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December 30, 2009

Match-up watch: Nebraska vs. Arizona

NU Run Offense vs UA Run Defense
Few players benefited more from the time off Nebraska got following the Big 12 Championship than junior running back Roy Helu. After suffering from shoulder injuries throughout most of the season, Helu has been able to rest up and recharge during the past three weeks.

As a result, he said he hasn't felt as healthy as he does now since the beginning of the season, when he was averaging more than 110 yards and two touchdowns a game through the first five weeks. Add in a fully healthy Rex Burkhead behind him, and Nebraska's running game once again looks as dangerous as it did at the beginning of the year.

However, Arizona was one of the best teams in the Pac-10 against the run this season, holding opponents to 111.9 rushing yards per game to rank second in the conference and 22nd nationally.

NU Pass Offense vs UA Pass Defense
There weren't many areas that put more of a damper on Nebraska's season over the past few weeks than its almost total lack of production from the passing game. Junior quarterback Zac Lee has taken the brunt of the criticism for the struggles, as he's thrown for more than 200 yards just once since the start of Big 12 play.

To make matters worse, Lee had his worst game as a Husker in the biggest game of the season at the Big 12 Championship, completing just 6-of-19 passes for 39 yards and three interceptions. As a result, Nebraska's coaches have already said freshman Cody Green would see some playing time in tonight's Holiday Bowl.

On the other side, Arizona has been about as good as it gets against the pass this season. Led by defensive end Ricky Elmore, who led the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks, the Wildcats ranked 12th nationally with 2.83 sacks per game. Not to mention cornerback Trevin Wade, who ranked second in the conference with five interceptions and has nine picks in 13 career starts.

UA Rush Offense vs NU Pass Defense
The Wildcats got a huge boost to their running game with the return of junior running back Nic Grigsby, who missed five starts and three full games while recovering from a shoulder injury. Prior to his injury, Grigsby had rushed for 400 yards in UA's first three games.

Even with Grigsby at limited availability for most of the season, Arizona still managed to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns to help keep the pressure of its young quarterbacks. Sophomore Keola Antolin was one of the backs to step up in Grigsby's absence, as he led the Wildcats with 568 yards on 103 carries.

The good news for Nebraska is that it's been as good as anyone against the run this season, ranking 11th nationally by allowing just 95.5 rushing yards per game. Along with only allowing one 100-yard rusher all season, the Huskers have held their opponents to 102 yards or less on the ground in 10 of their past 15 games.

UA Pass Offense vs NU Pass Defense
It took a few games for Arizona to get its quarterback situation figured out, but head coach Mike Stoops thinks he may have found his QB of the future in sophomore Nick Foles.

After backing up fellow sophomore Matt Scott for the first two games, Foles took over for Scott in UA's third game against Iowa and held on to the job the rest of the way. In just nine starts, Foles threw for more than 2,400 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Even so, Nebraska comes into the game boasting one of the best pass defenses the country. The Huskers have allowed just seven touchdown passes in 13 games this season, and they've also picked off three passes in each of their past two games. Their 19 interceptions on the year rank ninth nationally.

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior Alex Henery may not have earned any postseason accolades this season, but he might have received the biggest honor a Husker kicker/punter could get when he was given a Blackshirt at the start of Nebraska's bowl practices in San Diego. That shows just how valuable his coaches and teammates think he is, as the jersey was awarded to him because of the weapon he provides both in terms of field position and in the kicking game. For Arizona, its biggest special teams threat is punt returner Bug Wright, who led the nation with a 19.2 punt return average.


Nebraska Will Win If: It can get some solid production from Helu and Burkhead in the running game and get at least a couple big plays through the air. The defense shouldn't have any problem keeping Arizona's offense at bay, so as long as the Huskers can put up some points, not turn the ball over and prevent any big returns on special teams, they shouldn't have any problems getting their first 10-win season since 2003.

Arizona Will Win If: It can make some big plays in any aspect of the game. If the Wildcats can find a way to hit a long pass or break a big run or two on offense or get a touchdown on defense or special teams, it will take the pressure of their offense to try and sustain long drives against Nebraska's stingy defense. Turnovers will also be key on both sides of the ball, as they can't give NU any easy chances to put points on the board.

X-Factor: Tonight's game will be the final farewell to one of the greatest defensive players to ever play not only at Nebraska, but in all of college football. Senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has put together one of the best individual defensive seasons ever, and there's no doubt that he has every intention of walking off the field a winner in his last game as a Husker. Sure, there will be plenty other seniors on both teams wanting the same thing, but no other player on the field will have the same drive to win as Suh - nor does any player have the ability to make as big of an individual impact in doing it.

Prediction: Nebraska 24 Arizona 20

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