For the first time, college football blue bloods USC and Nebraska will meet in a bowl game. It comes on December 27th in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which will air at 5:00 p.m. Pacific on ESPN.
For a quick, early breakdown of the game, let’s walk through the matchup between the 8-4 Trojans and 9-3 Huskers.
The all-time series
Despite being college football powers for much of their existence, USC and Nebraska have met just four times, and never in the postseason. The Trojans lead the series 3-0-1, highlighted by a pair of convincing wins in 2006 and 2007 under head coach Pete Carroll. In 1970, both teams were in the top 10, with the No. 3 Trojans scoring with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter to force a 21-21 with the No. 9 Huskers.
Ameer Abdullah vs. Leonard Williams
Aside from Lil’ Red vs. Traveler, the biggest matchup in the Holiday Bowl will be how USC’s front seven, and mainly Leonard Williams, will try and star running back Ameer Abdullah. The senior from Alabama has rushed for 1,523 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2014, highlighted by four separate 200-yard performances.
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A combo back and a slasher, Abdullah brings speed from a featured back that the Trojans haven’t really seen all season. The closest comparison in the Pac-12 would be Utah’s Devontae Booker, who ran for 102 yards on USC.
Abdullah is more skilled and experienced, and could run for more.
Overall, the Huskers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging a collective 5.48 yards per carry and a smidgen under 250 yards per game. That’s going to be a difficult task for the Trojans, who have been both susceptible to the run and stingy against it.
After being trampled to the tune of 452 rushing yards to Boston College in Week 3, USC’s rush defense was stellar in the middle of the season when they held ASU to 31 yards and Arizona to 77 yards in back to back weeks.
In 12 games, only three opponents have rushed for better than four yards per carry against the Trojans, and two of those were in blowout wins to Notre Dame and Fresno State.
As for Williams, he too will likely be playing in his final college football game. He’s projected to be a top five overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and has an amusingly pedestrian year by his standards, totaling 71 tackles from multiple spots along USC’s defensive line.
Kessler faces an elite pass defense in a big game
Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler put up unreal numbers this season, in what surprisingly became a record-breaking year. He set marks for touchdown passes in a game with seven against Colorado, and his passer rating of 168.9 is the highest in a single season in USC history.
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But the narrative on Kessler is that he’s been tremendous against lesser opponents and has struggled or been vanilla against strong competition. Facing Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl is a perfectly blended test for the possible NFL Draft early entrant.
The Huskers have only allowed 12 touchdown passes all season, a third of the amount Kessler has thrown. Furthermore, their 100.6 defensive passer rating is good for third in the nation and they’re ranked 17th in FBS against the pass by the S&P+, which is weighted for strength of schedule.
Kessler lit up Fresno State in the Vegas Bowl last year, throwing for 344 yards and four touchdowns. A performance close to that this year would go a long way at shedding the label of his struggles in big games and may set him up for a hyped up senior season if he stays.
Huskers in the middle of a coaching transition
Nebraska has made plenty of news this week, highlighted by last Sunday’s sacking of perennial nine-win head coach Bo Pelini. Since then, they’ve hired former Oregon State boss and longtime USC killer and occasional coaching candidate, Mike Riley.
Riley won’t be able to coach in the Holiday Bowl, and the Huskers will turn to Barney Cotton on an interim basis. A long-time assistant head coach, this is Cotton’s first stint as a head coach at the FBS level, as he last was a head coach back in 1996 at Hastings of the NAIA level.
Only one other time in Nebraska history have they played in a bowl game with an interim head coach, and that was in 2003 when then-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini took over after the firing of Frank Solich. The Huskers beat Michigan State 17-3 in the Alamo Bowl.
Last year, USC beat Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl with their second interim head coach of the season, Clay Helton. That, along with the Trojans’ success under Ed Orgeron should serve as proof that teams without a permanent head coach are often inspired to play for themselves, with nothing to lose.
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