ORLANDO, Fla. - For Nebraska to have any hope of establishing a solid offensive rhythm, it's going to have to find a way to run the ball consistently. It's no secret that the Huskers' offense is a completely different unit when it can move the ball on the ground, as it takes pressure of quarterback Taylor Martinez and opens up the entire playbook. Both Martinez and junior running back Rex Burkhead have finally been able to get healthy again since the regular season finale, so NU's backfield should be at full strength today for the first time in a long time.
On the other side, South Carolina boasts an extremely aggressive front seven that loves to attack offenses with lots of pressure. While the approach has wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, it occasionally puts the Gamecocks at risk of falling out of their run defense responsibilities and creates some good holes for teams to run through. The last thing the Huskers need is to get in long-yardage situations and have Martinez having to deal with USC's pass rush, so picking up good gains on early downs will be huge.
NU Pass Offense vs. USC Pass Defense
Assuming Nebraska can run the ball effectively and consistently, Martinez stands a much better chance of having a good day through the air. Even more, it will open up the play-action passing game, which is arguably where Martinez is at his very best as a passer. If the Huskers can't establish a running game, though, it could be a long, painful day for Martinez. He's been notorious for making questionable decisions with the football when faced against a heavy pass rush, and NU can't afford to make those kinds of mistakes against a team like this.
That of course is South Carolina's ultimate goal defensively. The Gamecocks are determined to shut down the running game first and foremost to make Martinez try and beat them with his arm. Look for them to put as much speed up front as they can on obvious passing downs, using as many as four defensive ends up front to maximize their pass rush. South Carolina is at its best defensively when it can pin its ears back and attack the pocket, which is the absolute last thing Nebraska wants to allow.
Edge: SOUTH CAROLINA
USC Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
When star running back Marcus Lattimore was lost for the season to injury, South Carolina's running game suffered a devastating blow. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, a pair of backups stepped in and kept the ship afloat. Junior Kenny Miles has emerged as the new starter after a couple of solid performances, and freshman Brandon Wilds ranks second on the team this season with 486 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
The Gamecocks' biggest threat on the ground, however, is quarterback Connor Shaw. The sophomore has flourished in South Carolina's zone read option attack, as he ranks third on the team just behind Wilds at 483 yards and is behind only Lattimore with seven rushing touchdowns. This does not bode well for Nebraska, as its Achilles heel all year have been mobile quarterbacks. The Huskers have had a full month to try and devise a plan to better contain a runner like Shaw, and how well they do so will play a huge role in today's outcome.
Edge: SOUTH CAROLINA
USC Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Aside from Lattimore, the most recognizable name on South Carolina's roster is that of junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. With 45 catches for 614 yards and seven touchdowns, Jeffery leads the Gamecocks in every receiving statistic this season. At 6-4, 229, he poses match-up nightmares for every defense he faces. On top of that, USC sophomore Ace Sanders has emerged as Shaw's second-favorite target, hauling in 26 catches for 338 yards.
This area brings arguably the most intriguing match-up of the game, as Nebraska will line up senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on Jeffery the entire game, just like he did against Iowa's Marvin McNutt. Dennard held McNutt to just four catches for 26 yards in that game, and with NFL scouts surely to keep a close eye on them on every play, both players will be looking to have their best game of the year.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior kicker/punter Brett Maher may have been left off as a Groza Award finalists, but he still put up a terrific season. Maher made 19-of-22 on field goals in the regular season and was a perfect on 42-of-42 on extra-points. His 19 field goals this season put him into the top five on the NU single-season list for field goals made. After a great start to his collegiate career, freshman returner Ameer Abdullah has been made a non-factor of late, as teams made it a point to kick away from him at all costs towards the end of the year.
South Carolina's kicking game hasn't been anything special, as kicker Jay Wooten made just 7-of-10 field goals this season, and punter Joey Scribner-Howard is averaging a pedestrian 38.9 yards per punt. In the return game, Bruce Ellington and Victor Hampton both average over 21 yards per kickoff return, and Sanders took back a punt return for a touchdown earlier this year.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can put together the type of effort it had earlier in the year against the likes of Iowa and Michigan State on both sides of the ball. The Huskers need Burkhead to be his normal productive self, and the Blackshirts need to be as aggressive as ever and keep the Gamecocks' offense from getting into a groove.
South Carolina Will Win If:
It can follow a similar game plan to what every other team that's knocked off Nebraska this season: get out to an early lead and force the Huskers to panic offensively. A heavy dose of the running could open things up for Shaw, and Jeffery is the caliber of player that can burn any defense in the country if given the chance.
The sting of last year's 19-7 loss to Washington in the Holiday Bowl has been a source of motivation for Nebraska from the start of spring practice, and now the Huskers finally have a chance to redeem themselves with a much stronger post-season finish. The Gamecocks are vying for their best record in school history by picking up their 11th win, but when Bo Pelini's teams are motivated and have a full month to prepare, the Huskers are very tough to beat.