Washington's defensive line, which had to reshuffle again because of injuries, faces a big, experienced Nebraska offensive line in Thursday's Holiday Bowl but insists there's a simple fix.
SAN DIEGO — The tale of the tape appears more than a little tilted.
On one side is Nebraska’s offensive line. All five players started all 13 games this season. Four weigh more than 305 pounds.
On the other is Washington’s defensive line. Injuries forced it to unveil its seventh different stating combination for Thursday’s Holiday Bowl. Three players weigh 253 pounds or less.
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And then there’s history. Nebraska used that offensive line to plow through the Huskies for 383 rushing yards in a 56-21 victory in Seattle on Sept. 18, Three different Huskers ran for 100 yards or more.
And that wasn’t an aberration for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers rushed for 200 or more yards 10 times this year, and averaged 259.6, ninth in the nation.
Add it up, and the battle in the trenches is among the biggest reasons Nebraska is a two-touchdown favorite.
Washington coaches, though, say they’ll line up, come up with some different tactics, and hope it turns out better this time.
“We just do the best we can,” said UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt. “We need to play with really good pad level and good technique and chase the ball really well and keep some guys fresh. We can’t do anything about their size right now or our size right now. Just got to do the best job we can.”
One thing the Huskies say they can do is handle their assignments better.
Players and coaches say a big problem in the first game was Huskies defenders moving out of assigned areas, leaving unintended holes for Nebraska runners. That was particularly true when Nebraska went with its “zone-read” plays, where the quarterback has the option of handing off or running. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez turned one of those plays into an 80-yard touchdown to start the second half.
“I think our guys just have to do their one job,” said senior strong safety Nate Williams. “If you are responsible to quarterback spy, just play the quarterback spy and don’t worry about the dive because there are 10 other guys that will play the dive — you just worry about the quarterback spy. That was part of the problem because guys were doing a little too much — the guys that had the dive were doing other things. So as long as we do our one job everything will be fine.”
Said defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu: “My gap was open because I was trying to make plays in another gap. Whenever I left my gap, their running backs found those little holes that they could get through.”
Holt says the Huskies may have had too much in the defensive playbook for the first game. Paring that down has helped in recent games.
“It’s best when we just go back to just simple football with our guys right now,” he said. “Hopefully that happens on Thursday night.”
The statistics bear out that UW got better handling its assignments. The Huskies allowed an average of just 136.3 yards rushing in the last three games, compared to a season average of 198.8.
But those games came with sophomore Semisi Tokolahi, who weighs 297 pounds, lining up at one tackle alongside 330-pound Alameda Ta’amu. Tokolahi broke his ankle late in the Apple Cup and is out for the Holiday Bowl, causing another reshuffling of the line. Everrette Thompson, who weighs about 50 pounds less and has played both end and tackle this year, moves back to tackle. And with Talia Crichton unable to make it back from a knee injury, little-used senior De’Shon Matthews will start at one end.
Holt admits size up front is an issue.
“You’ve got Alameda. He’s as big as you want to be,” Holt said. “But we need more of those guys.”
Ta’amu doesn’t think Nebraska had a physical edge over UW in the first game.
Regardless of the score and stats, Ta’amu blames the loss to Nebraska on mental errors, not physical mismatches.
“Nah, it was just more mental mistakes,” he said. “I’m confident going into the game with the line we have right now. I think if we correct our mistakes we can do a better job.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org