A look at USC's opponent in the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl
Record: (9-3 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten)
Key wins: Miami, Iowa
Notable losses: Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Common USC opponent: Fresno State (USC won 52-13, Nebraska won 55-19)
Bowl history: 51st total appearance, 25 bowl wins, 4th Holiday Bowl (lost to Steve Sarkisian and Washington in 2010)
Series record with USC: 0-3-1 (most recent game, 2007)
Head coach: Barney Cotton is the interim coach after the firing of Bo Pelini. Cotton is a longtime fixture in the Cornhuskers program (he played at Nebraska, has been an assistant coach and also has a son on the team). Mike Riley is the new full-time coach of the team, but will not coach in the bowl game. Riley is also a former USC assistant coach.
Team Outlook: Nebraska opened the season with a 5-0 record, including a promising victory against Miami, but then suffered a tough loss on the road against Michigan State in a game that saw the Cornhuskers make a comeback attempt after being down 27-3. The team appeared to get back on track with three conference wins, but then came back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers rolled up over 600 total yards, scored 56 unanswered points, and Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon set an NCAA record with 408 rushing yards. It was a stunning defeat for a proud program, and it was followed by a less-than-inspiring final home-game loss for the seniors against the Gophers. Not even an OT victory in the finale against Iowa, which guaranteed a seventh straight nine-win season, was enough to save Pelini’s job.
Offense: Nebraska runs multiple schemes with elements of read-option and spread at various times. It is ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing and scoring, with a very productive duo at I-back and wide receiver. Ameer Abdullah ranks as the second-leading rusher in Cornhuskers history behind 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, and he is No. 1 overall in all-purpose yardage. He is considered a hard-runner with good change-of-direction skills. Abdullah (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) had four 200-yard rushing games this season (1,523 total rushing yards and 18 TD’s) and he ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and scoring. Abdullah suffered a knee injury on Nov. 1 which slowed his production over the final month of the season, but he is expected to be healthy for the bowl game. Kenny Bell is an athletic target who is the leading receiver in school history, bypassing another Cornhusker Heisman winner in Johnny Rodgers. Bell (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) was named first team All-Big-Ten this season after catching 40 passes with five touchdowns, he is also known as a very good blocker. The quarterback is Tommy Armstrong Jr., a dynamic leader who can run and throw the deep ball, but can be inconsistent with his mid-range passing. Armstrong (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) had 2,314 passing yards and 664 rushing yards, with 24 combined touchdowns. If the Nebraska offense is going to do any damage to the Trojans, it’s likely to come from one of these three players. The offensive line, long a strength of the program, never really came together this season in a manner that Huskers fans had hoped to see.
Defense: The Cornhuskers run a 4-3 defense and feature a strong front line, led by All-Big-Ten performer Randy Gregory, a long and fast defensive end who is projected to join USC’s Leonard Williams as a high draft pick if they decide to enter the NFL. Gregory has battled a knee injury all season but has played through it, with a particularly good performance against Miami when he had seven tackles and two sacks. Gregory has 10 tackles for loss this season. Maliek Collins is a disruptive force in the middle with a bright future. Zaire Anderson is the leading tackler on the defense at linebacker, but this is not a particularly strong group by Nebraska standards. Nate Gerry led the way in the secondary with five interceptions and, though there is a lot of promise for the future of the defensive backfield, this should be an area where the Trojans can make an impact with their balanced offensive attack and overall set of weapons. The Huskers defense struggled in their losses this season, and USC should bring more firepower than anybody Nebraska has seen yet.
Special Teams: An overall strength of the team. Freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El led the nation in punt-return yardage (589 yards on 33 returns, a 17.8 yard average) and returned three punts for touchdowns. Punter Sam Foltz and placekicker Drew Brown are very good. Kickoff returns showcase Abdullah and Bell.
Intangible: It’s always hard to know how a team will respond after the firing of a coach, especially one like Pelini who had such a strong faction of support within the Nebraska community. Of course, the Trojans know that story all too well, after playing in the Las Vegas Bowl last season following the announcement that beloved interim coach Ed Orgeron would not be retained. USC responded with a focused effort under interim coach Clay Helton in that game, and the Cornhuskers will be looking to follow a similar script this year.