- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- The winner of Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl might very well be the team that can best gear itself up for a non-BCS game when both teams’ sights were initially set much higher.
No. 7 Georgia (11-2) came within a few yards of playing for the BCS National Championship, but fell just short in a 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Meanwhile, all No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) had to do to play in the Rose Bowl was beat a five-loss Wisconsin team in the Big Ten championship game, but the Cornhuskers laid an egg in a 70-31 loss where they surrendered 539 rushing yards.
Although these are two of the winningest programs in college football history, Georgia and Nebraska are hardly familiar with one another. They have met just once, in the 1969 Sun Bowl, so Monday’s matchup in Orlando, Fla., stands among the high-profile non-BCS games this bowl season.
Let’s take a closer look at Georgia’s upcoming opponent.
Record: 10-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Bo Pelini, five seasons (49-19)
Series record: Nebraska leads 1-0. The Cornhuskers won 45-6 against Georgia in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
Top players: QB Taylor Martinez (212-341, 2,667 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs, 175-973 rushing, 10 TDs), RB Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs), RB Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs), S Damion Stafford (89 tackles, 4 TFL, 4 INTs), DE Eric Martin (56 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 16 TFL, 13 QBH)
Scouting the offense: Without question, the element that makes Nebraska’s offense work is its running game. Quarterback Martinez has better-than-average passing numbers (212-341, 2,667 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs), and he has hit Kenny Bell (46 catches, 803 yards, 8 TDs) on a number of big plays. But it’s his rushing ability out of straight runs and zone-read fakes and the threat that he and running backs Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) present that allow the Cornhuskers’ passing game to enjoy success.
If Nebraska is to put forth a competitive effort in the bowl game, it will have to take advantage of a Georgia defense that at times has struggled to wrap up opposing runners. The Bulldogs have allowed three straight opponents to rush for 300-plus yards, including 350 by Alabama in the SEC championship game.
Overall, the Cornhuskers’ offense has been more consistent than their occasionally spotty defense. They have not scored fewer than 13 points (in a 13-7 win against Iowa) in any game and rank in the national top 30 in both total offense (462.15 ypg) and scoring (35.1 ppg) while ranking eighth in rushing (254.5 ypg).
Scouting the defense: Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo insists that Nebraska’s defense is much better than its 70-31 loss to Wisconsin made it appear. Yet when things have gone sideways for the Cornhuskers, it has often done so in a hurry.
In each of their three losses -- the loss to Wisconsin, a 63-38 loss to Ohio State and a 36-30 defeat at UCLA -- the Cornhuskers gave up at least a fairly one-sided scoring run. Ohio State closed what had been a close game with a 28-7 run. UCLA mounted a 19-6 rally to go from 21-17 down to a 36-27 advantage. And Wisconsin blew open the Big Ten title game with a 35-0 run to go ahead 49-10.
In those three losses, Nebraska allowed averages of 418 rushing yards and 597 yards of total offense per game. In its 10 wins, Nebraska surrendered 129.9 yards per game on the ground and 266.9 yards of total offense.
Largely because of those implosions against the run, the Cornhuskers are 95th nationally against the run, allowing 194.85 yards per game overall. They’re actually first nationally in passing defense, however, allowing 148.2 passing yards per game with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Scouting the special teams: Brett Maher handles both the kicking and punting duties for the Cornhuskers and has done a fine job. He has connected on 14 of his last 15 field-goal tries -- including kicks of 51 and 52 yards -- and has hit all 55 of his PATs. He’s averaging 41.7 yards per punt, but the Cornhuskers have not done the best job of covering kicks, ranking 69th nationally in net punting at 36.47 net yards per punt.
Abdullah is among Nebraska’s leaders on kickoff and punt returns. He ranks 12th nationally with an average of 13.1 yards per punt return, which includes an 81-yard return for a touchdown against Idaho State. He and Bell have both returned 14 kickoffs with Bell averaging 23.2 yards per return and Abdullah 20.9. Abdullah has the team’s longest kickoff return of the season with an 83-yard runback.