There are plenty of story lines going into the 2010 Holiday Bowl, but none of them have to deal with the real suspense like - who's going to win the annual wiener dog race? Will Mark Mangino slip in for an offensive coordinator in disguise during the San Diego Big Bay Balloon Parade?
No, most of them are about beating dead horses.
The most beaten dead horse of all - motivation. Will the Huskers show up with the same determination against an opponent they already beat by five touchdowns earlier in the season? Are they disappointed to be going back to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl after being there last season? Is the loss in the Big 12 game going to cause any hangovers?
It's a non-issue. Go back to the start of every Bo Pelini season, and you can see a constant theme there, too, and it's all about competition. Every player is competing for a starting spot all of the time and that includes a bowl game. If you're not playing hard, you're sitting. Pretty damned easy to be motivated if there's always a guy behind you willing to take your job and Pelini is there every day to remind you of it.
There are a few ways Nebraska can lose this game, but motivation isn't one of them.
The Jake Locker Factor
Last year, Jake Locker was on his way to possibly becoming the number one overall pick in the NFL draft. Then he came back to college, and his season hasn't gone the way he wanted. Has it hurt his draft status? Probably, but in listening to his interview on ESPN last night, he stated he doesn't worry about money, that people who play in the NFL make plenty of money to live on. That's a pretty good attitude - it shows a guy who's comfortable with where he's at, if you believe him, and I do.
Locker played badly against Nebraska in September, but as financial advisors will remind you:
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, and current performance may be lower or higher than the performance data quoted.
In other words, who the hell cares what Locker did against Nebraska in September - the only thing that matters is how he does tonight. Regardless of how he plays against Nebraska, Locker will be a NFL prospect - the NFL is amazing at ignoring years of college football experience in favor of how a player performs at the combine - and you can't ignore his talent just because you want to. Locker has plenty of motivation to perform well, and if he can get hot with the right combination of plays, he'll be a threat.
The most interesting aspect regarding Jake Locker's success - how much pass rush will Nebraska generate without Baker Steinkuhler to complement Jared Crick?
The Husky Running Game
Nebraska has had it's problems all season stopping the run. The Blackshirts are 51st nationally, giving up just over 144 yards a game. Expect a heavy dose of Chris Polk and his backup Jesse Callier early, but also expect to see more designed runs for Locker.
Nebraska's ability to stop the run may be compounded somewhat with the loss of Steinkuhler because of his DUI suspension. Conversely, Nebraska's run support may be better because of the return of linebacker Will Compton.
If Washington can run the ball early, it will open up the passing game, but more importantly it will keep the Husker offense off the field.
The good news? The Blackshirts are 13th nationally in allowing opponents to score on the ground, having given up only 11 rushing touchdowns, with only one in the last four games.
Martinez And the Passing Game
It's pretty obvious (dead horse reference?) that the Huskers want to run the ball, which will be easier because of Washington's problems on the defensive line where they're missing starters Cameron Elisara, Semisi Tokolahi, and Talia Chrichton who will all miss the game due to injury. The best indication of how serious the issue is for Washington comes from one of their own:
The losses of Tokolahi and Chrichton are huge. Both of the second year players were beginning to come into their own when they were injured. The Huskies really don't have any depth behind them to make up for their absence.
The Huskies will have to bring their safeties up in run support. Remember - Washington as one of the biggest underdogs this bowl season, they have little to lose in this game so expect a much more aggressive Husky defense this time around. If they're successful in slowing down the three-headed monster of Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead, and Taylor Martinez, the Huskers will have to take to the air.
The loss of Niles Paul was a big factor in Nebraska's loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game as it was apparent that no one could replace Paul's playmaking ability. Think back to Paul's performance in last year's Holiday Bowl when he was named MVP. As much as he's driven you crazy over the past couple years, don't you really want him in this game?
Nebraska threw only eleven passes against Washington in September, completing seven. Expect more this time around. The key - has Martinez accuracy improved? And if it has, can Brandon Kinnie, Kyler Reed, and Mike McNeill make up for the loss of Paul?
Shawn Watson - A Great Offensive Mind
Watson has been beaten up (like a... dead horse?) since the Big 12 title game. Many Husker fans are hoping he moves on, possibly taking the head coaching job at Miami of Ohio. Again, think back to last year's Holiday Bowl - it was the first time anyone saw Rex Burkhead run the Wildcat, and it took Arizona by surprise. It was wonderful to watch and it became a staple part of the Husker rushing attack this season.
For as much as you'd like to see Watson leave, aren't you wondering just a little bit if he's going to bring out a new wrinkle this time around? If he does, and if it's successful, don't you think he might be worth keeping?