Looking Ahead to Missouri at Nebraska

So the Tigers won their biggest game of the season, their biggest game in years, and knocked off the number one ranked Oklahoma Sooners last week. Their prize? A number six BCS ranking and the opportunity to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to play their new biggest game of the season against the Cornhuskers. It will also be the last time the Big 12 rivals will meet for the foreseeable future, as Nebraska jumps ship for the Big 10 next year. 

Such is the burden of winning, of course; in college football the more you win, the bigger the stakes get every single week.

It's why, as enjoyable and logical as a BCS playoff system would be, I can't really get all the upset over the current system. As it is now, every single game matters in a way no other sport's regular season can claim, and Mizzou fans have to not only follow their own team but the teams near them in the rankings as well. I would probably pay attention to the Michigan State/Iowa matchup this weekend either way, if only because it is my job, but I certainly wouldn't care nearly as much about it if the top eight teams or so all went to a playoff. (On the other hand, that would save me the unpleasantness of being forced to root for Alabama against Auburn in a couple weeks, so it might not be all bad, I suppose.) 

So this is what the Tigers are up against. A 'Husker squad ranked fourteenth in the BCS, with just one loss on their record, coming off a 51-41 win against Oklahoma State. Oh, and a Memorial Stadium filled with 80,000+ rabid Nebraska fans. The stakes are pretty clear as well: a win almost surely seals the Big XII North for the Tigers and keeps any national title aspirations alive. If Mizzou is going to win this game they're going to have to dig deep and pull out a great performance. 

How does one go about stopping the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2010? I won't say it's simple, exactly, but it's not really all that complicated, either. I can sum it up in two words for you: Taylor Martinez

click to enlarge The best thing about the state of Nebraska is they gave Bruce Springsteen an album title. Take THAT, farmers!
The best thing about the state of Nebraska is they gave Bruce Springsteen an album title. Take THAT, farmers!
Martinez is Nebraska's ultra-talented freshman quarterback, and he is a true game-changer. It isn't a one-man show that Bo Pelini is running, as the 'Huskers have good talent on both sides of the ball (particularly on the defensive side, where Nebraska is allowing opponents just under 18 points per game on the season), but Martinez is the engine that makes Nebraska go. Without him the 'Huskers are a good team but certainly not a great one; with him they're as scary an opponent as you're going to find in college football. 

And therein lies the key to victory. Texas was able to beat Nebraska by doing two things well: they bottled up Martinez when he was on the field, and kept him off the field completely a big portion of the time. 

​On the defensive side, the Tigers will need to assign a player or two to Martinez. Much as teams would take one player, often a safety, and assign him as a 'spy' on Michael Vick; the same concept applies here. At least one, and possibly two, defensive players need to be assigned with shadowing Taylor Martinez as their top priority. If he breaks off a couple big runs early, things could get ugly for Missouri. 

Of course, paying so much attention to one player puts more pressure on the rest of the defense, and it will become more important than ever for the Tigers to play solid assignment defense. The front seven especially will have to do yeoman's work to fill the lanes and keep the Nebraska backfield in the backfield. Last week at Oklahoma the defensive linemen of Missouri were outstanding, collapsing the pocket on Landry Jones and winning the battle at the point of attack. With less help behind them, they'll have to be just as good or even better this week. The secondary will be charged with slowing down the Nebraska passing attack, a task made much more difficult if a safety has to play out of position shadowing Martinez. However, Nebraska ranks 100th in the nation in passing yards per game (169.1), while they rank 5th in the nation with 290 yards per game rushing. If you can hold down the yards gained on the ground, you've taken away the much bigger threat. Martinez has also been prone to forcing bad throws at times; if he has to try and win the game with his arm Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis should get their chances at a takeaway or two. 

The recipe sounds simple, as it usually does: the defensive line has to beat Nebraska's O-line in the trenches, the secondary has to keep the big plays to a minimum, and special attention must be paid to the opposition's best player. Unfortunately, execution is never as simple as the game plan makes it sound. If the Mizzou defense can force Taylor Martinez to stay home and the rest of the Nebraska offense has to try and win the game, though, then the Tigers should be able to hold down the 'Huskers. 

On the offensive side, the Tigers need to learn a key lesson from last week's defeat of Oklahoma: running the ball is important. Mizzou beat the Sooners at the line of scrimmage all day, but the key part of their game plan which made such an impact was the dedication to the ground game. Too often over the course of the past few seasons we've seen Missouri lose interest in the running game and become one-dimensional on offense. Plenty of times the talent, and the spread system, were enough to beat their opponents, but against top teams that just isn't going to work. 

With a player as dangerous as Taylor Martinez on the other side, winning the time of possession battle will be huge for the Tigers. Even better than assigning a spy, or bringing pressure, or anything else the defense can do, simply keeping Martinez off the field is the most effective way to nullify his impact. He can't hurt you while the Nebraska defense is playing. 

Hopefully Gary Pinkel and David Yost learned something from the game against Oklahoma and will shoot for a balanced attack. I'm going to keep stumping for more Henry Josey carries in the game, as I've been impressed nearly every time the freshman running back has touched the ball. Both De'Vion Moore and Kenial Lawrence played extremely well last week, but Josey to me is the one running back the Tigers have who possesses the tools to be a true game-changer. Regardless of who carries the ball, though, executing long, clock-eating drives will be huge in keeping the 'Huskers most talented player on the sidelines and Mizzou in the driver's seat. 

The last thing which needs to happen is for the Tiger offense just as a whole to get off to a fast start. Missouri will absolutely need to put some points on the board early if they want to win. Two reasons: a) dealing with the crowd in Lincoln is tough enough under the best of circumstances, but trying to come back with a crowd that smells blood in the water is just piling on; b) putting up a couple scores off the bat would go a long way toward forcing Nebraska into one-dimensional play if they have to try and catch up. 

As I'm sure you've gathered by now, the single most important aspect of this game will be how well the Tigers can limit the running yards Taylor Martinez and the rest of the Nebraska backfield pick up. If Martinez stays bottled up on one side of the line of scrimmage, Missouri should be able to limit the amount of damage the 'Huskers can do to them. If they can't keep him contained, and the Nebraska offense opens up daylight for guys to run through all day long, well, at least we won't have to worry any more about the top five teams losing. 

Personally, I'm hoping that game at Texas Tech the sixth of November will be the Tigers' biggest game of the year. 
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