LINCOLN — Nebraska's offensive tackles know of only one way to successfully counter the speed and athleticism of the talented South Carolina defensive ends they'll face in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2.
The Huskers have to be physical. Really physical. Can't let up, either.
Snap after snap after snap, NU's starting senior tackles — Marcel Jones and Yoshi Hardrick — will try to hammer away at their opponents' psyche with constant nastiness, forcing those Gamecock edge rushers to play with more hesitancy.
That's the plan, anyway.
"They're pretty athletic, pretty tall, and they play with a lot of energy," Hardrick said. "Every big game that we've won, we've come out and fought. No different. This is going to be a fistfight."
One has to imagine that South Carolina's previous opponents have had similar objectives. Executing against the Gamecock D-line isn't easy on game day, though.
South Carolina's ability to consistently get pressure with its linemen is part of the reason the Gamecocks rank second nationally in pass defense (133 yards per game). They're also the country's 13th-best scoring defense (18.8 points per game).
Consensus All-American Melvin Ingram causes the most disruption, leading the team with nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss. But the 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior defensive end has plenty of help, too.
Senior Travian Robertson and freshman Kelcy Quarles usually occupy the middle. Opposite Ingram, freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, listed at 6-6, has split about half of the in-game snaps with a 6-7 junior, Devin Taylor. They've combined for 11 sacks and 16Ĺ tackles for loss.
The group reminds Jones of a Big 12 defensive line.
"They're athletic and they've got some power to them," Jones said. "They're not the big bruisers of the Big Ten, but they've got a little brute, too. Lots of speed. It'll be a good challenge."
They're especially dangerous when third-and-long plays remove a large chunk of their opponents' playbooks.
If it's an obvious passing situation, watch out. The Gamecock linemen explode off the line, with the sole intent of padding their sack numbers.
Occasionally, their coaches will put three or four defensive ends on the field, just to add speed and possibly exploit a potential weakness in a one-on-one matchup. NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton said film study has indicated that South Carolina's defensive scheme up front hasn't been incredibly complicated. The Gamecocks are good at what they do, though.
"I think they like to say, 'OK, I'm going to see if I'm better than you,' " Cotton said. "And that kind of mentality is the way their defensive line attacks the passer."
Nebraska's offense struggled in third-and-long situations during its final three games.
Against Penn State, Michigan and Iowa, the Huskers needed eight yards or more on 40 percent of their third-down chances. They converted three of the 20 attempts (not counting kneel-downs). They were 15 of 29 when requiring fewer than eight yards on third down.
Nebraska has plenty of time to revamp its offensive strategy, but Hardrick said the goal on Jan. 2 is simply to avoid those must-pass downs as often as possible. That would help limit the Gamecocks' aggressiveness up front.
"They live for third-and-long," Hardrick said. "It's like a hornet's nest on third-and-long. They live so they can play fast football, just play wild.
"Our offense against them on first and second down, that's what we're going to try to live off."
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