his turnovers and will need to be the difference against a more talented opponent.
172.36: Aaron Murray’s passing efficiency, even after a late-season tussle with Alabama in the SEC title game, ranks second in the country this season. Only the Crimson Tide’s AJ McCarron has proven to be more efficient in the passing game. Most of Murray’s statistical damage came at the expense of unranked opponents, so it will be telling to see how he fares against the nation’s top-ranked pass defense.
If there is any lesson in watching a team lose an underwhelming Big Ten Championship 70-31 to the third-best team in the opposite division, it is that said team is not better than an SEC squad that finished five yards shy of the BCS title game. Georgia is not sufficiently tested, but it is one of the most talented teams around.
Before facing Alabama, the Bulldogs had not allowed more than 14 points in five-consecutive games. Taylor Martinez is a very good player – the return of his running back Rex Burkhead should help, too – but his defense might be caught up in a bad matchup, and it’s tough to run up points on Georgia.
In the end, Nebraska’s turnover problems (105th nationally in turnover margin) will likely do it in.