Clemson University

Tigers, Cornhuskers face unique challenges

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few things popped out about Clemson's defense when Nebraska senior receiver Todd Peterson watched film.

Senior safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons make a ton of plays. The defensive tackles get into the backfield and disrupt timing. As a whole, the Tigers are as athletic as anyone the Cornhuskers have faced.

The caveat -- not to mention the compelling matchup in Thursday's Gator Bowl -- is that Clemson's highly ranked defense hasn't faced an offense as prolific as Nebraska's.

"Another thing that's glaring is a lot of ACC offenses aren't run like ours," Peterson said.

"It's kind of been built up that there is no defense in the Big 12, and we're going to find out if we have a good defense or (have) been playing sloppy defenses."

Clemson possesses the nation's 10th-ranked passing defense (167.3 yards per game) and ninth-ranked scoring defense (16.6 points), numbers aided by not facing a passing offense ranked among the current top 50.

Nebraska will act as a credibility check for the Tigers' defense, which held nine consecutive opponents under 200 passing yards before USC amassed 212 in the regular-season finale.

The Cornhuskers have hit the 200-yard passing mark the past 17 games.

The Huskers average 36.2 points, have reached 30 points in all but two of their past 15 games and have topped 400 offensive yards the past seven games.

"Statistically it proves out that, if this isn't the best offense we've played all year, it's one of the top two or three," interim co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell said.

It has been a while since the Tigers faced an opponent with both an attacking passing game and a respectable running game that plays off it.

This also will be the first game Clemson's plan will not have been devised by former coordinator Vic Koenning, who resigned earlier this month when it became apparent he would not be retained.

Blackwell said Florida State probably offered the most comparable blend of skill and philosophy, although the Seminoles' decent quarterback play has only developed down the stretch.

Nebraska focuses its offense around senior quarterback Joe Ganz, whose numbers have been buried in a league crowded with Heisman Trophy contenders such as Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell.

Ganz, who is 6-1, is most dangerous on the move, as the Cornhuskers like to use play-action passes to roll him outside of the pocket and take advantage of his accuracy on the run.

He has thrown 23 touchdowns, and the only knock on him is that his risk-taking (10 interceptions) is both a gift and an occasional curse.

"Their quarterback is the key to the deal," Blackwell said. "He runs everything and is good at it. He's a senior, been through the wars; he protects the football. The few times he has not are the games they have struggled in. He's played well, and the challenge is to disrupt him."

While Clemson will have played in more Gator Bowls than anyone else, the Tigers have a history of allowing marquee quarterbacks to showcase their talent.

In their last trip here eight years ago, Virginia Tech's Michael Vick accounted for 224 yards and two scores in a 41-20 romp.

In the 1996 Gator Bowl, Syracuse's Donovan McNabb threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-0 shutout.

And in their 30 previous bowl appearances, the Tigers have never given up more passing yards than they did to Pittsburgh's Matt Cavanaugh (387) in a 34-3 loss in the 1977 Gator Bowl.

Coincidentally, Nebraska's offense is orchestrated by Shawn Watson, who was Colorado's offensive coordinator when Koenning's defense held the Buffaloes to 124 total yards in Clemson's 19-10 victory in the 2005 Champs Sports Bowl.

"If you're a defensive player, this is the kind of challenge you want," Hamlin said. "In the ACC, you don't see a lot of offenses with this style."