2009 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl Preview
#20 Arizona (8-4, 6-3; Pac Ten) vs. #19 Nebraska (9-4, 6-2; Big XII)
December 30th, 2009 @ 8:00 PM (EST) – ESPN – San Diego, California
The Holiday Bowl is the most prestigious December bowl game. Now in its 32nd year of existence, there is a ton of tradition surrounding this game. Originally featuring the WAC Champions, the Holiday Bowl became the first December bowl to host the eventual National Champion when BYU defeated 6-5 Michigan to claim the 1984 Championship. This remains the only year that a team from outside of the current BCS structure has claimed a National Title since the 1930s. In recent years, this game has matched top teams from the Pac Ten and Big XII and that tradition continues this year.
Nebraska has vaulted back into the national consciousness in the last two season under Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers won the Big XII North and fell short of upsetting Texas in the Big XII Championship by a single point. Pelini’s two years in charge of Nebraska have resulted in an 18-4 record, a Gator Bowl victory in 2008 and a serious improvement on defense.
The reason for their newfound success was not their offense, which averaged an anemic 24.5 points per game to finish 80th in scoring. The Huskers were not strong rushing (68th) and were virtually non-existent in the passing game (101st) and coughed up the football 23 times. Nebraska scored 20 points or less in seven games this year and the simple fact is that they just aren’t a very good offense.
However, their failings on offense are more than compensated for by their exceptional defense. The Husker D finished 2nd in the country in scoring defense at a miniscule 11.2 points per game allowed! Their 11th ranked run defense was one of only twelve units to hold opponents under 100 yards rushing and their pass defense was quite strong at 25th nationally. Nebraska finished 2nd in sacks and 17th in takeaways with 27, largely due to their dominant defensive line that was anchored by superstar Ndamakong Suh. The Cornhuskers have a very strong argument to be the country’s best defense.
Arizona continued their evolution towards the top of the Pac Ten with a second consecutive eight win season under Mike Stoops, highlighted by a season-ending victory at USC. Arizona’s administration deserves a lot of credit for their patience with Stoops and it is bearing fruit now as the Wildcats appear to be established as a consistent contender. Stoops’ first four season produced zero bowl berths but the last two have yielded a 16-9 record and two postseason appearances. Arizona’s season really began to move forward when sophomore Nick Foles took over at quarterback and were it not for some incredibly bad luck against Washington (interception return off of a foot) and California (two forward passes on one play cost them a go-ahead field goal try late), then this team could have easily won ten games this year.
As was previously mentioned, Foles’ ascension to the starting position galvanized the Wildcats. In his nine starts, Arizona averaged 31.8 points per game while they only scored 26.6 points without him. On the season, the Wildcats were the 39th ranked pass offense and the 47th ranked rush offense nationally, though they did only turn the ball over 19 times. The real strength of their passing offense was their excellent protection of Foles, allowing only 11 sacks to finish 10th nationally. This is a balanced offense but in four games against a top 30 scoring defense this year, they’ve only averaged 17.5 points.
The Wildcats were decent defensively, finishing 46th in scoring defense at 23.2 points per game. However, that seems high considering their 22nd ranked run defense and 43rd ranked pass defense. The Wildcats were also excellent in the pass rush, finishing 13th in the country with 34 sacks and the only possible explanation for their oddly high scoring mark is that they only forced 19 takeaways, leaving the team with an even turnover margin. On top of it all, they haven’t allowed any kick returns for scores all year, so it appears that the Wildcats are very underrated defensively.
In analyzing this game, one statistic really jumps out at me: Arizona’s production against top 30 scoring defenses. They’ve only averaged 17.5 points per game in those contests and Nebraska will be by far their stiffest test. Thus, it seems unlikely that the Huskers will allow the Wildcats to score a lot of points. However, you can also bank on Nebraska putting up a low score, because tailback Roy Helu is the only bright spot on their offense. By all appearances, this appears to be destined to be a very low-scoring game.
This will be both coaches’ 2nd bowl appearance and each led their teams to successful showings the first time around, so there doesn’t appear to be an advantage in that regard. In fact, both men have defensive backgrounds and coordinated National Championship teams before coming to their current schools!
Both teams should also be very excited to be playing in this game. Nebraska was just one second away from winning the Big XII and they will certainly be eager to prove that their showing against Texas was no fluke. Furthermore, their most dominant defensive showings have against ranked teams this year, yielding an average of only 11 points per game. Meanwhile, Arizona is coming off of back to back close victories over rival Arizona State and USC and will look to end their season on a high note.
In short, this is the definition of a toss-up game. When that occurs, I have two steps: The first is to look to see which team has the most dominant individual player and the second is to look to see which team has the most dominant individual unit. The answers to those two questions are 1) Ndamakong Suh and 2) Nebraska’s defense. Further swaying me is Nebraska’s excellent showing against ranked teams coupled against Arizona’s weak showing against top defenses. That leads me to believe that Nebraska’s dominating defense will be the difference in a truly close game. Expect the Cornhuskers to win a defensive struggle in the Holiday Bowl.
Holiday Bowl Pick: Nebraska 15, Arizona 10
by Matt Baxendell
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