Nebraska Preview

As the Colorado Buffaloes were taking the field against the Iowa State Cyclones on November 10th, a few hundred miles away, in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Cornhusker faithful were saluting their seniors as Nebraska took the field against Kansas State. There were four different scenarios for the outcomes of those two games – three of which were acceptable for Buff fans. Had both teams won, the CU/Nebraska matchup the Friday after Thanksgiving would feature an already bowl-eligible Buff team. Had both teams lost, the Buffs would still be fighting for a bowl berth, while the 4-7 Cornhuskers would enter Folsom Field knowing that their season would be finished in a few hours. The best scenario, of course, would have been a Colorado win and a Nebraska loss.

Sadly for the Buff Nation, though, the final – and only harmful – scenario was the one that played out. To make matters much worse, the games could not have been more devastating for CU. The Buffs squandered a 21-0 lead against the Cyclones, giving up 31 unanswered points in a 31-28 loss. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers, left for dead on the heels of a five game losing streak and a record-setting 76-39 loss to Kansas, dismantled Kansas State, 73-31. Now, what had looked like a Colorado celebration of the downward spiral of the Nebraska program, has turned into a one game playoff for bowl eligibility. A one game playoff in which Nebraska, of all teams, has the pre-game momentum.

How well will Colorado play after such a mind-numbing loss? Will the Buffs’ players be able to come out with disciplined enthusiasm? Will the Nebraska players, anxious to make a bowl appearance themselves, forget the devastating losses of the past two months, and send the Buffs to their locker room to pack up their uniforms until spring?

Not to throw a wet blanket on an already dying fire, but we have been here before. In 1997, the Buffs were 5-5 heading into the Nebraska game. At stake was a bowl berth for the Buffs. Colorado had played in a bowl game every season from 1988-96, and had not had a losing campaign since 1984. Colorado fell to #2 Nebraska, though, 27-24, to end its season, 5-6. Nebraska, meanwhile, went on to win the National Championship.

The 2003 season has even greater parallels to the 2007 campaign. Colorado came into the home finale against Nebraska 5-6. A win would mean bowl eligibility, just like this year. In ‘03, the Buffs fell to #25 Nebraska, 31-22, to finish 5-7 and out of the bowl hunt. What makes the reference to the 2003 game chilling, though, is what happened next. Despite the win over Colorado, Nebraska fired its head coach, Frank Solich, the very next day. One of the worst kept secrets in college football is the likelihood that Solich’s replacement at Nebraska, Bill Callahan, will not be retained as the Cornhuskers’ head coach following this season. Will 2007 play out like 2003, where the Buffs fail to beat the Cornhuskers, yet the Nebraska coach gets fired anyway?

Wouldn’t it be better if the Buffs actually assisted in the process this time?

Okay, so what will the Buffs have to do to end the season on a high note? Let’s look at the statistics:

Win the turnover battle. No surprise here. Colorado is -7 in turnovers on the season, and is ranked 99th in turnover margin in the NCAA. This is a number the Buffs have struggled with all season. Here’s the kicker, though. Know which team is worse in turnover margin than Colorado? Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are a wretched -14 in turnover margin, 115th in the nation (out of 120 teams). Whichever team can break their season-long trend of turning the ball over more than their opponent will likely be your game winner.

Run, run, and then run some more. Nebraska is 114th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up 228.1 yards per game on the ground. The Cornhuskers are 111th in total defense, surrendering 473.1 yards per game. If the Buffs can control the ball, they will not only wear down the “Black Shirts”, but they will keep Nebraska’s high powered passing offense (11th in the nation) off the field.

Score when the opportunities present themselves. Colorado is successful in scoring only about 75% of the time they are inside the opponents’ twenty yard line. That doesn’t sound too, bad, until you realize that scoring three quarters of the time in the red zone is the second worst average in the conference (ahead of only Baylor. Overall, over half the teams in the conference are putting up points over 87% of the time). Reason for solace? Guess which team is worst in red zone defense in the Big 12? Correct again – Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are surrendering points over 90% of the time opponents reach their 20 yard line. With a Big Red offense, despite all the team’s difficulties, scoring over 30 points per game on the season, the Buffs cannot afford to not score when given the chance.

Play the third quarter. Now here is a novel concept. The Buffs have not fared well on the scoreboard in the third quarter this season, being out-scored by an outrageous total of 123-59. This deficiency has only been magnified in the past two games. Against Missouri, the Buffs were out-scored 17-0 in the third quarter; against Iowa State, 21-0. Suffice it to say, such numbers against Nebraska would be devastating.

Three-and-outs will the season prematurely. Against Missouri, the Buffs went three-and-out on offense on six consecutive possessions between their last possession in the first quarter (which ended in a fumble), and their third possession of the third quarter (which ended in an interception). In between, CU was out-scored 31-0, turning a 10-7 lead into a 38-10 rout. Against Iowa State, the Buffs had four consecutive three-and-outs (okay, CU did run four plays on the first drive of the half, but that includes the momentum changing failed fourth-and-one attempt at the CU 43 yard line). By the time Colorado had its first first down of the second half, the 21-0 lead had evaporated into a 24-21 deficit. Obviously, such offensive droughts against Nebraska will send the Buffs and their fans home mumbling about what could have been.

It is hard to believe that the Buffs will not be ready to play against the Cornhuskers. Even in down years, and even when Nebraska has placed considerably more talent on the field, Colorado has played the Cornhuskers tough (witness the ‘97 game, noted above). What I am anxious to see, though, is how the Buffs react after they have taken the first shot to their collective chins. Nebraska will score on the Colorado defense (especially if All-Big 12 candidate, cornerback Terrence Wheatley, cannot play or is limited in his effectiveness), but how will the Buffs react? Will the Buffs fade, as they did in their last two games against Missouri and Iowa State? Or will they continue to fight it out, as they did after falling behind Oklahoma by 17, only to win on the game’s last play? Conversely, how will the Cornhuskers play? They were great front-runners against Kansas State, but they did not show great resiliency when confronted with adversity in the five game losing streak leading up to the win over the Wildcats. Which Cornhusker team will play in Folsom this weekend?

Well, I guess that’s why they play the games. There is just too much riding on this game for CU not to come through. The Iowa State game can either be the catalyst for wiping out all of the postive strides made in the first half of the season, or it can be motivation for starting the Buffs on a postive run into next season.

The first game of the 2008 season is this Friday. Go Buffs!


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