We decided to check in with the view from the heartland, and talked with Lincoln Journal Star reporter Curt McKeever, who covers Nebraska and the Big 12, about the Huskers. Here’s what he had to say about a variety of topics:
How disappointed are Huskers backers about this rematch? Was it bad initially, then they got over it? Or is it still a yawner for them?
The Huskers were more stunned than disappointed not about where they were headed (who would be?), but in who theyd be playing. The Holiday Bowl is truly a first-class deal for the participating teams — its just so rare to play a non-conference opponent twice in the same season. Nebraska, in fact, will be doing it for the first time in the modern era. The two times the Huskers did play a rematch in the same year during the Big Eight and Big 12 years both worked out for the team that lost the first meeting. NU avenged a regular-season loss to Texas in the 1999 Big 12 championship and lost to Oklahoma in the 1979 Orange Bowl after upsetting the Sooners five weeks earlier. Will history repeat itself? Im more interested to see if these guys remember how well they played in Seattle back in September, because itd be a big mistake to think its going to come as easily this time.
Will unrest from Bo Pelini rumors, DUIs, and assistants prepping to leave have a big impact on the game?
This is the first time Pelinis name has come up regarding another job, but hes a straight shooter with his team, so with those guys the Miami talk was a non-issue. It made for a couple of interesting days in the paper, though. As far as the assistants, Pelini wants them to be in the running for jobs that would give their career a boost, so its almost business-as-usual that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson interviewed for the Vanderbilt and Miami of Ohio jobs. Pelini is losing his first assistant in linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, who will be co-defensive coordinator at Indiana. But Ekeler is coaching in the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska will definitely miss defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (who was suspended after being cited for DUI). He and all-league DT Jared Crick have become as good a DT tandem as there is in the Big 12. Ill be surprised if Steinkuhler isnt in the NFL in a few years. The loss of safety Ricky Thenarse (suspended for the same offense as Steinkuhler) is tough because hes one of the most popular guys on the team. But he got bumped from a starting spot around the middle of the season and has seen little PT since.
Which Taylor Martinez do you expect to see?
If I knew the answer to that question, I would make new travel plans and make sure I flew through Las Vegas. I think the kid will be close to 100 percent and that means against a defense like Washington he should have some room to run. But I wonder how big of a hit his confidence has taken. If the Huskies can put him in passing situations, he has floundered ever since looking like an All-American at Oklahoma State in late October.
What is the view of Jake Locker from the first game, and which Locker does Nebraska expect to see?
Nebraska thinks Locker will run a lot more in the Holiday Bowl than he did in Seattle. Its his last game, after all, so why hold back? The secondary wont underestimate his capabilities as a passer, but that almost works in their favor. They love to go against highly touted guys. Trust me, theyll be thinking theres no reason why they cant shut him down again not because theyre overconfident, theyre just that good.
Did it feel like Nebraska improved or regressed as the season went on? Whichever, where did that occur?
Nebraska caught Texas on the only day of the season when the Longhorns played to their talent, then responded with two impressive performances at Oklahoma State and against Missouri. At that point, the Huskers looked like theyd be playing in a much bigger game than the Holiday Bowl, and if Martinez hadnt severely sprained an ankle against the Tigers they would be. But their offense, also without top receiver Niles Paul down the stretch, has been a shell of its earlier self, so Id label the season regression by subtraction. But I also wouldnt count the Huskers out against very many opponents. These guys will fight anybody.
What’s most important for Nebraska to win this game?
Sorry for the cliché, but I always go with turnovers. If Martinez is healthy, I think Washington will be in for a rough go . . . unless the Huskies can create a few extra possessions. They should have some chances, too, because Nebraska is sloppy with the ball. If you give me a No. 2 choice, Id say not to let that Polk kid get going early. Hes a stud.
Prediction for the game? What will happen and score?
What you need to know first is that I picked Arizona to beat the Huskers in last years Holiday Bowl. Wouldve hit that out of the park, too, if only the Wildcats had found a way to score 34 more points. Its funny — this game is a bit of a similar setup. Washington is pumped like Arizona was, and Nebraska is coming off a crushing loss. Pelini, though, seems to have found a formula for bringing out the best in his teams come bowl time, so Im not going against the boys in red this year. Lets say something along the lines of 31-17. Locker is game for a last-stand battle, but this one is more reflective of where the two programs are currently aligned in the big picture.