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Capital One Bowl Preview: Q&A with Corn Nation

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I got together with the Corn Nation guys to preview tomorrow's game. Be sure to head over to their site to see my answers to their questions.

1. Taylor Martinez has to be one of the nation's most enigmatic players. Sometimes he plays like a Heisman contender, other times he struggles not to make mistakes and looks completely confused on the field. Explain this player to us and tell us what we should expect to see from him in this game. Also discuss anything else we should look for from the NU offense.

Jon Johnston: Martinez is only different than other young quarterbacks in that he was an explosion in his first few games starting in 2010. He was a freshman phenom, with huge plays left and right. Injuries slowed his season. Fans were angry because of his promise, then perceived failure.

Enter 2011. Nebraska replaced offensive coordinators and part of Martinez’ problem with settling into the offense is that the new OC, Tim Beck, hasn’t exactly settled into the offense either. Beck would get stuck in a rut, calling the same sequence of plays, whether pass or run, but together Martinez and Beck have grown a lot this season trying to figure out how to make things go.

Martinez has matured a lot this season. What you’re going to get in the bowl game? Probably a decent dose of option plays. One thing about the passing game - Martinez needs to work into it, build his confidence. If he does - he’s not a bad passer, despite all the moaning about his throwing motion.

Mike: As a freshman, Martinez frequently relied on his blazing speed and made a quick decision to take off and run with the ball. But he wasn’t doing as good of a job with the mental aspects of the game, and as such, he frequently panicked. Sometimes he made ill-advised throws, sometimes he took bad sacks. And frequently his ball security wasn’t good at all.

This season, he’s grown much more comfortable with the offense, and he’s making better decisions. He throws a more accurate ball than he did last season. He’s not Peyton Manning, but he’s improved as a passer. One thing you may have noticed is that he’s not making the highlight reel runs he used to, and that’s partly by design. Martinez isn’t running the ball as much as he used to, and frequently, he bails out - by design. He’s really the only experienced quarterback on the Nebraska roster, and the coaching staff doesn’t want Martinez taking unnecessary risks. When Martinez does hand off the ball, keep a close eye on the ball. He’s confused defenses (and television cameramen) by pulling the ball back and taking off. In the bowl game, with 9 months until the next game, you just might see Martinez open things up again.

2. Nebraska under Pelini is known for its great defenses, but the Black Shirts had some ugly performances this year. What are the NU defense's greatest strengths and weaknesses, and how do you see them matching up with South Carolina?

Jon: The defensive line started out as a position of strength, and then suffered so many injuries it was like a triage unit. Defensive tackle Jared Crick was expected preseason to be one of the best in the conference if not the nation. He was lost early in the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. After that, the interior linemen just kept going down and we ended the season with little depth and players that hadn’t played a lot (queue national rushing defense statistic: 65th! BAH!). Defensive end Cameron Meredith deserves a mention, though. He’s played well, and can cause some fits. The other DE’s are still young, still learning, and we’l see how they do.

The defensive secondary.... they seem like they’ve gotten better and found the right players, but other than Alfonzo Dennard, most Husker fans are scratching their heads. if there is a position of strength, it’s linebacker only because of the process of elimination. Keep in mind - Nebraska fans are disappointed because we expect STELLAR defense, not some middle of the road crap, and that’s what we got this year.

How do we match up? Alfonzo Dennard can keep a handle on Alshon Jeffery, and everything else is up in the air.

Mike: This season, the biggest weakness is the secondary. Alfonzo Dennard is going to be an early round NFL draft pick in April, but elsewhere, it’s been an inconsistent, muddled mess. Daimion Stafford is a big hitter, but sometimes makes bad decisions in coverage at safety. The other cornerback spot has been a revolving door. Andrew Green played better later in the season and probably will start. While Green was playing lost, Nebraska tried just about anybody and everybody at corner. Even moved a receiver (Stanley Jean-Baptiste) to corner, who actually played really well against Ohio State. I’m still not sure what the problem is; it’s probably a combination of talent and struggling with a coaching change. Former secondary coach Marvin Sanders left under curious circumstances for "personal reasons" (though he’s now the defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic) last spring, and was replaced by Corey Raymond. I get the feeling that the players in the secondary have struggled with the change in coaches.

Strength? Linebacker. Lavonte David is a tackling machine and earned all-American honors. He’s a little undersized, and sometimes has trouble bringing down really big backs. But he’s a playmaker. Will Compton is underrated for making the calls and making sure everybody is in the right spot on the field. He’s started to become a playmaker in his own right towards the end of the season.

3. In your estimation, what does this game mean to the status of Pelini's program? Obviously, Nebraska has had some success under Pelini, but is there a feeling that he's having trouble taking the next stop and moving the Huskers back into MNC contention? Would a win against a top-10 SEC team and a ten-win season lend some validity to his program's direction?

Mike: Last season, Nebraska laid an egg in the Holiday Bowl, and the bad taste of the game let a lot of people down. This season, the size of Nebraska’s losses to Wisconsin and Michigan concerned a lot of fans, so it’s important to not let that happen again. Nebraska won 10 games the last two seasons, so failing to reach that level again would be disappointing. The bigger thing for Nebraska and the Big Ten in this game is to reverse the trend of B1G disappointments in bowl games. We’ve heard all about Essssseeeeeeceee dominance, especially with respect to the Big Ten, and nobody around here wants to become another example.

Jon: There is a feeling that he’s having problems taking that next step, yes, which is why some Husker fans (low minority) wish that he’d be replaced. Mike mentions Wisconsin and Michigan, and those two games were bloody awful failures and nobody wants to see that again.

A win against South Carolina, y’all being the SEC and highly ranked, would be an excellent way to take a young team into next season, so, yeah, there’s a lot to be said about validity.

4. Prediction? Give us a ballpark final score and tell us how you think the game will go down.

Mike: I see a defensive struggle for the most part. But I think Nebraska isn’t going to be intimidated by an SEC opponent. My key matchup is Nebraska’s perimeter runs; if those are successful, it opens up the Nebraska offense. If that doesn’t work, Nebraska likely will have to throw the ball, and against the Gamecocks, that’s asking for trouble. My prediction? Huskers 20, South Carolina 17

Jon: Which Nebraska team shows up - the one that was supposed to win their division, or the one that’s disappointed to be in the Capital One Bowl (the same team that showed up in last year’s Holiday Bowl and didn’t give a damn). If it’s the one that cares, then we should have one helluva game that comes down to a special teams play where Nebraska has a definite advantage. Nebraska 24, South Carolina 21 - field goal by Brett Maher to win it at the end.