Nebraska vs Oklahoma - Ask An Expert: Q&A With A Sooner

Nebraska vs Oklahoma for a conference championship - one last time as members of the same conference. It seems so bizarre, yet here it is. I teamed up with Matt at the SB Nation site Crimson and Cream Machine to talk about the upcoming game. I'll be co-hosting with their site on an online radio show (more on this later), so I hope you'll join us later tonight here at CN and maybe call in with some questions.

We could spend hours talking about the series history and the great players both teams have had over the years, but I’d really rather we focus on the upcoming game this weekend.

We’re probably in the same position as our coaching staffs - trying to figure out what we’re dealing with as quickly as possible since neither team was on the other’s schedule.

Given that, I’m going to start with Landry Jones.....
Watching him against the Oklahoma State defense, Jones was less accurate than I expected. He seemed out of rhythm until later in the game when he connected on some big plays to seal it for the Sooners.

What’s your assessment of Jones’ play this year and what are his strengths and weaknesses?

I’ve actually been higher on Jones than many Sooner fans. He’s just a sophomore and is a ways of from being the finished product but this season has shown tremendous maturity. Last Saturday was a perfect example of this. If the first half he threw 3 interceptions (two of them were fantastic plays by the defenders with one being an all-time great play) and the Landry Jones of last year would not have rebounded from that. Instead, he came back in the second half and went 17-of-27 for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. It still wasn’t a perfect half because there were some throws that he’d like to take back but the bottom line is that he recovered from a bad half and won the game. That’s something we’re just starting to see from him and, at least to me, is a sign of maturity.

Landry has a strong arm and the ability to roll the pocket and throw on the run. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is doing a good job at using that to help avoid pressure. He still needs to work on his decision making and being patient enough to check down through his progressions.

Now, what about your quarterback situation? Who do you expect to play and how does the game plan differ with Martinez and Green?

Cody Green had his best performance so far against Colorado, and Taylor Martinez won’t be 100% healthy by Saturday night, so I’d expect Green to get the nod. Shawn Watson has the full zone read offense available to him when Martinez is healthy (read: more explosive plays). With Green, the offense becomes less read and more handoff, (less explosive) meaning that the drives much be more methodical and mistake-free, a potential problem against Oklahoma.

Expect more Rex Burkhead running the ball straight ahead at the middle of your line, whether he’s running the Wildcat or taking handoffs from Green. Roy Helu has a tendency to run sideways looking for an opening, which hasn’t worked well against better defenses like the Sooners.

Martinez throws an okay deep ball. Green’s deep ball is pretty inaccurate - although Saturday’s game won’t feature the gusty blustery windy nature of the games in which Green has played this season.

Staying with the "healthy offense" theme, talk about your running backs. DeMarco Murray in injured, but I suspect he’ll play. How will he do, and what about Roy Finch? He looked great against the Cowboys. Anyone else Husker fans should know about?

Bob Stoops has been pretty mum about Murray’s injury to this point. That actually worries me a little because I’d like to hear him say something other than, "I’m hopeful he’ll play." That said, I really expect DeMarco Murray to play, even if he isn’t 100%. Roy Finch will get playing time regardless of Murray’s status and brings a different change of pace to the offense. He’s more of a scat back with incredible balance and great speed where Murray is more of a power runner.

Should Murray be limited, or not be able to play at all, then the Sooners will call upon senior Mossis Madu. He has experience in Big 12 Championships and shouldn’t be affected by the stage these two teams are playing on. Madu would be a combination of Murray and Finch put together. You also won’t want to overlook fullback Trey Millard. He’s a true freshman but has been exceptional at fullback this season. In addition to blocking assignments he’ll also carry the ball and catch passes out of the backfield. Against Oklahoma State last Saturday night Millard had a touchdown run and 16 knockdown blocks.

How much more one dimensional does Nebraska’s offense become with the injuries to Taylor Martinez and Niles Paul and how much does that concern you coming into this game?

Hmmmmm....... the question here really is - how one dimensional does Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson make this game?

If Green starts, you know that the Sooners will stack the box to stop the run and force Green to throw the ball. The Husker offensive line is much improved over last season, but they’ll need some completions to make Brent Venables respect the pass.

Green does okay with short and intermediate throws and he has Brandon Kinnie who is the type of receiver who’s going to catch the ball in traffic. Without Paul there’s a dropoff in talent at the other wide receiver position. Curenski Gilleylen has speed but has had problems catching the ball. You’ll also see Tim Marlowe who’s capable of making plays but hasn’t gotten a lot of chances due to Paul holding down the position the past three seasons.

Concerned, yes. Very? No, because of our defense. Nebraska’s secondary is exceptional, possibly the best in school history. It’s not just a matter of having single great corner in Prince Amukamara, but Alfonzo Dennard is just as good. While some may think the Blackshirts have struggled in the run game, they’ve only given up 10 rushing TDs all season, including three against Oklahoma State.

I can see the Huskers shutting down the Sooner offense, but the Sooner defense appears to have struggled most of the season.

How is Oklahoma going to score, or more importantly, how are they going to score more than Nebraska?

Well, that is simple. They’re going to cross the goal line or kick it through the uprights more times than Nebraska is. Okay, sarcasm aside, Oklahoma’s offense really hasn’t been that much of a problem this season. I think the Sooners can be balanced against Nebraska and find success if (and every thing hangs on this) they can run the football. Landry Jones has to continue to be patient and take care of the football and the Sooners will find scoring opportunities. The Sooners are averaging a little more than 37 points per game this season and in the two losses the common factor has been turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Avoiding those are going to be the key to OU success.

Alright then, put yourself on the Oklahoma sideline. How do you build an offensive game plan against this Nebraska defense?

I get Nebraska into a position where they only use one linebacker, Lavonte David, and have Dejon Gomes playing the hybrid safety/linebacker, use the up-tempo no-huddle offense and make sure they can’t substitute on drives.

I am guessing that Nebraska will bring their secondary up close to my receivers to take away bubble screens, which should open up the middle of the field. Then I run the ball right at them, trying to take advantage of bigger backs against smaller defensive backs. I try to hit receivers on short routes across the middle and hope that they can break open some big plays.

I figure that I’m in for a four-quarter game, so I’m not worried about making huge plays on the ground, but I don’t want mistakes leading to a short field for Nebraska.

And I’m thinking I’m going to get some big plays out of my special teams units. Ryan Broyles is one of the better returners in the game, right? Tress Way, a fine punter? What about kicking?

If this is a tight game, how much can I count on my special teams?

Oklahoma’s kickoff team has been bad as of late. Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State all returned kickoffs for a touchdown against the Sooners and they all came at crucial moments of the game. For Missouri it was the opening kickoff and the Sooners never really recovered from it, against A&M it was the opening kickoff of the second half and helped drive a nail in the OU coffin. Then against Oklahoma State it was immediately following an 86-yard touchdown pass that finally gave the Sooners some cushion by making it a two score game. I’m not real confident in Oklahoma’s return defense right now.

Place kicking has been better as of late as Jimmy Stevens seems to have finally found his confidence. Against the Cowboys last Saturday night he was perfect and the week before as well against Baylor. That makes his seven-for-seven over the last two weeks and gives Sooner fans a bit less anxiety when he lines up to kick.

The areas where there is confidence in Oklahoma’s special teams is in punting and returns. Tress Way has had a fantastic season kicking the ball and has actually become on of those punters who is a weapon in the field position battle. On the other side, Ryan Broyles is about as explosive as a kick returner can get and is due to take one all the way to the house. Kickoff returns are the same matter for Oklahoma as there is speed everywhere and OU returners are only one seam away from payday.

What about the Nebraska special teams. Give us a quick rundown.

Last week kicker Alex Henery tied the school record for the most points in school history. He’s on track to finish as the most accurate kicker in FBS history... and he didn’t make the Lou Groza finalist list again this season. Henery has been an amazing kicker, even at distance. He gives Nebraska a decided edge in a close, defensive game. Adi Kunalic handles placekicking duties and is one of the top touchback artists in the nation.

Henery doubles as punter. He has done pretty well, although he’s not as consistent as he is at kicking. He does extremely well at placing the ball within the 20-yard line, pinning opponents deep.

Where Nebraska may struggle is in the return game. Rex Burkhead has taken over punt return duties from Niles Paul, before Paul’s injury. Burkhead does okay - but he’s not going to break a long one (he took over for Paul because he’s more sure-handed than Paul, apparently).

Niles Paul will be missed in the kick return game, as he was the fastest Husker player and did pretty well in his return game. Tim Marlowe and Brandon Kinnie will handle kick return duties. Marlowe is quick enough and does okay. Kinnie is not that fast, but very physical, hard to bring down. He’s not going to break a long one, but he’s going to break tackles and get up the field.

I am expecting a defensive battle, a game similar to last year’s title game minus Ndamukong Suh and Colt McCoy. Before I give a prediction, though, I’ll let you go first.

Who wins and how?

Obviously I’m going to pick Oklahoma to win and I agree with you, I think it’ll be a defensive battle. I just don’t like Nebraska’s chances with Green at quarterback and I realize he had a solid game last week against Colorado but let’s keep in mind that it was Colorado. They even made the Kansas Jayhawks look good this season.

I think this becomes a battle of field position that goes Oklahoma’s way in the first half and then a crucial turnover here or there in the second will seal the deal. I’m going 20-10 Sooners in a game that will actually be closer than that score indicates.

What about you? Who wins and how?

Who wins?  Why Nebraska wins of course! I see Nebraska’s offense scoring 13 points, one touchdown and two field goals. Add on another touchdown by the Blackshirt defense (interception return for TD), and you get to 20.

Oklahoma gets two touchdowns and a field goal. They line up for a game-tying field goal, but time expires and nobody stops the clock or puts a second back on it because you’re not Texas.

Final, Nebraska 20 Oklahoma 17
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