I don't think there's a whole lot the numbers can tell us about the Kansas-Nebraska matchup that we don't already know, but I'll offer them anyway. Nebraska has yet to play a game they should win but could lose. That they refused to challenge their one worthy opponent further complicates attempts to gauge their true ability. The difference between USC's 18 point win over Nebraska and their 36 point win at Arkansas came down to more than Nebraska's ability to refrain from turning the ball over at every opportunity. Nebraska, looking for all the world like a team whose coach wanted nothing more than not to lose too badly, severely limited the number of plays either team ran. Against Arkansas and Arizona, USC ran 12 and 13 more plays, respectively, than they did against Nebraska. Against USC, Nebraska ran 16 fewer plays than they did against Troy and 31 fewer plays than they did against Lousiana Tech.
Furthermore, uncertainty over the identity of Kansas's starting quarterback means that we don't know whether Nebraska's run defense or their pass defense will be under more pressure on Saturday night.
For a good preview of the game from a Nebraska perspective, check out Double Extra Point.
Against Louisiana Tech and Troy, Nebraska ran for a combined 568 yards, gaining just over 6 yards per carry. The 56-0 win over Troy came on the heels of Troy taking Florida State to the wire in Tallahassee and playing Georgia Tech tough for three quarters in Atlanta the previous two weeks.
That Troy's defense played progressively worse against progressively better competition with each successive road game does not, to me, consititute compelling proof that Nebraska's offense is an unstoppable force especially when one considers that Louisiana Tech let Texas A&M run all over them last week.
As Kansas fans saw firsthand in Lawrence last fall, Bill Callahan won't abandon the running game just because it's not working at all. SR QB (#13) Zac Taylor, when allowed to throw the ball against USC, did an okay job. Despite gaining a mere 68 yards at a rate of 1.9 yards per carry, Callahan insisted on running the ball two-thirds of the time (36 rushes, 17 pass attempts). I'm not sure what this offensive strategy accomplished beyond keeping the game's margin near Vegas's line.
To be fair to Callahan, he kept the run-pass balance in Lawrence last year close to 50-50 and the Husker offense failed to move the ball either way.
JR IB (#27) Kenny Wilson has received the bulk of the carries for Nebraska (53 car, 199 yds, 2 TDs) but has been outgained by SO IB (#20) Marlon Lucky (33 car, 262 yds, 4 TDs). JR IB (#32) Brandon Jackson has been effective in limited action (16 car, 97 yards, 2 TDs).
As I mentioned above, Zac Taylor didn't play that badly against USC. He completed half of his passes, gained 7.2 yards per attempt, didn't throw an interception, and was only sacked once. Taylor was excellent against both Louisiana Tech and Troy, completing over 70 percent of his passes, gaining over 11 yards per attempt, with four touchdowns, and only two interceptions. Taylor's 14-17, 268 yard performance against Troy is the more impressive of the two as Texas A&M's Stephen McGee put up similarly big numbers against Louisiana Tech's pass defense.
Regardless, Nebraska will give the Kansas pass defense its sternest test of the year so far. JR WR (#83) Terrence Nunn (11 rec, 187 yds) and So WR (#87) Nate Swift (6 rec, 125 yds) have been more productive than highly touted JuCo transfer JR WR (#16) Maurice Purify (3 rec, 73 yds). Purify's size and speed could pose a problem should he get matched up against one of Kansas's smaller DBs.
Only two of Nebraska's ten touchdown passes have been caught by wide receivers. The other eight have gone to tight ends (SR (#11) Matt Herian, 2;JR (#85) JB Phillips, 2; JR (#81) Josh Mueller, 1; SO (#89) Hunter Teafatiller, 1) or fullbacks (JR (#42) Matt Senske, 1; SR (#41) Dane Todd, 1).
Nebraska held Louisiana Tech and Troy to 115 combined yards at 2.4 yards per carry. Louisiana Tech's rushing offense was similarly ineffective against Texas A&M last week. Troy has struggled to run the ball against all three defenses they've faced on the road.
USC ran for 142 yards at 4.6 yards per carry against Nebraska. The Trojans gained more yards in their visits to Arkansas and Arizona, but that was purely a function of running the ball more often. They ran for 4.6 and 4.8 yards per carry in their other two games.
All-American SR DE (#90) Adam Carriker, SR DE (#44) Jay Moore, and SO DT (#93) Ndamukong Suh all have the potential to cause problems for a Kansas offensive line that needs to be a strength if Kansas is to move the ball consistently.
Nebraska's pass defense was helpless against USC. In the second start of his career, John David Booty completed 69.4% of his passes for 257 yards and 3 TDs. He was sacked but one time. Those numbers were almost an exact replica of Booty's performance at Arkansas two weeks prior (68.6%, 261 yards, 3 TDs). Last week in Tucson, the Arizona pass defense showed that Booty can be slowed down. He still completed over 61% of his passes, but for only 179 yards and he threw his first interception of the year.
Nebraska predictably handled Louisiana Tech and Troy's passing attacks with ease. Of possible concern for the Huskers going forward: they've struggled to sack the quarterbacks they've faced (7 in 3 games) or force interceptions (2 in 3 games).
Nebraska has locked down opposing return men this season. They've allowed four punts to be returned for only 4.75 yards per return. The 26 kick-offs that have been returned against Nebraska have gone for only 14.6 yards per return. Nebraska's kickers have managed only one touchback on their kick-offs so far this year, increasing the value and importance of good coverage.
Nebraska has been only slightly more dangerous on returns themselves, returning 17 punts for 9.1 yards per return (a number inflated by Nate Swift's two returns for 49 yards against Nicholls State) and 5 kick-offs for 20.2 yards per return.
SO PK (#29) Jordan Congdon is 1-2 for the year on field goals with a 38-yard make at USC and a 37-yard miss against Nicholls State. Congdon is 24-24 on extra points.
Nebraska will probably win this game. To this point in the season they appear to be a better team than Kansas (though I'm pretty sure the gap between Kansas and Nebraska is narrower than that between Nebraska and USC and I'm certain that Mark Mangino, unlike Callahan, will try to win the most difficult road game on his schedule thus far).
The Kansas offense has left a lot of points on the field the last two games. If they start converting their scoring opportunities more often, their schedule will allow them to compete for the North title. If they don't, they'll give away at least one more game they should win and the entire team will look bad should the young defense lay an egg on the road.
I'll refrain from making a score prediciton until I know who is starting at quarterback for Kansas. The Nebraska players, being part of both the home team and the better team, have a greater margin for error. The Kansas players will benefit from playing for a head coach presumably willing to let them try and win a difficult road game and a defensive coordinator whose game plan thoroughly shut down the Nebraska offense a year ago. Kansas probably won't win and they probably won't be blown out. I expect the game's outcome to come down to a handful of plays that will be overly scrutinized in the next by the two fan bases, one of which desperately wishes for a return to football dominance, and one anxiously awaiting the arrival of respectibility.