Nebraska's best chance to pull off an upset this weekend over No. 13 Virginia Tech will be if it can establish an effective and consistent running game.
With first-year starting quarterback Zac Lee making his first start on the road in a hostile environment, the Huskers would love to just let running backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead carry the bulk of the load.
This might be easier said than done, however, and the strength of the Hokies defense is arguably the play of its defensive line. Led by All-America candidate defensive end Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech boasts as fast and physical of a front four that Nebraska will see all season.
The Huskers have the offensive line to match up with the Hokies' d-line, and if they can utilize their size to open up some holes and Helu and Burkhead can make some plays on their own, this should be a lot easier for Lee to settle in and run the offense. Those, however, are some pretty big "ifs."
NU Pass Offense vs VT Pass Defense
In reality, this is likely the area Nebraska will have to rely on to get the bulk of its offensive production. They might be able to pound away at the Hokies with the running game, but in order to put some points on the board, it's going to come down to Lee making plays through the air.
Again, this won't be an easy task, as the Hokies feature a defensive backfield with decent experience and loads of talent. However, the secondary has definitely shown some vulnerability through two games this season, as Alabama put up 230 yards through the air in VT's season-opening loss
The Huskers have also eased some of the concerns about the wide receiver position, as they gotten the bulk of their production via committee as opposed to having one or two key guys emerge. Not to mention the fact that Tech's best cornerback Stephan Virgil is listed as questionable for the game with a knee injury.
In the end, though, it will all depend on how well Lee handles the pressure of both Virginia Tech's defense and playing under the spotlight of a nationally televised game on the road.
VT Run Offense vs NU Run Defense
The roles will basically be reversed when Virginia Tech has the ball, as the strength of the Hokies' offense will go head to head with the strength of Nebraska's defense.
On one hand, there's no question that Virginia Tech's offense revolves around its running game, as the Hokies are coming off a 444-yard, four-touchdown performance on the ground last week against Marshall.
On the other, the heart of the Nebraska's defense lies within its defensive line. While the numbers against the run haven't been too impressive (NU ranks 69th nationally), the Huskers have made it a point to increase their physicality, especially with its front seven.
Unless the Huskers have drastically improved their tackling in the past week, though, don't be surprised if Virginia Tech is able to get some yards and some points out of its running game. Especially if athletic quarterback Tyrod Taylor can break loose on some scrambles.
VT Pass Offense vs NU Pass Defense
This will probably be the biggest advantage Nebraska will have against Virginia Tech, as Taylor and the Hokies' passing game do little to intimidate defenses.
While the Hokies were able to run wild against Marshall, they passed for just 161 yards on 9-of-19 passing. Taylor has never been known for his throwing ability, and he had just two touchdowns to seven interceptions while splitting reps last season. Also, starting tight end Greg Boone missed last week's game with a chest/shoulder injury and is probable for today's game.
Conversely, the Huskers rank 24th nationally in pass efficiency defense, as they've held opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 94.78 and have yet to allow a passing touchdown this season.
If Nebraska can slow down the run and keep Taylor contained in the pocket, Taylor will have to try and beat the Huskers with his arm. For NU, that would be a dream scenario.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
There isn't a team in the country that can compete with Virginia Tech's special teams, and that includes Nebraska. As good as junior kicker/punter Alex Henery might be, the all-around talent on the Hokies's kick/punt/return games can't be beat. Though they haven't blocked a punt or kick this season, the Hokies have already returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown. Last year, Tech blocked a punt and scored a crucial safety to hold off Nebraska. If the Huskers' want to pull of an upset, they have be near perfect on special teams, which is a lot to ask this week.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It doesn't turn the ball over and doesn't allow a single big play by Virginia Tech on special teams. The Huskers failed in both of those aspects last year, and it cost them a game they arguably could have won. This time around, NU must try be play as close to perfect as possible in every special teams unit, as this is a game that could easily be decided on a single big play. If the Huskers can be careful with the football and be fundamentally sound in their kicking and punt games, there's no reason they can't pull off an upset.
Virginia Tech Will Win If:
It can establish the running game and make pull off some big plays, either off a turnover, on special teams or a play something by Taylor. The Hokies have always been a team dictated by the play of their defense, and this season is no different. If they can somehow get some points on the board and get an early lead, the Hokies can tee off defensively try to force Lee into making mistakes with the ball. All Virginia Tech needs is one or two big plays to get all the spark it needs to send Nebraska home with a loss for the second year in a row.
The obvious choice here is special teams play, but we've already harped on that enough. Instead, another factor that will be crucial for Nebraska's success will be its efficiency on first and second down. If the Huskers can move the ball early in drives and get manageable third down situations, Lee will be able to settle in easier and build some confidence in his toughest collegiate test yet. The last thing NU wants is to get in third-and-long situations where Lee has to try and make a play against Virginia Tech's aggressive and opportunistic defense.