Nebraska has Ndamukong Suh, the Associated Press Player of the Year as a defensive tackle. The Cornhuskers have the enduring Blackshirts nickname for their defense.
They have a defense that ranks second nationally, allowing 11.23 points per game. They have a defense that gave up just 202 yards to Texas in the Big 12 championship game.
They have another defensive tackle, Jared Crick, who was All-Big 12 as a sophomore and had five sacks against Baylor this season. They have two more players who were first-team all-conference — cornerback Prince Amukamara and strong safety Larry Asante.
And what will Arizona’s defense counter with in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday?
Although the bar wasn’t set high, this is UA’s best defensive line in at least a decade.
Defensive end Ricky Elmore finished the regular season with a Pac-10-best 10.5 sacks. Brooks Reed has been a factor since coming back from a mid-season injury. Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell is a possible mid-round NFL draft pick. Horton has been solid.
Arizona’s 34 sacks are the most since the 2001 season.
The Wildcats have been a self-described bunch of no-names all season — no first-team All-Pac-10 players on this unit — but that chip on their shoulder has served them well.
No need to brush it off now.
“Ndamukong Suh, he’s a crazy player,” said Arizona senior defensive tackle Donald Horton.
“He definitely plays hard and does his thing. But I feel that we have done, as a unit, just as much. At times, we can really dominate. There were times in the middle of the season when we got lackadaisical and fell off a bit, but I think we hit our stride the last couple of games and really tried to turn on the heat.”
Arizona will be trying to turn on the heat against a lukewarm Nebraska offense that grew increasingly conservative during the season, content to let its defense do the heavy lifting (and trying to avoid another eight-turnover disaster like the one in a 9-7 home loss to Iowa State).
After that, the Cornhuskers didn’t attempt more than 21 passes in any of their other six games. They scrapped the spread offense for a run-oriented attack, led by running back Roy Helu Jr. (1,139 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns).
Nebraska topped 300 total yards only twice in nine Big 12 games.
The team’s biggest playmaker is receiver Niles Paul, who has 36 receptions for 673 yards and is dangerous in the return game. Nebraska is expected use junior Zac Lee and true freshman Cody Green at quarterback.
“They’re not a complicated team offensively,” Horton said. “They don’t have a lot of shifts, and there aren’t a lot of adjustments we have to make. We just play our defense and be comfortable in it.”
The Wildcats don’t want to get too comfortable. Nebraska figures to be persistent with the run, pounding away, hoping to spring something big on the ground or play-action to Paul.
“They are very physical up front,” said UA defensive end Brooks Reed.
“They do a lot of traditional stuff. But if you can’t stop it, you can’t stop it. And they’re going to keep doing it until you can.”
It will be up to the no-names to stop it, to make a name in a game in which Suh is the undisputed star. He is the probable No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft … and when is the last time Arizona faced a defender this good?
Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington in 1999? Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman in the early 1990s?
Horton said his father has had words of advice when it comes to Suh.
“He said, ‘All the attention is going to be on him, but you’re going to be at the stage, too. Make a name for yourselves, too, as a defensive front,’” Horton said.
“In my heart, I’ve been using that as a challenge.”
Related links from TucsonCitizen.com’s Sports Network:
AG’s Wildcat Report: UA’s Horton hoping a dream comes true in Holiday Bowl