Nebraska comes in sporting a 9-3 record (5-3 Big Ten), which by many standards would be considered a success, but to the Cornhuskers and their faithful fans, it meant another season of failed expectations. As a result, and partly due to his somewhat abrasive personality, Bo Pelini was relieved of his duties as head coach after seven solid seasons.
The school has hired a new coach in former Oregon State head man and USC assistant Mike Riley, and while the Huskers will play this game under the direction of interim coach Barney Cotton, Riley has already begun to lay the groundwork for his tenure.
Cotton had a pretty simple message for the team moving forward, four basic things that the team should rely on as it prepares for this game.
“I am basically telling them four things — honor God with your effort. Honor your teammates with your effort. Honor Coach Bo (Pelini) with your loyalty and love and support, along with your effort.” Cotton said. “And let’s reveal our character one last time in the Holiday Bowl.”
Nebraska has a long history of performing well in bowl games, this being the team’s 51st postseason appearance (25-25). The Cornhuskers will be seeking their second straight bowl win after beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl last January, 24-19.
USC won twice as many games as it lost this season (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12), but the team too underachieved in the eyes of its supporters. Still, head coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t going anywhere as he had been entrusted with ushering in the next phase of the Trojans’ championship-or-bust run.
USC is making its 49th official bowl appearance (32-16), and it blasted Fresno State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, 45-20. The Trojans are playing in the city of San Diego for just the seventh time, and the first since 1992.
We are excited to go play in the Holiday Bowl and be the first USC team to do so,” said Sarkisian, who previously guided Washington to the 2010 Holiday Bowl, where his Huskies beat Nebraska, 19-7. “We get to play close to home and our fans will show up in force. They’ll get to see a pair of Top-25 teams with storied football heritages. Having been to the Holiday Bowl when I was at Washington, I know this bowl experience will be a good one for our players and fans.”
The series between these two stories programs features four previous meeting, with USC leading 3-0-1. The most recent encounters occurred during a home-and- home series in 2006-07, with the Trojans winning both times.
Nebraska was one of the top scoring offenses in the Big Ten this season, putting up 37.4 ppg behind typical outputs of 248.2 ypg rushing and 198.0 ypg passing. The Cornhuskers relied heavily on star RB Ameer Abdullah to carry much of the load, and he responded by totaling 1,523 yards and 18 TDs.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. was next on the team’s rushing list with 664 yards and five scores, while throwing for an additional 19 TDs and more than 2,300 yards, despite completing only 51.7 percent of his passes. Jordan Westerkamp and Kenny Bell were the guys Armstrong looked to most often, as they combined for 81 catches, 1,383 yards and nine scores.
The Nebraska offensive line did a nice job in helping the backs average 5.5 ypc, while at the same time yielding only 19 sacks.
The defense was middling unit compared to the other 13 teams in the Big Ten, the Huskers allowing 24.8 points and 372.8 yards per contest. Foes ran for more than 176 ypg against the ‘Blackshirts’, scoring 23 TDs on the ground to rank Nebraska fourth from the bottom in that category. The effort against the pass permitted fewer than 200 ypg, and the team recorded 27 sacks while ranking fourth in the league in opponents third-down conversion percentage (.307). The Cornhuskers were also among the league leaders in red zone defense (.805).
Zaire Anderson has amassed 95 tackles to pace the unit, and that includes 12 TFL and two sacks, while Nate Gerry is second with 85 stops to go along with his club-best five interceptions. Randy Gregory has the most sacks of anyone on the roster with seven, and Josh Mitchell has been credited with a dozen PBU.
Even though they averaged 35.1 points and 452.8 yards per outing, the Trojans were a middle-of-the-pack offensive team compared to the others calling the Pac-12 Conference home. Five teams churned out more yardage, although it wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of standout QB Cody Kessler, who hit the mark on an impressive 70.7 percent of his passes, doing so for more than 3,500 yards, 36 TDs and only four INTs.
Also turning in sensation seasons were WR Nelson Agholor, who caught 97 balls for 1,223 yards and 11 scores, and RB Javorious Allen, who rumbled his way to 1,337 yards and nine TDs.
Allowing 23.8 points and 400.2 yards per contest ranked the Trojans third and second, respectively in the conference, with their effort against the run (132.5 ypg) being the better of the two pursuits. USC ranked eighth in pass defense (267.7 ypg), but finished second in pass efficiency defense (118.5).
Hayes Pullard logged a team-best 87 tackles during the 2014 campaign, while Su’a Cravens had 16 of the squad’s 73 TFL. J.R. Tavai tallied seven of its 30 sacks. USC led the Pac-12 in opponents third-down conversion percentage (.352), while also pacing the league in interceptions with 13, although no player had more than two.