(17) Nebraska (10-3) vs. Washington (6-6)
Thursday, December 30th, 10:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Andrew Gaddess, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The Washington Huskies will look to avenge a Sept. 18th loss when they face the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
The Cornhuskers rode a 6-2 conference record to a second straight Big 12 North title, but blew a 17-0 lead en route to a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 4th. They finished the regular season with a 10-3 overall record.
This will be Nebraska's second consecutive appearance in the Holiday Bowl, after a 33-0 trouncing of Arizona in 2009's edition. The Cornhuskers currently hold a 24-22 all-time bowl game record, with this being their 47th bowl game appearance
Washington enters the Holiday Bowl in the midst of a three-game win streak. The Huskies defeated UCLA, Cal and Washington State to salvage a deteriorating regular season and secure their first bowl appearance since the 2002 Sun Bowl. They closed the 2010 campaign 6-6 overall and tied for third in the Pac-10 with USC, at 5-4.
Thursday's game against Nebraska will mark Washington's fourth appearance in the Holiday Bowl, where the Huskies previously faced Big 12 opponents Colorado, Kansas State and Texas. This will be Washington's 31st bowl game appearance, dating back to 1924. The team posts a 15-14-1 all-time record in such games.
This will be the ninth meeting between Nebraska and Washington, with the Cornhuskers holding a slight, 4-3-1 edge, although they have won each of the last three meetings (1997, 1998, 2010). Most recently, the teams met on Sept. 18th of this year, with the Cornhuskers securing a 56-21 victory in Husky Stadium. The two teams are also scheduled to meet next Sept. 17th, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Huskies are led by senior quarterback Jake Locker. He completed 179-of-316 passes for 2,209 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Although already established, Locker's role as leader was resoundingly hammered home after he battled through a late-season rib injury to spur a bowl berth. After the rib was broken on Sept. 30th against Stanford, Locker endured the pain, starting three of the Huskies' four remaining games. With the extended rest provided by the layoff, he now finds himself virtually pain-free entering the Nebraska game.
"Feeling great, feeling awesome," Locker said of the rib recently. "I feel normal. Yeah, like I always had before."
"He looks as quick and as explosive as I have seen him look in quite some time," added coach Steve Sarkisian. "His suddenness in the pocket and out of the pocket, his ability to play on the move, is as good as we've seen in months."
Of course, Locker's job is made easier by the phenomenal play of sophomore running back Chris Polk, who has run for 1,287 yards and eight touchdowns on 226 carries this season, making him just the second player in Washington history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in two seasons. In the Huskies' regular season finale against Washington State, Polk had a game for the ages, as he ran for 284 yards and two touchdowns. The 284 yards were just 12 shy of the single-game school rushing record.
Also a threat offensively is wide recover Jermaine Kearse, who has caught 62 passes for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kearse and Polk have combined for just the second 1,000-yard rusher/receiver tandem in Huskies' history. They also stand as just the ninth such tandem in FBS this season.
While the offense has produced, the defense has struggled to contain teams, allowing 31.2 ppg. At issue has been the defensive line, which has battled injuries and enters Thursday's game hobbled. Only Alamenda Ta'amu and Mason Foster have managed to start every game on the line this season, while starting tackle Semisi Tokalahi has been rendered incapacitated with an ankle injury and Cameron Elisara has been slowed by neck and shoulder stingers. Due in part to the rotating defensive front, the Huskies' have allowed 198.8 rushing yards per game and 32 rushing touchdowns this season.
Washington's struggles against the run should be a welcome sign for the capable ground game of Nebraska. In fact, it was a dominating rushing performance that vaulted the Cornhuskers over the Huskies in the teams' previous meeting. A bevy of backs piled up a combined 383 rushing yards on 7.1 ypc and six rushing touchdowns in the Cornhuskers' dominating, 56-21, victory. Quarterback Taylor Martinez led the team with 156 rushing yards and three rushing scores, while also throwing for 150 yards and a touchdown on 7- of-11 passing.
Martinez continues to be the engine that drives the Nebraska offense. He has thrown for 1,578 yards and nine touchdowns this season to lead an offense which averages 32.7 ppg. As a team, the Cornhuskers compile an impressive 259.6 rushing ypg. headlined by the rushing exploits of tailback Roy Helu Jr. (1,211 yards, 11 TDs) and Martinez (942 yards, 12 TDs).
Martinez will be looking for a bounce-back performance. He failed to find the mark in the Big 12 championship game after sitting out the regular season finale against Colorado due to injuries to his right ankle and left foot. He was just 12-of-24 for 143 yards and an interception in the title game. He was also sacked seven times.
On defense, the Cornhuskers have few weak points. The secondary, led by Prince Amukamara, allows just 159.9 passing yards per game. Amukamara has recorded 58 tackles and 13 pass breakup this year. Of course, the secondary's job is made easier by the pressure applied by the defensive line, which has tallied 31 sacks thus far. Jared Crick leads the team with nine-and-a-half sacks, while Lavonte David has tallied six sacks and has also registered 14 tackles for loss and a team-high 145 total tackles. Nebraska is solid against the run as well, allowing 144.3 rushing ypg. On the whole, the unit allows 17.2 ppg.
Nebraska and Washington have already met once in a lopsided outcome this season. There is little reason to believe that results will vary on Thursday. The Huskies' defense improved during their regular season ending three-game win streak, but injuries to the defensive line have made them vulnerable against the run. The Cornhuskers already proved in the teams' previous meeting that they are more than capable of exploiting that mismatch, utilizing a stable of backs and option keepers from Martinez to run away with the victory. There is little chance that Washington will have an answer for Nebraska's dominant ground attack the second time around.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Nebraska 48, Washington 27
12/27 10:36:21 ET