Nebraska vs South Dakota State: What Are We Watching For?

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska plays South Dakota State this Saturday. Normally you'd expect the game to be a laugher - a high scoring affair where the Huskers pummel a lower-division foe into submission early. Here's what to watch for in the game.

Nebraska welcomes highly-ranked South Dakota State tomorrow in a game that will be televised on BTN. The Jackrabbits coming in ranked number six in the FCS division, and if you're not thinking about Appalachian State's upset over Michigan in 2007 maybe you should be.

Or not. Michigan was ranked fifth and had very high expectations when that upset occurred. Nebraska isn't ranked and I have no idea what anyone's expectations are any more.

Some notes of interest about the Jackrabbits:

- They've scored in 11 of 12 quarters so far this season.
- They have yet to have a turnover on offense.
- They are plus-11 in turnovers.
- They are 1-19 against the Big Ten, the sole win coming in 1935 against Wisconsin.

Offense

Taylor Martinez is doubtful to play, leaving redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. to make his first start over senior Ron Kellogg III - or at least that's how Pelini is feeling at the time of this writing. The general feeling is that most Husker fans would prefer Armstrong start as to better prepare for the future. This is true, but there's something to be said about giving a guy who's worked as hard as RK3 has a start.

Regardless of who gets the start, both will probably split time playing. We'll know a lot more about our backup quarterback situation after this game, which is important as there is no guarantee Martinez will be back the following week.

Here's what I said about the offense last week before UCLA:

Tim Beck wants an up tempo offense except when it comes to games like this. If you're facing team with a high-powered offense, you want to give them fewer scoring opportunities and that means fewer possessions. It's not about whether to huddle or not, it's about the time you're taking off the clock as you're going. Tim Beck wants to take that time, and that will require more consistency out of the offensive line than we saw against Southern Mississippi.

Nebraska had six three-and-outs against UCLA, with one drive lasting 45 seconds and two others lasting 34. Obviously Tim Beck doesn't listen to me.

Whether it's RK3 or Armstrong, the offense needs to establish consistency, and this would be a darned good game to do it. We don't have the offensive line that allowed Matt Turman to hand the ball off nearly every play to beat Kansas State in 1994, but this is supposed to be the best offensive line of the Pelini era. If Nebraska expects to compete for a Big Ten title, they must establish themselves as the force that keeps the chains moving.

From Sports Illustrated, October 24, 1994:

Second-ranked Nebraska, with its starting quarterback lost for the season and neither of the two reserves capable of running the option attack, threw out the most-worn pages of its playbook against unbeaten Kansas State and went instead with the only strategy that might work: guileless runs behind a bruising, churning line that averages 295 pounds a man.

Against UCLA, the offense finished with 128 yards on 42 attempts, an average of 3.0 yards per rushing attempt. (No, you don't get to take the 42 yards of losses out of average just to make it look better. That's not how things work.) Three yards per carry isn't anywhere close to 1994 standards, obviously. Maybe my expectations are too high. Or maybe we just start over by pounding the Jackrabbits on the ground.

It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Tim Beck does this weekend. He'll likely stick with the no huddle up tempo theme because that's what he does, and it will work to his advantage to wear down SDSU early. What I said about the UCLA game remains true, though, the offense cannot go three-and-out and not take time off the clock, whether we're playing a lower-division foe or not.

Imani Cross has 20 carries so far this season, eight less than Terrell Newby. I don't really need to say more than that, do I?

Defense

The defense has but one focus this week and that will be stopping Jackrabbit running back Zach Zenner. Zenner is averaging 180 yards a game, leading the FCS in rushing with 540 yards and has already scored 54 points this season.

SDSU will want to keep the ball, run clock and stay in the game as long as possible. It's up to the defensive front seven to not let that happen.

We're looking for a clean game. One without turnovers (although that may be a bit much to expect from a first-time starting quarterback) and one without defensive breakdowns.

After this week, Nebraska needs this game to be a laugher - score lots of points early, keep SDSU out of the end zone - one of those games in which the Huskers play about 80 different players. That's why you schedule these games.

An inexplicable loss this weekend, and we can all stop worrying about Pelini's tenure at Nebraska.

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