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Holiday Bowl 2014: USC vs Nebraska Preview

Steve Sarkisian looks to start his USC head coaching career with a bowl victory over the #25 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

-Saturday December 27th at 5pm Pacific/6pm MST
-San Diego, CA - Qualcomm Stadium
-ESPN (Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer)

The exciting, but ultimately disappointing USC Trojans land in the Holiday Bowl for the first time ever after a blowout win over rival Notre Dame finished their regular season. Steve Sarkisian's first season was a rocky one, a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State was balanced out by USC's escape vs Arizona, and a loss to crosstown rival UCLA was balanced out by a dominating performance against the Irish.

Wins and Losses
USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) and Nebraska (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) faced a similar opponent this year in Fresno State, both coming away with dominating wins 52-13 and 55-19 respectively. Nebraska has no quality wins as they lost against every ranked opponent they faced this year. #10 Michigan State was close, especially playing in East Lansing, but they were dominated by a lower ranked #20 Wisconsin followed up by an upset by #25 Minnesota at home. USC won against two ranked opponents, aforementioned Arizona and earlier in the season against a lackluster #13 Stanford team 13-10. Nebraska climbed to #11 in the nation by playing mediocre teams before their two straight ranked losses. Their inability to win against ranked teams cost a very popular coach in Bo Pelini his job

Coaches: Steve Sarkisian vs Mike Riley Barney Cotton
Sark has already beaten Riley once this year when Oregon State visited the Coliseum in late September, winning 35-10. This would help Coach Riley quite a bit; to face the same team but with a different look. Well...... Mike Riley won't be coaching the bowl game, but it will be Interim head coach Barney Cotton who has already accepted a different position elsewhere. Cotton will need the ability to rally his players after a true players' coach was let go, but he will have a scouting report from Riley to form a game plan around

Nebraska is gonna run
Nebraska enters the bowl with the 17th most rushing yards per game in FBS, along with the 14th best in points scored. Ameer Abdullah is the man that the Trojans need to stop: 1,523 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. USC has the crew they need, with All-American Defensive End Leonard Williams, outside linebacker Su'a Cravens, and inside linebacker Hayes Pullard all looking to bottle him up. Tommy Armstrong Jr. has not been very efficient this year through the air, and if he does throw, his favorite target is WR Kenny Bell. Bell, although not grabbing many catches a game (under 4), gets nearly 18 yards per catch. If the QB is going to the ground- his scrambling abilities are quite good, getting 5 yards per attempt and 664 yards total on the season. If Armstrong Jr. is in fact going to throw it, a 13 interception Trojan secondary will be ready and looking to add to that total.

USC is gonna pass
Cody Kessler in his second starting season has done very very well. He finished as a finalist for both the Manning and Unitas Gold Arm Awards with 292 completions for 3,505 yards (70.7%) and 36 touchdowns. At 168.8 his passing efficiency is one of the highest in the country. 1,223 of those yards are going to Nelson Agholor, nearly double that of #2 WR Juju Smith. The Husker secondary will have problems with Kessler and will need a big game from safety Nate Gerry (5 INT, 85 tackles). The front 7 may be able to limit Buck Allen's yards on the ground through All-BigTen DE Randy Gregory and leading tackler LB Zaire Anderson with their combined 9 sacks and 22 TFL. Allen, however, has faced better defenses than Nebraska's D and come out on top, especially with his ability to catch out of the backfield if he is unable to find space on hand-offs.

How Nebraska can win
-Pressure Kessler from the edge. Cody Kessler made 2 costly interceptions after being pressured from the edge against UCLA
-Stay in the game. USC has lost or nearly lost games late in the contest. USC starts every game very motivated but it seems to taper out leaving a big chance for a comeback.
-Find a passing rhythm. This is the big one-Abdullah will be stopped often if the passing game is abandoned early after no results. USC was so focused on Paul Perkins and Brett Hundley that Hundley was able to find wide open targets. If Nebraska is able to execute this properly, this game will be a near-mirror to UCLA-USC.

How USC can win
-Cover everything. Tommy Armstrong Jr. has done pretty well at getting himself out of danger, and has been known to take advantage of blitzes. USC's DL can get to him pretty quickly from the corners, but USC needs to limit the places he can go.
-Cody Kessler. It all rides on him. If he makes the throws he needs to and limits his mistakes the Trojans will score plenty for their D. Even if he struggles, Buck Allen is there to roll off a blocker to keep things moving until Kessler finds a rhythm.
-Big Plays and Turnovers. USC enjoys a +11 Turnover Margin to Nebraska's -2. Frustrating Armstrong Jr. early may take him out of the game completely. Punt returner Adoree Jackson vs a rather woeful Nebraska Special Teams should make for an interesting matchup

USC is favored as ESPN puts them at a 69% chance of winning, and they probably will come away with the win. Southern California homefield advantage will be definite in the stands, despite the Husker fans' ability to travel well. Kessler has faced better teams than this and done very well against them. Nebraska has a late season collapse of sorts, evident with taking Iowa into OT. With an Interim HC there is a chance the Huskers can be dis-heartened early, which USC's quick start offense has a good chance of doing.

USC 34 - Nebraska 20

Head to Corn Nation for more from the Husker side and head to Conquest Chronicles for more of their take.