LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska and Kansas State used to be the Big 12 North’s two Tiffany programs as they combined for every championship game appearance from the division in the first five years of the conference’s history.
Neither program has approached the levels of those earlier days. But tonight’s winner-take-all battle between the Cornhuskers and Wildcats still will settle who will be playing in Arlington on Dec. 5.
Bo Pelini and Bill Snyder have had their moments over the years. Pelini angrily accosted Snyder after the Wildcats’ 38-9 victory in Lincoln in 2003 when he was the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator when he felt the Wildcats tried to tack on a late touchdown against a young Nebraska defense.
Both have made their amends since then. But their first matchup as rival head coaches will be an interesting one with huge stakes.
Here are some of the things I’ll be watching:
Follow Legate in the I-formation: Nebraska has seen much recent success when redshirt freshman fullback Tyler Legate was inserted into the lineup. His blocking has helped open holes that have sparked Roy Helu Jr. to back-to-back 100-yard rushing games as the Cornhuskers have run off three consecutive victories. I look for them to utilize a similar offensive strategy – particularly early in the game as they dare KSU to stop them.
Senior Day for the Cornhuskers: It will be an emotional game tonight for key Nebraska players like Suh, center Jacob Hickman, guard Andy Christensen, linebacker Phillip Dillard, safety Matt O’Hanlon and defensive end Barry Turner who will be concluding their home careers at tonight’s game. This group was here to start their careers with Bill Callahan before finishing up with the first two seasons of Pelini’s coaching tenure. They’ve seen the Cornhuskers return to the cusp of another title. Will they be able to get them back there tonight?
Will Cody Green get a call for Nebraska: If starting quarterback Zac Lee struggles early, it will be interesting to see if Pelini and Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson make a change -- even for a couple of series -- to freshman Cody Green. He’s had his moments earlier this season, but lost his job after struggling against Oklahoma. Lee has played with much confidence in the last couple of weeks, so I wouldn’t expect the Nebraska coaches to have a quick hook tonight.
Bo’s money ball: If the Cornhuskers can win tonight, it would be worth an extra $150,000 to Bo Pelini for qualifying for the Big 12 title game. He also stands to make an extra $100,000 by taking the Cornhuskers to a Big 12 title and another $100,000 bonus by leading the Cornhuskers into a bowl game.
Protect inside: There will be much pressure against KSU guard Zach Kendall and Kenneth Mayfield and center Wade Weibert to account for Nebraska’s talented tandem of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick. The middle of the Kansas State defense must do a good job in keeping them away from starting quarterback Grant Gregory.
Thomas the Train: Bullish 227-pound tailback Daniel Thomas expected to challenge for the starting job at quarterback when he arrived at Kansas State. Instead, he’s become the focal point of the Wildcats’ offense in another way. Thomas has accounted for about 35 percent of the Wildcats’ offense, leading the team with 1,166 yards. Expect the same kind of use tonight as the Wildcats will try to lengthen their possession with multi-play drives keeping the ball away from the Cornhuskers.
Tackle with abandon: The Wildcats have been very turnover-productive this season, ranking second in the conference and 19th nationally with a plus-eight turnover ratio. Nebraska has been susceptible to turnovers throughout the season, committing eight against Iowa State. The KSU defense will similarly need a couple of big plays, to take the loud sellout crowd of the game.
Get a cheap touchdown -- or two: Brandon Banks needs one more kickoff return to tie the NCAA career record for kickoff returns. With Nebraska’s defense likely to be extremely difficult to dent, a special-teams score would be huge. Even if Banks just dictates field position with his returns, it would be important for a KSU team that figures to struggle to producing consistent yardage against the Cornhuskers.