Thursday's showdown between No. 7 Nebraska and Kansas State will mark the last time the two schools will meet as conference foes. Both teams enter the game with 4-0 records and a chance to showcase their abilities on national television.
The Huskers and the Wildcats enter the game on very similar terms. Both undefeated squads have strong wins against Pac-10 opponents (UCLA, Washington) and are coming off of bye weeks. Two weeks ago, each team struggled against lesser opponents as the Huskers held off South Dakota State 17-3 while the Wildcats rallied to defeat Central Florida in the final minute, 17-13.
For the Nebraska offense, success will be depend greatly on how well the Huskers are able to run the ball. The Wildcats main objective will be to stop the Nebraska ground game, but even with nearly two weeks of game planning, I think it's easier said than done. Trying to stop the combination of Martinez, Burkhead and Helu is much tougher than focusing on a single back. All three players have very different styles and will be playing with a chip on their shoulders after a lackluster performance against South Dakota State. Huskers will also be running out of various formations, which I think could give K-State some trouble as well. Also, Nebraska's offensive line is much more talented than the Wildcats defensive line, so the the Huskers should be able to get a strong push up front.
Stopping the run game and forcing the Huskers to air it out is going to be Kansas State's best bet for pulling off the upset. I wouldn't be surprised if Snyder mixed up the team's look on defense, giving the impression that the Wildcats are stacking the box, then dropping several players back in coverage. On the other hand, Martinez is out to prove critics wrong about his arm, and if the Husker receivers face one-on-one coverage, I think their athleticism could cause some big plays. Niles Paul is due for a big game receiving and it could very well happen Thursday if Martinez gets into rhythm. Paul may have his issues, but his speed and athleticism are still among the best in the conference.
For the Blackshirts, the game plan is pretty straight forward; stop running back Daniel Thomas. So far this season Thomas has been an absolute workhorse for the purple and silver, rushing for 628 yards, which up until the team's bye week was second most in the country behind Michigan quarterback Denard Robsinson.
Now obviously, stopping Thomas won't be easy, but if the Huskers can slow him down, Kansas State is going to be in a world of trouble. Carson Coffman, who has struggled throughout most of his KSU career, will be forced into certain passing situations against one of the best secondary's in the country; consider that a major advantage for the Big Red. So far this season Coffman has completed just over 60% of his passes (46-76) for 639 yards, five touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
So far, the Huskers really haven't been tested by their opponents so they've been able keep their play calling rather vanilla on both sides of the ball. Now that conference play is here I expect Nebraska to not only have different looks offensively, such as the wildcat, pistol and other formations, with Pelini will also show a lot more blitz packages on defense as well. Nebraska has played a fairly base defense so far this season, and I think Pelini will get a bit more creative this week in an attempt to confuse and frustrated the K-State offense.
Like I mentioned, both teams are going to focus on running the ball and controlling the clock. When all is said and done, I think Thomas will have a solid game but will be outdone by Nebraska three-headed rushing attack. I'm sure Bill Snyder has a strong game plan in place, but Nebraska's depth on both sides of the ball will ultimately take it's toll on the Wildcats.
Even though the SDSU game was disheartening to many Husker fans, I see it as a blessing in disguise. After having to deal with such an embarrassing performance, I think Nebraska will come out fired up and ready to prove doubters wrong. For nearly two weeks now, Husker players have heard about how that poor performance proved they are overrated. Trust me, that's only going to motivate them to get back on the field and make a statement. Aside from the Oklahoma game two years ago, Pelini's team has always played extremely well on the road and I don't expect things to change on Thursday.
Kansas State will play Nebraska tough and keep the game close early on, but Nebraska's size, speed and strength will ultimately allow them to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Nebraska 38 - Kansas State 16