The UCLA Bruin football team will face the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday, December 26th, at 6:15 p.m. PT.
From the perspective of the UCLA fan, this bowl is a letdown considering the aspirations to win the PAC 12 South, play in the championship game, and perhaps get a sniff at the Rose Bowl. The game, in my opinion, is a step up from the Las Vegas Bowl against BYU, which would not have drawn well from the UCLA pool because many fans already went to Vegas in September and the Bruins played BYU a week later. Although the fans might not be thrilled, Coach Jim Mora will not let UCLA (8-4) take this game lightly. The Bruins will be ready to play.
Nebraska (5-7) is only allowed to play in this bowl with a losing record because there were not enough 6-6 teams to fill all of the forty (40!!!) bowls this season. The NCAA picked 5-7 teams based upon their academic progress rate, and Nebraska was at the top of the list. The Bruins should not take Nebraska lightly. They are a big time program and, although they had a down year under first year Head Coach Mike Riley, several of their losses were very close. For example, the 'Huskers dropped a game by three points in OT at Miami, lost at Illinios by one, and lost to both Wisconsin and Northwestern by 2 at home. They also gave CFB playoff team Michigan State its only loss, albeit on one of the worst non-calls of the the 2015 college football season.
Today, we will look at the Nebraska offense. Check back with BN tomorrow for a preview of the Nebraska defense. And don't forget a special Christmas Pregame Guesses!
Nebraska is #35 in the country in total offense, averaging 442.5 yards per game (YPG). UCLA's defense, ranked #61 in the nation, allows an average of 393 YPG.
Luckily for the Bruins, the Cornhuskers' rushing offense is not as good as its passing offense, more or less matching up with the Bruins' strengths on defense. Nebraska is #71 in rushing offense, churning out 167.8 YPG on the ground. UCLA's rushing defense is poor, allowing 187.8 rushing YPG, #88 in the country. Nebraska's passing yards per game is pretty good, #42 in the country, gaining 274.7 YPG through the air. UCLA is #42 in passing defense, allowing only 205.7 YPG.
Looking at the stats alone, it appears that the big matchup in this game is whether UCLA's secondary will be able to hold Nebraska's passing offense in check. Another issue in this game is whether Nebraska will try to run the ball more. They have run 434 rushing plays and 439 passing plays this season, almost a 50/50 split.
Another important stat is Nebraska's turnovers. The 'Huskers are tied for #119 in the nation in turnover margin at -13. If you drill deeper, you'll see that the Cornhuskers have turned the ball over 26 times, 21 of which were interceptions. Again, can UCLA's secondary create a few picks to slow down the Nebraska passing attack? Or will Nebraska exploit UCLA's rushing defense (and limit potential interceptions) by pounding the rock?
Nebraska's quarterback is junior Tommy Armstrong, Jr. Ironically, Armstrong started getting consistent playing time after his predecessor, Taylor Martinez, was injured during the UCLA game in Lincoln in 2013. Armstrong has thrown 383 passes this season, 210 of which were completed for a somewhat underwhelming 54.8 completion percentage. He has 21 touchdowns on the season, with 16 interceptions, also not stellar numbers.
Armstrong is a threat to run (uh-oh), carrying the rock 88 times for 324 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. Remember that rushing yardage is depressed for QBs due to the NCAA counting sack yardage against a QB's rushing yardage, and Armstrong was sacked 11 times this season. Knowing UCLA's complete ineffectiveness against rushing quarterbacks this season, Mike Riley would be smart to give the Bruins a liberal dose of Armstrong in the running game, especially in the read option.
Armstrong missed the Purdue game this season due to turf toe, so Nebraska went with back up, Ryker Fyfe. Fyfe went 29 of 48 for 407 yards in that game, throwing four touchdowns and four picks in a 55-45 loss. Those picks did not help Nebraska's cause. If Armstrong get's dinged in the bowl game, we can expect to see Fyfe.
Nebraska's bell cow at running back is junior Terrell Newby, an L.A. native out of Chaminade High School. Newby has 143 carries for 743 yards this season (a 5.2 yards per carry average) and 5 rushing touchdowns. Newby also has 23 catches out of the backfield for 158 yards and a touchdown. Newby is not a big back, at 5'10" 200 lbs. Newby is quick, but has a knack for trying to go too much east-west to break a big play, rather than going north-south for a shorter gain. In other words, he is the anti-Paul Perkins.
Senior Imani Cross has also seen a fair amount of action this season, and will be playing in his last collegiate game. Cross has 96 carries for 389 yards and 5 touchdowns. Cross is not much of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Some have speculated that Devine Ozigbo a 5'11" 225 lb. freshman and perhaps Nebraska's running back of the future, might play a bigger role in the bowl game. Ozigbo has carried the ball 18 times for 129 yards and one touchdown this season.
Juunior wide receiver, Jordan Westerkamp, is the star among a group of solid wide receivers. Westerkamp, a member of the second team AP All Big Ten Team, has 67 receptions, for 874 yards and 7 touchdowns. Junior Brandon Reilly is right behind Westerkamp, in terms of yardage with 716 yards, but has earned those yards on significantly less catches, hauling in 37 passes, four of which were for touchdowns. Both Westerkamp and Reilly are similar in size, at 6'0"-6'1" and 195 lbs. Junior Alonzo Moore, also around the same size at 6'2" and 195 lbs, has 23 catches (6 of which were for touchdowns) for 382 yards.
Nebraska has three other receivers who have caught touchdown passes this season, led by freshman, Stanley Morgan, Jr.,with 23 grabs for 273 yards and two touchdowns. Some of you may recall that Morgan received an offer to play at UCLA.
Junior Cethan Carter is a significant part of the Nebraska offense. He has 23 catches on the year, for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Carter has also rushed the ball once this season--that one went 32 yards for a touchdown. UCLA linebackers cannot forget about Carter.
Aside from the right tackle position, Nebraska's line is deep and experienced. Started at center is senor Ryne Reeves (6'3" 300 lbs.). Although Reeves has battled injury through his career at Nebraska, he has played regularly over the last three years, finally earning the starting spot this season.
Zach Sterup, a 6'8" 320 lb. behemoth at right guard, is a two year starter and also saw extensive action his sophomore year. At left guard is Dylan Utter. A bit undersized at 6'1" 285 lbs., Utter nevertheless played extensively in the later half of last season, started in the Holiday Bowl last season, and earned the starting job this year.
The starting left tackle is senior Alex Lewis (6'6" 290 lbs.). Lewis' relatively small size (as far as left tackles go) might give him an advantage over UCLA's speed rusher, Deon Hollins, while protecting Armstrong's blind side. Of course, refs have been reluctant to call even the most blatant holds by OLs against Hollins this season, so it might not matter. Lewis, a JUCO transfer, sat out 2013 and started all games in 2014. Nick Gates (6'5" 290 lbs.), a redshirt freshamn with a lot of college games ahead of him, should start for the Huskers at right tackle.
Will Nebraska abandon their passing style offense and try to grind down UCLA on the ground? This is the big question. Southern Cal did it with great success. Stanford did it with great success. Arizona did it with great success in the second half, after the game was pretty much in hand in favor of UCLA, and Anu Solomon was out. The ground match up against UCLA favors the 'Huskers offense more than the passing attack. Although Nebraska's passing offense is good, so is UCLA's secondary, and there do not appear to be any glaring size or speed match ups that Nebraska will be able to exploit against UCLA's secondary. If I was Mike Riley, I know how I would play it.
I hope that you enjoyed Bruins Nation's preview of the Nebraska offense as we draw closer to the game on Saturday. Hopefully, some of the Bay Area Bruins who were not able to make it to a game this season (and those who did) will come out and support the Bruins. You can be sure that there will be plenty of red in Levi's stadium. Nebraska's fans travel about as well as any in the country.