Big Red Breakdown: NU vs FAU

It's the home-opener, the beginning of the 2009 campaign and Nebraska hosts Florida Atlantic. Coached by the one and only Howard Schnellenberger, FAU comes in touting lots of athletes, a pro-caliber quarterback and maybe the best tight end in the country. See how this game shapes up as Vince Campisi gives you one of the most comprehensive breakdowns of the game around.

Vince Campisi's College Football Game Preview
Florida Atlantic Owls vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

--by Vince Campisi

September 5th, 2009
6:10 PM CT
Lincoln, NE
Television Coverage: Fox Sports PPV

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Gametime Weather
Weather Report for Nebraska vs. Florida Atlantic

Latest Line
Nebraska by 22.

Florida Atlantic
09/05/09 - at. Nebraska
09/19/09 - at. South Carolina
09/26/09 - vs. Louisiana-Monroe
10/03/09 - vs. Wyoming
10/17/09 - at. North Texas
10/24/09 - at. Louisiana-Lafayette
10/31/09 - vs. Middle Tennessee State
11/07/09 - at. UAB
11/14/09 - vs. Arkansas State
11/21/09 - at. Troy
11/28/09 - vs. Western Kentucky
12/05/09 - at. Florida International

09/05/09 - vs. Florida Atlantic
09/12/09 - vs. Arkansas State
09/19/09 - at. Virginia Tech
09/26/09 - vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
10/08/09 - at. Missouri
10/17/09 - vs. Texas Tech
10/24/09 - vs. Iowa State
10/31/09 - at. Baylor
11/07/09 - vs. Oklahoma
11/14/09 - at. Kansas
11/21/09 - vs. Kansas State
11/27/09 - at. Colorado

Player Breakdowns

Florida Atlantic Offense

Florida Atlantic's offense, which possesses a strong passing attack, returns 8 starters from last year's squad.  The Owls finished 2008 ranked 42nd nationally in total offense (393.54 ypg), 25th in passing (254.77 ypg), 60th in passing efficiency (125.56 rating), 66th in rushing (138.77 ypg), 53rd in scoring offense (25.08 ppg), and 99th in giveaways (29). 

QB: Sr. Rusty Smith (234 of 435, 3224 yds, 24 TDs, 14 INTs) starts for the Owls, and is not only one of the best quarterbacks in the Sun Belt, but nationally as well.  He finished 2008 ranked 54th in the nation with a 127.82 QB rating, dropping off from his 141.6 rating he accumulated in 2007.  Smith will look to be more consistent in the pocket this year, as many NFL scouts will have their eye on him.  Smith has a nice arm, but struggles when pressured from the outside-in.  When he is able to roll out, he does make good decisions on the run.  He would try to force a lot last year, also overthrowing a lot of his receivers.  One of the things he does best is the two-minute offense, as he led many successful drives that way in his career.  He isn't a much of a dual-threat and won't take off with the ball very often.  Smith has been named to both the Unitas and Walter Camp award watch lists this pre-season.  Behind Smith is So. Jeff Van Camp (8 of 20, 55 yds, 1 INT).  Van Camp is largely untested, and had a mediocre Spring game.  He isn't likely to see much action this year, unless games are out of hand or Smith gets injured.

RB: Florida Atlantic lost their top two rushers from a year ago, but return Sr. William Rose (63 carries, 308 yds, 1 TD).  Rose is a talented playmaker that sees time at FB as well as the main RB.  Behind Rose at FB will be Jr. David Muniz (1 carry, 8 yds).  The FB position is a major part of the Owls' offense, and Rose is a good one.  He not only runs hard, but blocks very well and knows the offense inside and out.  He'll be an integral part of the team's success this season.  At RB, we will see So. Alfred Morris (7 carries, 23 yds) start.  Morris has good footwork, nice hands, and can power over defenders.  Jr. Willie Floyd (11 carries, 38 yds) is listed as the number two back, but has missed a good chunk of camp with an injury.  Another unfortunate injury at the RB spot was to Sr. Jeff Blanchard, who tore his ACL in the spring.  Other RB's to watch for include So. Avionne Rolle (3 carries, 15 yds), So. Xavier Stinson, RFr. Michael Barasch, and TFr. Travis Jones.  The backs will be counted on to share receiving responsibilities, and have done a nice job in the past.  Rose (23 catches, 168 yds, 2 TDs) is the most versatile of the group and the only one that caught a pass last season.  Watch for Morris to get a lot of passes his way, as he has shown his receiving skills off in camp.

WR/TE: A strength for the Owls will be their receivers and tight ends, which easily have the more quality depth than anywhere else on the team.  Starting at "X" receiver is Sr. Cortez Gent (60 catches, 935 yds, 9 TDs).  Gent is an excellent, speedy athlete that runs clean routes.  He has great hands, and can be difficult to bring down in the open field.  He has been named to the Biletnikoff award watch list this pre-season.  Behind Gent will be Jr. Lester Jean (25 catches, 257 yds, 2 TDs) and Jr. Avery Holley (9 catches, 102 yds).  Starting at "Z" receiver is Sr. Chris Bonner (22 catches, 422 yds, 3 TDs), with Sr. Conshario Johnson (6 catches, 46 yds) and Jr. Grant Glover serving as the top reserves in the rotation.  Bonner is the team's top deep threat, and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch a year ago.  At tight end are Sr. Jamari Grant (45 catches, 642 yds, 4 TDs), Sr. Jason Harmon,  TFr. Rob Housler (32 catches, 519 yds, 4 TDs), and Jr. Darian Williams.  Grant was named first team All Sun Belt by the coaches, coming off of an outstanding season in which he was forced into the spotlight after Harmon went down with a pre-season injury.  Now that Harmon is back, teamed with Grant and Housler, the Owls have quite a three-headed monster at TE.  This group doesn't look like your traditional tight ends either, they are more like having extra wide receivers on the field.  They can all run, have good hands, and can put it in the endzone. 

OL: Florida Atlantic's offensive line is going to work in some new starters this season.  Fortunately, most of the new starters were able to see a good amount of playing time in 2008, mostly due to injuries to last year's starters.  Starting at tackle is Sr. Lavoris Williams (6'4", 285 lbs) on the left and So. Max Karrick (6'6", 280 lbs) on the right.  Williams might be the best on the entire line, and had a great fall camp.  Seeing Karrick at the top of the depth chart is a bit of a surprise, as Carl Spitale was expected to be the guy that RT.  Top reserves at tackle include RFr. Troy Niblack (6'6", 280 lbs) and Sr. Carl Spitale (6'8", 330 lbs).  Spitale was injured for a good part of fall camp, but came back to practice this week, and has taken a majority of the snaps.  Still, he remains second on the official depth chart.  Starting at guard is Sr. David Matlock (6'3", 290 lbs) on the left and Sr. Kevin Miller (6'3", 320 lbs) on the right.  Matlock is a hard-nose player that is entering his fourth year as starter.  Miller is beginning his second year as full-time starter.  Top back-ups at guard are So. Samuel McRoy (6'4", 275 lbs) and RFr. Jared Pizzuti (6'4", 225 lbs).  At center is Jr. Ryan Wischnefski (6'2", 317 lbs), with RFr. Jordan Sessa (6'5", 280 lbs) backing him up.  Wischnefski has the biggest shoes to fill as he replaces four-year starter Nick Paris at center.  Paris was really in-tune with QB Rusty Smith and was one of the most valuable players from last season for the Owls.  It is imperative that Wischnefski grows into the role quickly.

Florida Atlantic Defense

Florida Atlantic's defense will have a lot of new faces in starting roles this season, as they return just 3 starters from a year ago.  The Owls finished their 2008 campaign ranked 92nd nationally in total defense (400.38 ypg), 81st in pass defense (221.69 ypg), 89th in pass efficiency defense (136.45 rating), 98th in rush defense (178.69 ypg), 81st in scoring defense (28.69 ppg), 97th in fumbles recovered (7), 54th in interceptions (13), and 77th in total takeaways (20). 

DL: Florida Atlantic's defensive line will be a bit of a question mark as a pair of injuries this week will change the way the two-deep looks.  Starting at defensive end is So. Kevin Cyrille on the left end and Jr. Daniel Joseph (34 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 PBU) on the right end.  Both Cyrille and Joseph have impressed the coaches in the fall scrimmages, and expect to disrupt opposing quarterbacks often this season.  Top reserves on the ends are Sr. Paul Muse and RFr. Nick Osborne.  Muse has not found a permanent position since arriving at FAU, as defensive end is his third position he'll provide depth at.  Muse finds himself in the two-deep because of an injury sustained by So. Jamere Johnson (11 tackles, 1 QBH) this week in practice.  Starting at defensive tackle is Jr. Dino Cox (6 tackles, 1 QBH) on the left and Sr. Josh Savidge (28 tackles, 0.5 sack) on the right.  Cox will start on the left this week after RFr. Andy Czuprynski went down with an injury this week in practice.  Savidge is a solid tackle that is starting for the fourth straight season.  Top back-ups at tackle include So. Jarvis Givens (7 tackles, 1 FF, 3 QBH, 1 PBU) and Jr. Chris Newbold (1 tackle). 
LB: Florida Atlantic's linebacking corps will be putting three new starters into the line-up.  This unit will really miss Franz Joseph (graduated), one of the top tacklers in the nation last season, despite the potential the new starters have.  Starting at middle linebacker is Jr. Michael Lockley (11 tackles), with RFr. Alex Pattee backing him up.  The coaches believe that Lockley can be a force in the middle, much like Franz Joseph was.  He's been primarily a special teamer, so he doesn't have much experience.  Regardless, they expect him to be a stud at MIKE.  At weakside linebacker is Sr. Ed Bradwell (41 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QBH), while TFr. Tony Walding backs him up.  Like Lockley, Bradwell is a good athlete, but hasn't seen much action outside of special teams, however, he played a decent amount as a reserve linebacker.  Jr. Malik Eugene (6 tackles) will start at strongside linebacker, with RFr. Yourhighness Morgan  providing back-up.  Eugene is possibly the most athletic of the group, and like the other starters, hasn't been on the field much other than special teams. 

DB: The Owls' defensive backfield returns two starters from last season, and will hope to improve upon a sloppy 2008.  Starting at cornerback is Jr. Tavious Polo (35 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR, 2 PBU) at left corner and Jr. Tavoris Hill (41 tackles, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 3 PBU) on the right.  Hill is returning for his second year as a starter, while Polo was able to win the job on the left in a fierce fall camp battle.  Polo is a great athlete, and could turn into a game breaker for the defense.  Top reserves include Sr. Erick McIntosh (11 tackles, 2 PBU) and So. Curtis Cross (1 tackle).  McIntosh was in close competition with Polo all camp long, and will likely get plenty of playing time.  Starting at strong safety is RFr. Antonio Rodriguez, with Jr. Austen Jensen (24 tackles, 1 BK) serving as his top back-up.  This was a bit of a surprise on the depth chart, as Jensen was expected to start.  It will be interesting to see how a Rodriguez handles his first game in Lincoln.  At free safety is Jr. Ed Alexander (42 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 PBU), while Jr. Rod Huggins (9 tackles) backs him up.  Alexander is the other returning starter in the secondary and is the best of the group.  He's a good athlete that was second on the team in interceptions last season.

Florida Atlantic Special Teams

Florida Atlantic's special teams units return most of their top performers from a year ago.  The Owls ended 2008 ranked 111th in net punting (31.76 yd avg), 91st in kickoff returns (19.86 yd avg), 74th in punt returns (7.97 yd avg), 6th in kickoff coverage (17.66 yd avg), and 44th in punt coverage (7.14 yd avg). 

K: Jr. Ross Gornall made 10 of his 13 field goal attempts with a long of 37 in 2008, never attempting a kick over 37 yards.  Gornall connected on a 62 yard kick in slippery conditions at practice on Thursday.  He should take over the full time kickoff job as well.  Last year he shared time on kickoffs and pushed 3 of his 26 kickoffs for touchback, with an average of 61.8 yards.

P: Sr. Keegan Peterson returns to start this year after averaging 38.3 yards on his 62 punts with a long of 55 in 2008.  20 of his 62 punts were downed inside the opponents' 20.  Look for So. Mickey Grooney to get a look if Peterson struggles, as they have been close in fall camp.

KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit will be So. Avionne Rolle and Jr. Avery Holley.  Sr. Erick McIntosh's name has also been thrown into the mix.  None of the three returned a kick last year, so this will be an interesting area to watch.  After losing DiIvory Edgecomb to graduation, there could be a bit of a drop-off here.  The top punt returnman is So. Tavious Polo (21 punt returns, 9.5 yd avg, 48 yd long), a speedy returnman with good vision.

Coverage: The Owls' kick and punt coverage units were pretty solid in `08.  They did lose some of their best tacklers, however.  The kick coverage unit allowed an average of 18 yards on 58 kickoff return attempts.  The punt coverage unit allowed an average of just 7.1 yards per return on 22 punts. 

Nebraska Offense

Nebraska returns 6 starters from last year's offense, a balanced unit that was one of the best in the nation.  At the close of the 2008 season, Nebraska finished 12th nationally in total offense (450.77 ypg), 15th in passing (281 ypg), 15th in pass efficiency (154.46 rating), 37th in rushing (169.77 ypg), 25th in scoring offense (35.38 ppg), and 93rd in giveaways (28). 

QB: Jr. Zac Lee (1 for 2, 5 yds) took snaps in just two games in 2008.  He was a prolific QB in his only JUCO season (2006), leading his team to the California state title game.  He threw for over 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns in that season.  Lee is considered a dual-threat, and ran for 17 yards on 2 carries last season.  With the loss of Joe Ganz to graduation, Lee will be depended upon to manage the game and not make many mistakes.  Behind Lee are TFr. Cody Green and Jr. LaTravis Washington.  Green joined the team in January, and has a lot of potential to be a solid dual-threat QB.  Washington is a converted linebacker that hasn't thrown a ball in a real game since high school.   He has a strong arm with good speed, but he has not made the strides that Green has in the same amount of time.

RB: Nebraska's running backs are led by Jr. Roy Helu Jr. (125 carries, 803 yds, 7 TDs).  Helu Jr. has a nice combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability.  He put on some extra muscle in the off-season, and supposedly hasn't lost a step.  In 2008 he showed a great ability to break tackles and skirt around tacklers, with the added weight, he might add running over defenders to his repertoire.  The running back depth took a big blow in fall camp, however, as Jr-to-be Quentin Castille (106 carries, 467 yds, 6 TDs) was booted from the team for violation of team rules.  Nebraska lacks a back comparable to Castille, who was a big back with a rare skill set seen in backs in the 230's and up.  The Huskers will look to a number of new faces to help fill the void.  Behind Helu, Jr. will be a combination of TFr. Rex Burkhead, RFr. Lester Ward, RFr. Marcus Mendoza (15 carries, 103 yds, 1 TD), and So. Austin Jones.  Burkhead has made a lot of noise in fall camp, while Mendoza bounced from RB to WR and back to RB in the off-season.  Nebraska likes to throw the ball to their backs, and lost a big target in Marlon Lucky to graduation.  Helu Jr. (25 catches, 266 yds) and Mendoza (2 catches, 7 yds) each caught passes last year, and will be counted on to carry a bigger load this year.   At FB, RFr. Tyler Legate is the top guy.  The FB doesn't see much time with the ball for Nebraska, being used almost exclusively as a lead blocker.   

WR/TE: Nebraska's receiving corps lost their top two targets from last year, Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, to graduation.  What returns is a largely inexperienced group that needs to find a few players to step up and become playmakers.  Jr. Niles Paul (23 catches, 214 yds) has been the best receiver in camp and will start at "Z".  Starting at "X" will be Sr. Menelik Holt (30 catches, 355 yds, 1 TD), who has great size, and should finally become the stand-out receiver Nebraska has hoped he would become three years ago.  Reserves include So. Curenski Gilleylen (2 catches, 11 yds), Sr. Chris Brooks (2 catches, 27 yds, 1 TD), Jr. Will Henry, Jr. Brandon Kinnie, TFr. Antonio Bell, RFr. Khiry Cooper, and Sr. Wes Cammack.  Gilleylen has great speed, but hasn't shown great hands.  He has had a great fall camp, however, so that must now be of much concern at this point.  Brooks has worked predominantly in the slot, and has worked himself into a role of a solid target.  Henry is a big body that if he puts it all together, could be an excellent threat.  Kinnie and Cooper are two exciting young players that could work their way up as the season moves forward.  Nebraska's top TE is Jr. Mike McNeill (32 catches, 442 yds, 6 TDs), with So. Dreu Young (9 catches, 140 yds, 1 TD), So. Ryan Hill (3 catches, 9 yds, 1 TD), RFr. Ben Cotton, and RFr. Kyler Reed competing behind McNeill.  Reed will also be used as a HB this season, as the coaches are looking to get his skills onto the field.  This is a solid group of tight ends that should be considered a strength for the Huskers' offense.

OL: Nebraska's offensive line will have a different look this season, after losing three players from last year with starting experience.  Starting at tackle is Jr. Mike Smith (6'6", 295 lbs) on the left and So. Marcel Jones (6'7", 310 lbs) on the right.  Smith was a part-time starter last season, and has a history of back problems.  It is critical that he stays healthy.  Jones played in all 13 games last season, and has great potential to be a rock on the right side.  Jr. D.J. Jones (6'5", 315 lbs) is listed as a co-starter with Marcel Jones for this opening game, as the coaches try to find the right chemistry with the line.  Starting at left guard is Jr. Keith Williams (6'5", 315 lbs), while Jr. Ricky Henry (6'4", 300 lbs) starts at right guard.  Williams is a great blocker, and should continue to improve.  Henry is a player known for his strength and his nasty streak.  Sr. Andy Christensen (6'3", 305 lbs) and Sr. Derek Meyer (6'5", 315 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard.  Christensen is a former starter that missed last season mostly due to a suspension.  Sr. Jacob Hickman (6'4", 290 lbs) starts at center, with So. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs) backing him up.  Hickman is the leader of the group, and should have a solid Senior year. 

Nebraska Defense

Nebraska returns 7 starters from a defense that showed steady improvement last season.  The Blackshirts finished 2008 ranked 55th nationally in total defense (349.85 ypg), 89th in pass defense (233.38 ypg), 82nd in pass efficiency defense (133.95 rating), 21st in rush defense (116.46 ypg), 80th in scoring defense (28.54 ppg), 111th in fumbles recovered (5), 59th in interceptions (12), and 97th in total takeaways (17).

DL: Nebraska's defensive line was a strength of the team last season, and despite losing two of the four starters, could be even better this year.  Starting at defensive end is Jr. Pierre Allen (52 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 QBH, 1 PBU) on the right, with Sr. Barry Turner (3 tackles, 1 sack) on the left.  Turner suffered a broken leg in game two of 2008, and Allen replaced him as a starter.  Allen shined with the opportunity, and now that Turner is healthy, they should be very good bookends for the defensive line.  RFr. Cameron Meredith and RFr. Josh Williams are the top reserves at defensive end.  Starting at nose tackle is Sr. Ndamukong Suh (76 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 7 QBH, 3 PBU, 2 BK), with So. Terrence Moore (8 tackles, 2 sacks) backing him up.  Suh is an elite tackle that is expected to be one of the first players chosen in next year's NFL draft.  He has a motor that doesn't quit, flying to the ball and forcing turnovers.  So. Jared Crick (2 tackles, 1 PBU) will start at defensive tackle, with RFr. Baker Steinkuhler providing back-up.  Crick will be counted on to make plays with Suh being doubled up, and possibly help take pressure off of Suh.   

LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps was banged up, inexperienced, and lacked depth last season.  This year there is a stockpile of young talent waiting to show what they can do.  Starting at weakside linebacker is Jr. Blake Lawrence (21 tackles, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 PBU), with So. Matthew May (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR) listed as a possible co-starter.  Lawrence had a nice game in the Gator Bowl and will look to build on that success.  May came out of walk-on obscurity to solid contributor at times last season.  Starting at middle linebacker will be RFr. Will Compton, while Sr. Phillip Dillard (38 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) and Sr. Colton Koehler (16 tackles) are in the mix as the top reserve.  Compton has had an impressive camp, and overtook the incumbent Dillard.  Dillard will likely still see plenty of playing time, despite being dropped to second string.  He is healthy and in shape, and should be a better contributor this year than last.  Starting at buck linebacker is RFr. Sean Fisher, with RFr. Micah Kreikemeier and TFr. Eric Martin providing back-up.  Fisher is a huge linebacker, standing at 6'6", and had a great camp.  This is a unit that has great potential, but will likely make their share of mistakes early due to their lack of in-game experience.

DB: Nebraska's defensive backfield was not a strong suit last season.  Between leaving receivers wide open, and missing tackles, there will be plenty of room for improvement this season.  Jr. Prince Amukamara (34 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FF, 1 QBH, 3 PBU) will likely start at LCB, with Jr. Dejon Gomes and TFr. Andrew Green listed as the top reserves.  Jr. Anthony West (29 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 9 PBU) should again start at RCB, with So. Alfonzo Dennard (5 tackles) listed as a possible co-starter.  Nebraska will need more consistency from their corners this season if they are to have a solid season.  At strong safety is Sr. Larry Asante (67 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 4 PBU) starts, with Jr. Eric Hagg (39 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 QBH, 7 PBU) and RFr. P.J. Smith backing him up.  Asante seemed to get better late in the 2008 season, and is poised for a big Senior season.  Hagg moved from corner to safety in the off-season, which should suit him better.  Sr. Matt O'Hanlon (52 tackles, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 5 PBU) and Sr. Rickey Thenarse (24 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) are listed as co-starters at free safety.  O'Hanlon and Thenarse both experienced highs and lows in 2008, and just like the corners, the safeties need to show improvement as well as consistency this season.

Nebraska Special Teams

Nebraska's special teams units return their starting place kicker, kickoff specialist, and a few of their top returnmen from a year ago.  The Huskers finished 2008 ranked 106th in net punting (32.13 yd avg), 48th in kickoff returns (21.84 yd avg), 21st in punt returns (12.13 yd avg), 103rd in kickoff coverage (23.93 yd avg), and 66th in punt coverage (9.45 yd avg).

K: Jr. Alex Henery (18 for 21, 57 yd lng, 1 BK) has one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the nation.  His school record 57 yard long kick against Colorado last season helped put Nebraska into the Gator Bowl.  Jr. Adi Kunalic has a booming leg, and is one of the best kickoff specialists in the nation.  Kunalic pushed 29 of 81 kickoffs for touchback this season, with an excellent 65.5 yard average. 

P: Jr. Alex Henery is hoping to add punting duties to his repertoire this season, however, is in competition with RFr. Brett Maher.  This will be an interesting position for Nebraska, as their punters in 2008 were not very good.
KR/PR: Nebraska's top kickoff return unit will be made up of Jr. Niles Paul (41 returns, 23.6 yd avg, 1 TD, 85 yd long), and So. Alfonzo Dennard (8 returns, 18.8 yd avg, 31 yd long).  Other speedsters expected to possibly return kicks this season are So. Curenski Gilleylen (2 returns, 24 yd avg, 26 yd lng), TFr. Rex Burkhead, and TFr. Antonio Bell.  At punt returner will be Jr. Niles Paul (8 returns, 10 yd avg, 28 yd long).  TFr. Rex Burkhead and RFr. Tim Marlowe could also see time returning punts.  The return units were solid last year, and should be again in 2009.

Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams struggled last season with missing tackles, which led to many big returns for their opponents.  The kick coverage unit allowed an average of 23.9 yards on 57 kickoff returns, while the punt coverage unit allowed an average of 9.5 yards on 22 punt returns in 2008.   

Unit Match-Ups

Nebraska's Offense vs. Florida Atlantic's Defense

Joe Ganz is gone, which means that it is Zac Lee's turn to show everyone what he's got.  Despite tallying just 22 total yards on 5 plays last season where he did something besides hand-off to a back, the coaches are confident that Lee can do great things at Nebraska this year.  Other than to say their offense will remain "multiple", the Nebraska coaches haven't said much about what, if any, changes will be seen on offense this season.  Lee put up big numbers in his lone year of JUCO ball, where he showcased a solid arm and good footspeed.  Lee has been in the system for two years, and is surely anxious to finally get on the field for some meaningful snaps.  He will be expected to do a nice job of managing the game, like Ganz did, keeping mistakes to a minimum.  Lee will be matched up against a Florida Atlantic defense that allowed their opponents to complete 64% of their passes last season.  That will be one area for the Owls to try and improve on for this season. 
Someone will have to step up in Nebraska's receiving corps, after losing their top two receivers from a year ago to graduation.  This is an area that is somewhat of an unknown for the Huskers.  Niles Paul and Menelik Holt are expected to be the top two wideouts, however, who will make up the rest of the group and where remains to be seen.  There is a plethora of young talent within the group, but no one proven yet.  Even with Paul and Holt included, you can't say that there is one big time playmaker at wide-out.  Luckily for Lee, he has a pretty good group of tight ends to throw to, including Mike McNeill, who should prove to be a go-to target when protection breaks down.  McNeill actually caught more passes last season than any other Nebraska tight end had ever caught in a single season (32).  Expect him to see more throws come his way.  Behind McNeill is a group of young TE's that are eager to prove themselves.   Watch for McNeill to have a few big catches on Saturday going straight downfield while they test freshman safety Antonio Rodriguez.  The Owls' young defensive players will have to grow up quickly if Florida Atlantic is going to have a chance to win this football game.  One thing that will help the secondary out is if the front seven can get pressure on Lee, not letting him get comfortable in his first start.  Another thing to watch for will be how much Nebraska attacks the inexperienced linebackers of Florida Atlantic.  With three new starters, short to intermediate passes would have to be a tempting option to go after throughout the game.

Nebraska's running game was quite successful last year, especially in the latter half of the season.  Nebraska was able to run well with a trio of back in Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu Jr., and Quentin Castille.  This year's group is looking much different however, as Lucky graduated and Castille was kicked off the team last month.  Helu, Jr. will have to carry the bulk of the load, and with his history of injuries, that could prove difficult.  He did put on some weight in the off-season, and is carrying it well, so that might help with the everyday bumps and bruises.  Helu, Jr. can do it all, running to the outside, between the tackles, and catching balls out of the backfield.  With Castille being kicked off the team, Nebraska will be looking for a short yardage power back, and it is unclear if they have anyone able to run through people, something that will surely be tested this season.  An athlete like RFr. TE, Kyler Reed could be that type of player.  TFr. Rex Burkhead soared up the depth chart during fall camp to the number two spot and should see a lot of carries, probably between the tackles. 
Florida Atlantic's rush defense gave up 4.4 yards per carry through last season, and with the injuries and graduations to the two-deep in the front seven, there might be some growing pains.  While the three new starters at linebacker for the Owls are expected, at some point, to become a good Sun Belt crew, first games are always difficult.  This unit will match up against a Nebraska offense that likes to run the football, but will have their own share of new faces in starting roles.  For the Owls, they'd like to be able to slow down the Nebraska running game to put added pressure on QB Zac Lee's arm. 
Last season, Nebraska is converted an excellent 47.19% of their third downs (18th nationally), and is scored on 87% of red-zone opportunities (42 TDs, 12 FGs) (27th nationally).  The Owls' defense allowed their opponents to convert a moderate 37.37% of their third downs (51st nationally), and allowed those opponents to score on just 76% of their red-zone chances (33 TDs, 12 FGs) (19th nationally).  With all of the new starters, it will be an interesting comparison to make to this season's statistics.

Sizing up the lines, Nebraska's average offensive lineman is 6'5", 300 lbs, while Florida Atlantic's average defensive lineman is 6'2.5", 272.5 lbs.  This is a leaner Nebraska line than what has been seen over the past few years.  That should mean this will be a more athletic bunch, but that remains to be seen.  They all have a good amount of experience, starting or not, and should allow them to gel pretty quickly.  Nebraska could be without one of their best linemen on Saturday, however, as RG Keith Williams has been bothered by an injury this week in practice.  Still, with the injuries on Florida Atlantic's defensive line, and lack of depth, they'll be on the field a lot, and this could open the floodgates in the second half when they wear down.  However, Florida Atlantic's defensive line is going to be interesting this season, thanks to a pair of good, young pass rushers on the edges.  How ends Kevin Cyrille and Daniel Joseph are able to match-up against Nebraska tackles Mike Smith and Marcel Jones will be a key area to watch. 

Florida Atlantic's Offense vs. Nebraska's Defense

Florida Atlantic's QB Rusty Smith has been getting a lot of media accolades over the past two seasons, and will look to rebound after a disappointing Junior campaign last year.  Smith is a two time bowl game MVP for the Owls, and is likely to be drafted in next April's NFL draft.  In his last game, the Motor City Bowl against Central Michigan, Smith looked very good, completing 20 of his 35 passes for 306 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions.  That is the type of game he is going to need to have against Nebraska on Saturday if he hopes to lead the Owls over the Huskers.  Last season, Smith completed just 53.80% of his passes, which was a big disappointment after the 58.7% he put up in his Sophomore year.  Nebraska's defense allowed opposing QB's to complete 57.70% of their passes, and return 3 of last year's 4 starters.  Smith had a lot of inconsistencies in his game last year, and has a lot of expectations to live up to this year.  He is fortunate to have a great group of receivers to throw to. 
The Owls' receiving corps has more threats than any other team in the Sun Belt.  They have a good mix of possession type receivers to go along with big bodied, fast home run threats.  WR Cortez Gent is a top playmaker, as are a trio of TE's in Jamari Grant, Jason Harmon, and Rob Housler.  If the offensive line is able to hold off the Nebraska pass rush, Smith will be able to have his pick of all-conference caliber receivers.  This group will present a challenge to any team they face, no matter how highly regarded their pass defense is.  Nebraska starts a lot of youth at linebacker, so their ability to defend the pass has not been greatly tested, and one should expect a lot of action involving the Owl tight ends as well as slants to test that middle.  A bread and butter of the Schnellenberger offense is the screen pass, and will be employed to slow down the Nebraska pass rush, as well as give the young linebackers something extra to think about. 
Nebraska's pass defense was quite porous and inconsistent last season.  They lost just one of the starters from that group, and are expected to be better this season, after gaining more experience in Pelini's defensive schemes.  This probably isn't going to be a great group, but should at least be serviceable.  One key area for this unit to improve on, besides just their coverages, is tackling.  This is a group that missed a lot of tackles last year.  With the weapons that Florida Atlantic has at their disposal, if Nebraska wants to end doubts about the game early, this secondary must be improved over where they were last season.

Florida Atlantic's running game lost a big chunk of their production from last season, thanks to two of their best rushers graduating, but still returns some talent, including FB/RB William Rose.  Rose isn't going to blaze up and down the field with his speed, but runs over would-be tacklers, and is dependable to pick up needed yards on third downs.    The Owls like to run draw plays, and it will be interesting to watch how successful running between the tackles will work against a stingy Nebraska defensive front.  RB Alfred Morris is a former full back, but thanks to some injuries, he moved to running back and took over the starting spot.  He's a powerful runner, at 5'11", 222 lbs., and will have to help take some pressure off of QB Rusty Smith not only this week, but all season long.
Nebraska's defensive front seven should again be tough against the run, as the defensive line will be stout, and the young linebackers are athletic.  The question will be about that young linebacking corps and how quickly they learn to read offenses.  One would think that they'll be better in rush support than pass defense to start out, and one guy to watch is 6'6" Buck LB Sean Fisher.  He's a redshirt Freshman and has been receiving a lot of praise by the coaches in camp.  He's got the athleticism of a safety on a 6'6" frame, which should make him a big asset for the Nebraska defense.
Last season, Florida Atlantic converted 41.71% of their third downs (41st nationally), with a 77% red-zone scoring average (29 TDs, 11 FGs) (82nd nationally).  Nebraska's defense allowed their opponents to convert just 33.73% of their 3rd down attempts (23rd nationally), and allowed an excellent 76% red-zone scoring percentage (29 TDs, 8 FGs) (19th nationally) last season.

Up front, Florida Atlantic's average offensive lineman is 6'4", 298 lbs, while Nebraska's average defensive lineman comes in at 6'4.5", 279 lbs.  Florida Atlantic's offensive line returns three starters from last season, but had a big loss at the center position.  Ryan Wischnefski is going to have his hands full in his first game as a starter.  Not only is he taking over for a four year starter in Nick Paris, but he'll face possibly the best defensive line he'll see all year.  Nebraska NT Ndamukong Suh is one of the nation's best, and might be spending much of the evening in QB Rusty Smith's face if the Owl line can't hold their own.  It is definitely going to be a learning experience for Wischnefski.   

Keys to the Game

1.) Give QB Zac Lee a Comfortable First Start - Offensive line needs to gel early and allow Lee to have time to go through his progressions and find the open man.
2.) Grind it Out on the Ground - Injury laden and having shallow depth, FAU's defensive line should start to give way if you pound on them with Helu Jr. and company.
3.) Get After Rusty Smith - If he's given time, he'll pick the secondary apart.  He struggled under pressure last season.  

Florida Atlantic:
1.) Don't Turn the Ball Over - Have to keep the errors to a minimum, and turning the ball over on the road is a recipe for a blow out.
2.) Get Pressure on Zac Lee - Force Nebraska's new starter into mistakes, hopefully keeping the game within reach.  Eyes will be on Cyrille and Joseph.
3.) Quick Growth from the Youth - A lot of young, inexperienced starters on both sides of the ball.  For the Owls to have a chance, they need to play beyond their years.

Position Advantages

Position: Advantage
QBs: Florida Atlantic
RBs: Nebraska
WR/TE's: Florida Atlantic
OL: Nebraska
DL: Nebraska
LB: Even
DB: Nebraska
Special Teams: Nebraska
Coaching: Nebraska

Injury Report

OG - Keith Williams - Questionable
QB - Kody Spano - Knee - Out for Season

Florida Atlantic:
RG - Carl Spitale - Neck - Probable
RB - Willie Floyd - Probable
DT - Andy Czuprynski - Ankle - Out
DT - Jamere Johnson - Out
RB - Jeff Blanchard - Out for Season

Final Outlook

Saturday will mark the first meeting between Nebraska and Florida Atlantic.  Florida Atlantic began playing football in 2001, joining Division 1 FBS in 2006.  Since 2006, Coach Howard Schnellenberger has led his Owls to victories in both the New Orleans Bowl in 2007 and the Motor City Bowl in 2008.  It's hard to deny Schnellenberger a place near the top of the list of "Program Builders" as Head Coach.  He's most famous for leading Miami to a victory over top ranked Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, winning the school's first national championship.  The last time Schnellenberger coached a game against Nebraska was when he took Oklahoma to Lincoln in 1995.  The top ranked Huskers powered past the Sooners 37-0, helped by two defensive scores.  Obviously, this isn't the same caliber of Nebraska team that Schnellenberger will see on Saturday, but the difference between the two teams meeting this weekend might not be much different.

Florida Atlantic is coming off of a disappointing tie for 3rd place in the Sun Belt conference, a (7-6) finish overall after a victory over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.  Again, expectations are for the Owls to compete for a Sun Belt conference title.  They hope to have a better showing against Nebraska than they fared against Big XII foe Texas to open last season (10-52 loss).  Nebraska opens the 2009 season after finishing (9-4) in 2008.  Nebraska wasn't thought much of last season, as head coach Bo Pelini was hired to replace Bill Callahan, who was fired after an abysmal (5-7) record in 2007.  The nine win season was a surprise to a lot of people, and suddenly, expectations are very high once again for the Huskers.  Nebraska is the favorite to win the Big XII North division, and is ranked in the pre-season for the first time since 2007. 

This is going to be an interesting game, simply because of the QB position for both teams.  For Florida Atlantic, you have a potentially dynamic passer in Rusty Smith that is expected to compete for a number of post-season awards.  For Nebraska, you have a new starter in Zac Lee that hasn't seen meaningful snaps at the college level since he played JUCO ball in 2006.  Smith has the ability to keep the Owls in this game towards the late stages if his offensive line gives him time in the pocket against a tenacious Husker defensive front; while Nebraska is hoping Lee can be a good game manager, make good throws, and not turn the ball over in his first start.  On paper and in practice, Lee has the ability, now he has to transition to a real game.  If he gets some receivers to step up, he'll do very well this season.

Watch for each team to test the opposing linebackers through the air, seeing that each group is young and inexperienced.  It's arguable that Nebraska's LB group has more talent, but when two of your three starters are redshirt freshmen, it does raise an eyebrow.  The big difference between the two teams though, is that Nebraska should have the ability to have a very successful day on the ground.  Nebraska should dominate the Florida Atlantic front seven and rack up nice numbers on the ground.  Florida Atlantic will find it tough sledding against the powerful Nebraska defensive front, and if the Huskers get can collapse the pocket and get after Rusty Smith consistently, it could be over early.  Both teams have plenty of young and/or inexperienced starters, so being the first game of the season, don't expect either to run like a well oiled machine.  Nebraska is favored by about three touchdowns, and that seems about right.

Florida Atlantic - 17
Nebraska - 38


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