Western Michigan vs. Nebraska Preview

Check out our first game preview of the year as Vince Campisi gives you the most comprehensive look out there, as Nebraska hosts Western Michigan.

Vince Campisi's College Football Preview
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Western Michigan Broncos

--by Vince Campisi

August 30th, 2008
6:00 PM CT
Lincoln, NE
Television Coverage: Fox Sports PPV

WESTERN MICHIGAN (0 - 0) (0 - 0)
NEBRASKA (0 - 0) (0 - 0)

Game time Weather
Weather Report for Nebraska vs. Western Michigan

Latest Line - Nebraska by 14.


Western Michigan

08/30/08 - at. Nebraska
09/06/08 - vs. Northern Illinois
09/13/08 - at. Idaho
09/20/08 - vs. Tennessee Tech
09/27/08 - at. Temple
10/04/08 - vs. Ohio
10/11/08 - at. Buffalo
10/18/08 - at. Central Michigan
11/01/08 - vs. Eastern Michigan
11/08/08 - vs. Illinois
11/15/08 - vs. Toledo
11/25/08 - at. Ball State

08/30/08 - vs. Western Michigan
09/06/08 - vs. San Jose State
09/13/08 - vs. New Mexico State
09/27/08 - vs. Virginia Tech
10/04/08 - vs. Missouri
10/11/08 - at. Texas Tech
10/18/08 - at. Iowa State
10/25/08 - vs. Baylor
11/01/08 - at. Oklahoma
11/08/08 - vs. Kansas
11/15/08 - at. Kansas State
11/10/08 - vs. Colorado

Player Breakdowns

Western Michigan Offense

Western Michigan's offense was middle of the road in 2007, and is hoping for a more potent attack in 2008.  After playing 12 games last season, the Broncos finished 57th nationally in total offense (398 ypg), 31st in passing (267.60 ypg), 46th in passing efficiency (130.94 rating), 86th rushing (130.42 ypg), 65th scoring offense (26.92 ppg), and 88th in turnover margin (-0.42 pg).  

QB: Jr. Tim Hiller (267 of 421, 3021 yds, 20 TDs, 15 INTs) returns after a fair 2007 season.  He's a big 6'5" quarterback that won't scare you with his foot speed, but can scramble if he has to.  He has an accurate arm, completing over 63% of his passes last season, but doesn't throw a great deep ball.  At times, he performed well under pressure last season, and put together a great game in the Broncos' upset win over Iowa.  However, he also had his share of disappointing performances as well.  More consistency and help from his playmakers are a must this season.  Many of his 15 interceptions can be attributed to heavy pressure, as the offensive line allowed 28 sacks last season.  While Hiller is the returning starter, So. Drew Burdi (2 of 3, 18 yds, 1 TD) is a close second string selection.  Burdi is a more mobile option than Hiller, and also has a solid arm.

RB: Jr. Brandon West (183 carries, 848 yds, 4 TDs) returns after playing well last season.  He's definitely a speed back, at 5'10", 188lbs., and has shown some slick lateral moves, but can also grind it out well between the tackles.  Top reserves at running back include Jr. Glenis Thompson (36 carries, 127 yds, 1 TD) and Sr. Kirk Elsworth (1 carry, 19 yds), and TFr. Aaron Winchester.  Thompson is a short and tough runner, at 5'8", 210 lbs., and will see a spike in carries with Mark Bonds no longer with the team.  Elsworth is the biggest of the backs at 6', 225 lbs., and will probably block for West and Thompson more than he does run the ball himself.  Last season, West (45 catches, 365 yds, 2 TDs) was used often as a pass receiver, utilizing his hands and quickness to push the ball downfield.  Thompson (1 catch, 8 yds) is the only other returning RB to catch a pass last season.  

WR/TE: Western Michigan returns quite a few key players from last season, and could be the offense's strongest unit.  Starters are Sr. Jamarko Simmons (84 catches, 980 yds, 6 TDs) at "T", So. Juan Nunez (10 catches, 169 yds, 1 TD) at "X", and Sr. Schneider Julien (13 catches, 120 yds) at "Z".  Simmons is an NFL caliber receiver that has a good mix of hands and speed on a solid 6'2", 234 lb. frame.  Julien is a solid possession receiver, while Nunez is a great deep threat.  Top reserves at "X" include RFr. DeShon Lawrence and Jordan White (19 catches, 217 yds, 1 TD) behind Nunez.  White injured his knee recently and will be out for over a month.  TFr. Josh Smith is Simmons' top back-up at "T", and Jr. Caleb Clark will be Julien's top reserve at "Z".  Sr. Branden Ledbetter (38 catches, 550 yds, 6 TDs) had a solid year starting at TE last season, and should be even better this year.  A big target at 6'5", 230 lbs., provides match-up troubles for opponents.  Top back-ups at TE include Jr. Matt Stevens (1 catch, 7 yds) and Jr. Chad Baliko (1 catch, 3 yds,1 TD).

OL: The Western Michigan offensive line was not a great unit last season.  The line allowed for an average of only 3.4 yards per rush while giving up 28 sacks and 73 tackles for loss.  There is plenty of youth on this line, as four of the five starters are underclassmen.  Starting at right tackle is the lone upperclassman on the line, Sr. Rob Johnson (6'5", 338 lbs), while RFr. Anthony Parker (6'5", 305 lbs) will start at left tackle.  Johnson is a former defensive lineman that played well last season in his limited number of starts, however, will be out this week with a concussion.  Backing up Parker will be Sr. Steve Ellingsen (6'4", 207 lbs), while Jr. Matt Lochmann (6'4", 299 lbs) will play behind Johnson.  Starting at guard is going to be So. Phillips Swanson (6'4", 307 lbs) on the left and So. Nick Clemens (6'5", 307 lbs) on the right.  Both played a lot last season and should be improved this season with that experience.  Top reserves at guard include big RFr. Jonathan Jack (6'6", 340 lbs.) behind Swanson, and RFr. Lee Pethan (6'4", 295 lbs) behind Clemens.  At center, So. Nick Mitchell (6'1", 290 lbs) will start, with Jr. Paul Wasikowski (6'3", 291 lbs) as his back-up.  

Western Michigan Defense

The Broncos' defense brings back a good core group of players from a year ago, however, last year's defense was considered to be an underachieving bunch.  At the close of the 2007 season, they ranked 68th nationally in total defense (399.25 ypg), 46th pass defense (220.17 ypg), 46th pass efficiency defense (120.85 rating), 83rd rush defense (179.10 ypg), 73rd in scoring defense (28.90 ppg), 17th in fumbles recovered (14), and 90th in interceptions (10).  

DL: Western Michigan is home to a Senior laden defensive line that should be one of the best in the MAC this season.  This is such an experienced group, everyone in two-deep from last year returns.  Last season, they allowed opponents 4.6 yards per carry, which isn't exactly an excellent number, but this is a smaller than most groups of defensive linemen and are better pass rushers than run stuffers.  Starting at defensive end is Sr. Greg Marshall (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 4 FF, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) on the left and Sr. Zach Davidson (51 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 QBH) on the right.  Top reserves at end are Sr. Fernand Kashama (11 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 1 QBH) and Jr. Justin Braska (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 QBH).  Starting at nose guard is Sr. Cory Flom (25 tackles, 0.5 sack, 2 FF, 2 PBU) with Sr. John Russell (2 tackles) listed as his top back-up.  Sr. Nick Varcadipane (31 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR, 2 PBU) starts at defensive tackle, while So. Chris Pyant and Sr. Grant Nemeth (10 tackles, 1 sack) will see action as reserves.
LB: The Broncos' linebacking crew is expected to be one of the best in the MAC this season.  Starting at MLB is Jr. Dustin Dulco (74 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 PBU) with TFr. Mitch Zajac to start his career as the top back-up.  On the outside, Sr. Boston McCornell (99 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF, 2 QBH, 2 PBU) will again start at WLB, while So. Harrison Porter (22 tackles, 1 QBH) starts at WLB.  Top back-ups on the outside include Jr. Dan Krasinski, Jr. Austin Pritchard (11 tackles), and Jr. Scott Gajos (6 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 FR).  This is a small group of linebackers that emphasize speed over size.  These guys fly all over the field and tackle well.  McCornell is the best of the group, and one of the best linebackers in the conference.  Pritchard opened last season as a starter, however, would miss the following 11 games.  

DB: Western Michigan's secondary is an experienced group and likely the best unit in the MAC.  Opponents completed 51.8% of their passes against this unit last season.  Starting at cornerback is Sr. Londen Fryar (63 tackles, 1 INT, 2 FR, 16 PBU) on the left and Sr. E.J. Biggers (41 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR, 7 PBU) on the right.  Fryar is an excellent cover-corner that is getting pre-season attention for post-season awards.  Top reserves at cornerback include Sr. Desman Stephen (8 tackles, 1 INT) and TFr. Josh Price.  At safety, Sr. Louis Delmas (64 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 QBH, 2 PBU) starts at FS while Sr. C.J. Wilson (66 tackles, 1 INT, 2 FF, 8 PBU) starts at SS.  Top backups include Jr. Andy Dorcely (8 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU), So. Mario Armstrong (20 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR), and RFr. Keith Dixson.  Delmas and Fryar are the best of the four starters, and both have an excellent chance to be All-MAC selections at the season's end.  Over their careers, the starting four has 25 interceptions to their credit.  

Western Michigan Special Teams

The Western Michigan special teams units were pretty decent last season.  The Broncos finished 2007 ranked 41st in net punting (36.31 yd avg), 71st in punt returns (8.14 yd avg), and 19th in kickoff returns (23.71 yd avg).  This season, however, they will be starting a new kicker and punter.

K: TFr. John Potter will be trusted to handle field goals, extra points, and kickoffs this season.  He was able to beat out Jr. Chris Kelly (2 for 3, 33 yd lng), who hit a big FG in the Broncos' win over Iowa last season.

P: RFr. Ben Armer will have the difficult job of taking over for the dependable Jim Laney.  

KR/PR: Western Michigan's return game brings back their top kickoff and punt returners from last season.  Jr. Brandon West (35 kick returns, 25.9 yd avg, 1 TD) and TFr. Jamie Simpson make up the top kickoff return duo.  Sr. Schneider Julien (22 punt returns, 8.1 yd avg) and Sr. E.J. Biggers will be the top punt return men.  

Coverage: The Broncos' kick coverage team was decent last year, allowing an average of 19.70 yards on 59 kickoff return attempts with 1 touchdown.  Punt coverage was solid, with opponents averaging 8.10 yards on 33 punt returns.  

Nebraska Offense

Nebraska's offense was often inconsistent in 2007, yet still managed to finish as one of the best offenses in the nation.  After completing their 2007 campaign, Nebraska ranked 9th nationally in total offense (468.25 ypg), 7th in passing (323.80 ypg), 18th in pass efficiency (143.56 rating), 66th in rushing (144.42 ypg), 28th in scoring offense (33.42 ppg), and 117th in turnover margin (-1.42 pg).  

QB:  Sr. Joe Ganz (89 for 152, 1435 yds, 16 TDs, 7 INTs) started just three games last season, replacing Sam Keller after he went down with a broken collarbone.  Ganz' mobility in the pocket and knowledge of the playbook allowed him to be a big playmaker for the offense in the team's final three games.  He will need to force less this season, however, as he threw his share of picks along with touchdowns in his starts.  He has decent wheels and was able to rush for 93 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20 attempts last season.  Behind Ganz is a group of largely inexperienced players.  Jr. Beau Davis (1 for 1, 9 yards) is Nebraska's most experienced back-up, however, is 4th string behind RFr. Patrick Witt and So. Zac Lee, neither of whom has stepped on the field for the Huskers.

RB: Nebraska returns an outstanding group of running backs, led by Sr. Marlon Lucky (206 carries, 1019 yds, 9 TDs).  Lucky has a good mix of speed and toughness, and is tough to catch in the open field.  Sophomores Roy Helu (45 carries, 209 yds) and Quentin Castille (76 carries, 343 yds, 4 TDs) are listed as co-#1's with Lucky.  Helu came on strong last season, showcasing his quickness and ability to find and hit the hole better than the other backs.  Castille is a bruiser that had his share of fumbling problems last season.  If he can fix that issue, he can be an excellent back.  Lucky (75 catches, 705 yds, 3 TDs) led the nation last season in receptions for a RB with his great hands.  Helu (5 catch, 40 yds), and Castille (3 catch, 33 yds) have also been used in the passing game.  At FB, Sr. Thomas Lawson (3 catches, 11 yds, 3 TDs) returns to start, and will be backed up by So. Justin Makovicka.  Last season, a fullback did not rush the ball once.
WR/TE: Nebraska lost many of their top receivers from a year ago to graduation.  Terrence Nunn, Frantz Hardy, and Maurice Purify are all gone after catching a combined 107 passes for 1571 yards and 13 touchdowns, which amounted to just over 40% of the receiving production.  Sr. Nate Swift (36 catches, 520 yds, 3 TDs) will take back the starting spot at "X" this year, and will look to break a couple of school records in his final year at Nebraska.  At "Z", veteran Sr. Todd Peterson (18 catches, 359 yds, 5 TDs) will take over.  Peterson has consistent hands and has made more than a couple of key plays for his team over his career.  Top reserves behind Swift are Jr. Menelik Holt (4 catches, 97 yds), So. Will Henry, and Jr. Chris Brooks (1 catch, 4 yds).  Behind Peterson will be So. Niles Paul (1 catch, 6 yds) and RFr. Curenski Gilleylen.  There is a lot of talent in this pool, but for the most part, unproven talent.  Starting at TE for the opener will be So. Mike McNeill (1 catch, 25 yds), with So. Dreu Young (1 catch, 14 yds) and RFr. Ryan Hill seeing back-up duty.

OL: Nebraska's offensive line will look to rebound after inconsistent performances throughout 2007.  Last season, the line made way for their backs to pick up 4.7 yards per carry.  Starting at tackle will be So. Mike Smith (6'6", 285 lbs) on the left and Sr. Lydon Murtha (6'7", 315 lbs) on the right.  Murtha has been hampered with injuries through his career, but is a rock when healthy.  So. Jaivorio Burkes (6'5", 325 lbs) is the top reserve for Smith, while RFr. Marcel Jones (6'7", 310 lbs) will back up Murtha.  Burkes can be dominant, as he showed at times in his few starts last season.  He missed a lot of practice time this off-season with high blood pressure.  At left guard will be Sr. Mike Huff (6'4", 300 lbs), while Sr. Matt Slauson (6'5", 320 lbs) will start at right.  Slauson is arguably the best of this group, and with his weight loss, should be even better than a year ago.  So. Keith Williams (6'5", 305 lbs.) and So. D.J. Jones (6'5", 305 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard, however, Williams is not expected to play on Saturday.  Jr. Jacob Hickman (6'4", 290 lbs) will start at center, with RFr. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs.) expected to be the top back-up.  There is a lot of returning talent to this group and if they play to their potential, this will be one of the better groups in the Big XII.

Nebraska Defense

Nebraska's defense was a colossal failure in 2007, finishing near the bottom in every statistical category.  Easily the worst in Nebraska's history, they will aim to bring back the Blackshirt swagger of years past with a new coaching staff.  At the end of 2007, the Huskers ranked 112th nationally in total defense (476.83 ypg), 84th pass defense (244.67 ypg), 75th pass efficiency defense (130.22 rating), 116th rush defense (232.20 ypg), and 114th in scoring defense (37.90 ppg), 118th in fumbles recovered (3), and 104th in interceptions (8).

DL: Nebraska's defensive line was a mess last season.  Little pressure from the edge, and they struggled against the run as well.  Opponents picked up 5.2 yards per rush, unheard of at Nebraska.  It is believed, however, that much of the problem was scheme and not a lack of talent.  Sr. Barry Turner (29 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 QBH, 2 PBU) returns to start at open end.  Turner is a former Freshman All-American that will look to get back to his pass-rushing form after dropping weight in the off-season.  Starting at base end will again be Sr. Zach Potter (45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 5 QBH, 1 PBU), after performing the best on the line a year ago.  Top reserves are Sr. Clayton Sievers (7 tackles, 1 QBH) and So. Pierre Allen (16 tackles, 2 QBH, 1 PBU).  Starting at nose tackle is Jr. Ndamukong Suh (34 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 4 QBH, 2 PBU, 1 BK), with Sr. Shukree Barfield (15 tackles) and RFr. Terrence Moore performing the back-up duties.  Suh didn't perform as expected last season, and will look to be a force this season.  Sr. Ty Steinkuhler (13 tackles, 1 FF, 1 QBH) returns to start at defensive tackle after struggling with injuries all of last season.  RFr. Jared Crick rose to the top reserve after expected top back-up Kevin Dixon was kicked off the team this summer.

LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps was expected to be very good in 2007, which was loaded with Seniors.  Instead, they were easily one of the nation's worst units, unable to tackle, take proper angles, or cover receivers.  This season's crew will be loaded with inexperience, however, it is unlikely they will be as bad as they were a season ago.  Jr. Phillip Dillard (37 tackles, 1 QBH, 2 PBU) will be the starter at MLB.  The talented Dillard will finally be able to show what kind of player he is as the full-time starter this season.  Behind Dillard will be TFr. Will Compton and Jr. Colton Koehler, both unproven players.  Sr. Tyler Wortman (9 tackles) will start at Buck, with TFr. Sean Fisher listed as his back-up this week.  Wortman has worked his way to a starting job after beginning his career at Nebraska as a walk-on.  After converting to the defensive side of the ball from RB this off-season, Sr. Cody Glenn has earned the starting spot at WLB.  So. Blake Lawrence (2 tackles) will serve as his back-up.  This is a very thin group, and cannot afford an injury.

DB: Nebraska's secondary returns two starters from a unit ranking near the bottom of interceptions nationally.  Sr. Armando Murillo (71 tackles, 0.5 sack, 7 PBU) starts at LCB, with So. Eric Hagg (2 tackles) backing him up.  Murillo looked good at times last season, but still left much room for improvement.  So. Anthony West (6 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QBH) will be the RCB starter, with So. Prince Amukamara (4 tackles) serving as the back-up.  So. Anthony Blue (18 tackles, 1 PBU), expected to be a major player in the secondary this season went down with a knee injury during the off-season and his status for this season is up in the air.  At safety, Jr. Larry Asante (78 tackles, 1 FF, 1 QBH, 4 PBU) returns as the SS starter, while Jr. Rickey Thenarse (28 tackles, 2 FF) will start at FS.  Both Asante and Thenarse are big hitters, but will look to improve in coverage this season.  Top reserves include Jr. Major Culbert (9 tackles) at SS, and Sr. Matt O'Hanlon (3 tackles) at FS.  Culbert is a solid athlete that has played OLB and RB before finding a home at safety.

Nebraska Special Teams

Nebraska's special teams were pretty good last season, however, lacked consistency.  The Huskers finished 2007 ranked 40th in net punting (36.33 yd avg), 70th in punt returns (8.18 yd avg), and 51st in kickoff returns (21.88 yd avg).  

K: So. Adi Kunalic (1 for 1, 46 yd lng) will again handle kickoffs and long field goals.  Kunalic led the nation last season with 28 of 66 kickoffs going for touchback, with a 65.7 yard average.  So. Alex Henery will handle short to medium field goals (8 for 8, 39 yd lng) and extra points.

P: Sr. Dan Titchener returns as Nebraska's starting punter after a solid season last year.  He has above average leg power, and is typically pretty consistent.  He averaged 41.3 yards on 49 punts with a long of 52.  16 of his 49 punts were downed inside the opponents' 20.
KR/PR: Nebraska's kick return game will be led by So. Niles Paul and Jr. Larry Asante.  Neither has fielded a kickoff in a game at Nebraska.  At punt returner will be Sr. Nate Swift (2 returns, 3 yard avg) and So. Niles Paul.  

Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams were fairly solid last season.  The kick coverage unit allowed an average of 21.2 yards on 40 kickoff returns, while the punt return coverage team allowed a 6.5 yard average on 22 punts returns.  Return averages went up after a poor performance against Colorado in the season finale.

Unit Match-Ups

Nebraska's Offense vs. Western Michigan's Defense

Nebraska's offense will be similar to what was seen last season, as offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson was retained by new coach Bo Pelini.  However, since former coach Bill Callahan called the plays last season, it will be interesting to see what differences Watson will employ this season.  He will have plenty of firepower to work with, as QB Joe Ganz will enter his final season after throwing for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns in his three starts.  The main concern with Ganz is a tendency he showed in those games to force plays that just weren't there, resulting in picks.  As far as weapons to throw to, two tested WR's return in Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, but beyond that it is mostly unproven talent.  RB Marlon Lucky led Nebraska in receptions last season, and that may carry over to this season as well if more receivers don't step up.  Nebraska will need someone to step up to fill in the shoes of the departed Maurice Purify.  Many of the young Husker receivers have shown promise, but had issues with consistent hands in the spring game.  The Western Michigan secondary is very experienced and talented, and could provide troubles for Nebraska's passing game.  CB Londen Fryar, son of Nebraska and NFL legend, Irving Fryar, is arguably the best player in the defensive backfield, as he broke up an impressive 16 passes last season.  Fryar and company would definitely like to give Nebraska fits all night long.  The Broncos are expected to move to a predominantly Nickel package defense this season, and how that plays out will be something to watch this week.  Western Michigan allowed their opponents to complete 51.8% of their passes compared to Nebraska QB Joe Ganz, who completed 58.6% of his attempts.  

The Nebraska running game wasn't nearly as effective as they should have been, given the talent at running back they had last season - and bring back this season.  Their offense line was a disappointment throughout the season, unable to effectively and consistently open holes for the backs.  RB's Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu, and Quentin Castille should all see a good chunk of carries this week.  All three can be big playmakers for their offense, and should have opportunities for big plays on Saturday.  Western Michigan has a solid group of small, quick linebackers led by Boston McCornell that will try to plug any holes in the line.  Nebraska will need to have a successful rushing attack this week, to help keep the aggressive, blitz-heavy Broncos' honest.  Last season, the Broncos' defense allowed opponents to convert on 39% of their third downs, but was solid in the red zone, allowing 78% scores.  Nebraska converted a mediocre 43% of their third downs, but a respectable 90% red-zone scoring offense.  Nebraska's offense should be strong this season, but will need to improve their 3rd down percentage to be a contender in the Big XII North.  

Up front, Nebraska's average offensive lineman is 6'5", 302 lbs, while Western Michigan's defensive linemen average 6'2", 261 lbs.  Last season, Nebraska mostly struggled against smaller defensive fronts, so a size advantage isn't always a big positive.  At the same time, Western Michigan had troubles stopping the run.  Western Michigan gave up 4.6 yards per carry last season, while Nebraska's backs averaged 4.7 yards per carry.  With Nebraska's offensive line expected to be better this season, signs point to a rush heavy offense this week.  Nebraska's offensive line is likely to have their hands full all evening, especially on passing downs, due the attacking nature of the Broncos' defense.  Last season, the Huskers gave up 18 sacks and 57 tackles for loss, while Western Michigan cranked out 78 tackles for loss and 28 sacks.  The more the Broncos can get into the backfield , the better their odds to stay in this game are.  

Western Michigan's Offense vs. Nebraska's Defense

The Western Michigan offense was sporadic last season.  For every solid performance, there was at least one miserable game to go along with that.  They will look to be more consistent week-to-week this season, and a dud in the season opener would is definitely not what they are shooting for.  QB Tim Hiller would like to have another 3,000 yard passing season after becoming just the second in Broncos history to attain the feat last year.  A season ago, he completed 62.9% of his passes, while Nebraska's defense allowed opponents to connect on 57.7% of their passes.  Western Michigan's receivers as a group are very solid, and are led by Jamarko Simmons, a big, strong threat for Hiller.  Simmons averaged 7 catches per game for 82 yards.  The tight end spot is filled by a talented veteran, Branden Ledbetter, who tied for the most touchdown receptions last season on the team with 6.  Nebraska's defensive backfield struggled to stop teams, especially on short to intermediate routes, as they usually gave large cushions.  But with an entirely new defensive staff, and new starters in the mix, things will be different.  New DB coach Marvin Sanders coached the same unit in 2003 for Nebraska, a unit that led the nation in interceptions that year.  Expect a more aggressive group from the Huskers this season.  Hiller doesn't have much foot speed, which is good news for Nebraska, a team that could not stop a quarterback that could tuck and run last season.

Western Michigan's rushing attack is led by underrated Brandon West.  He's a quick back that showed his excellent moves in many games last season.  He averaged 4.6 yards per rush last season, but would have easily been higher with a consistent block up front.  Reserve RB Glenis Thompson will also see plenty of carries, now that he is the number two back.  They will look to get their season started off right against a Nebraska defense that ranked 116th in the nation against the run last year.  Nebraska's defense seemed inept at the simple execution of tackling last season, as running backs bounced right off them and headed down the field.  The linebackers will look different this season, though, with three new starters and a new linebackers coach.  It will be interesting to see how well they tackle the slippery West on Saturday.  Western Michigan's third down conversion percentage was a mediocre 38% last season, with a poor 75% red-zone scoring average.  Nebraska's defense was awful last season, allowing opponents to convert on 50% of their 3rd down attempts, and allowed opponents to score on 92% of their red-zone opportunities.  All eyes will be on Nebraska's new coaching staff to see how they may have gone about alleviating those woes from a season ago.

Up front, Western Michigan's average offensive lineman is 6'4", 309 lbs, with Nebraska's average defensive lineman coming in at 6'4", 282 lbs.  The Broncos' offensive line is a young group, and with the injury to Rob Johnson, will work four new starters in to the mix.  They will be up against a Nebraska defensive line that returns all four starters from a year ago.  They had problems getting off their blocks last season, and were mostly ineffective against the opposition.  Like their DB and LB counterparts, have a new position coach which should change much of how they will perform this season.  Last season, Nebraska put up 74 tackles for loss, and just 13 sacks.  Considering that 4 of those 13 sacks were earned in one game, that number becomes even less impressive.  On the other side, Western Michigan allowed 73 tackles for loss and 28 sacks this season.  But as they replace four starters up front this week with fresh faces, it is anyone's guess whether will perform any better than last season.  Nebraska's defensive front needs to be better after allowing an unbelievable 5.2 yards per carry last season, while Western Michigan averaged 3.4 yards per carry.  West could have a big day if Nebraska's defense can't do better than 5.2 yards per carry.

Keys to the Game

For Nebraska to Win:
1.) Defense has to be tenacious, not on their heels like they were last season.
2.) Running backs and offensive line need to take pressure off of QB Joe Ganz, so he doesn't feel that he has to win the game with his arm alone.
3.) Force turnovers.  Nebraska was one of the worst teams last year in getting takeaways.
4.) Convert third downs and take advantage of red zone opportunities.  These percentages were awful last season, and kept them from winning a few games.
5.) Young receivers must step up.  

For Western Michigan to Win:
1.) Experienced defense needs to play mistake free football against a solid Nebraska offense.
2.) QB Tim Hiller has to have a great day, must find Simmons and other targets often.
3.) Four new starters on the offensive line must perform well, giving time to Hiller and opening holes for the running game.
4.) Get pressure on Nebraska QB Joe Ganz, make him force plays into coverage.
5.) Cannot turn the ball over.  On the road, a few turnovers and it could get ugly.

Position Advantages

QBs: Nebraska
RBs: Nebraska
WR/TE's: Western Michigan
OL: Nebraska
DL: Even
LB: Western Michigan
DB: Western Michigan
Special Teams: Nebraska
Coaching: Nebraska

Injury Report

CB - Anthony Blue - knee - out indefinitely

Western Michigan:
RB - Kirk Elsworth - groin - questionable
OL - Nick Clemens - back - questionable
CB - Dervon Wallace - knee - doubtful
OT - Rob Johnson - concussion - out
WR - Jordan White - knee - out for 4-6 weeks.

Game Breakdown & Outlook

This will be the first meeting between Western Michigan and Nebraska.  Nebraska comes into the game with a 4-0 record against current MAC conference opponents, with its most recent outing last season in a close 41-40 victory over Ball State.  Western Michigan has a 1-3-0 record versus Big XII foes, with their most recent game last season in a 52-24 loss to Missouri.  

Western Michigan finished off their 2007 season with a 5-7 record.  It was an up and down season, with more downs than ups, and a decrease in success versus 2006 in which they closed out at 8-4.  A difficult non-conference schedule saw the Broncos drop their first 3 games of the season against West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri.  The only real win of substance came against an Iowa team that finished (6-6).  Surprisingly, that was the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) member that they defeated with a .500 or better record.  The Broncos could use a win in Lincoln this week to give themselves a big confidence boost to start the season.  

Nebraska finished out 2007 with a 5-7 record, a big fall after a 9 win season and Cotton Bowl trip in 2006.  Last year marked Nebraska's second losing season in four years, also just the second since 1961.  Nebraska started their season by throttling Nevada, but was never as dominant the remainder of the season.  No real high points for the Huskers last season, but plenty of times when fans were left wondering the meaning of "rock bottom".  Teams like USC, Ball State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Kansas, and Colorado all had their way with the Nebraska defense.  A change had to be made, and then-newly appointed Athletic Director, Tom Osborne, fired Bill Callahan and hired Bo Pelini.  Pelini has a 1-0 record as an interim head coach at Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl in 2003.  For the Huskers, a win will give a little confidence to a team that didn't have much last season.  A loss would be a disastrous start for new head coach Bo Pelini.

Western Michigan returns a good group on offense, but the concern will be up front.  With OT Rob Johnson going down, the Broncos will be starting 4 new linemen.  It is going to be hard for consistency to emerge in the first time this group has played together, especially given their youth.  While Nebraska's defensive line was a disappointment last season, they are all veterans that should win the battle up front, making it tough for the Broncos to get going on a consistent basis.  QB Tim Hiller has a capable arm and a good group of receiving targets, and RB Brandon West could see nearly as many passes come his way as rushes.  Expect the Broncos to test Nebraska's young groups of linebackers and defensive backs throughout this game.  If the Huskers cannot do a good job of getting pressure on Hiller and covering WR Jamarko Simmons and TE Branden Ledbetter, the Broncos can stay in this game.  But because of the question marks on the offensive line, Hiller might not have much time to get passes off.

Nebraska's QB Joe Ganz was throwing the ball all over the field, breaking school records as he put up big numbers in the last three games of 2007.  He also made a few big mistakes in two of those games, both of them losses.  Of course, the Husker offense was under tremendous pressure last season to score on every drive due to their train wreck of a defense.  Ganz will probably not be throwing the ball 50 times a game this season, unless things get out of control and the Husker defense folds again, which is probably unlikely.  He will have to be more selective on when and where he throws the ball, careful not to force balls into double coverage.  He has a good group of receivers, potential wise, but only two of his wide-outs have proven themselves in a real game.  Playing against the MAC's best secondary will be a good test for the inexperienced receivers in their season opener.  CB Londen Fryar and FS Louis Delmas are going to be hard for the Husker receivers to get by.  Nebraska's ground game will be something to watch, with three backs capable of being game breakers.  The Broncos have a good front seven, but if the Nebraska offensive line plays like they are capable, the Huskers should be able to put up some impressive numbers on the ground.

Nebraska wants to start the Bo Pelini era with a bang, and it isn't out of the realm of possibility to see this one get out of hand, depending on where the revamped Husker defense is at.  The Nebraska offense should be explosive, and the more capable receivers that rise up will make them even more dangerous.  If Western Michigan can play mistake-free football, they can hang in the game until late, but the lack of experience on the offensive front is going to hurt, and when their defense went up against great offenses (West Virginia, Missouri) last season, they were shredded.  Given that this is the first game of the season, both will come out with a little rust, but Nebraska should ultimately cover the spread, winning by about 17.

Western Michigan - 21
Nebraska - 38

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