-- The Nebraska Cornhuskers come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on UCLA at 4:30 PT. The game will be nationally televised by Fox with Gus Johnson and Charles Davis in the booth and Julie Alexandria on the sideline.
-- Nebraska is ranked 17th/16th in the country.
-- The Cornhuskers are 1-0 on the season, beating Southern Miss, 49-20, at home in Lincoln last week.
-- UCLA is 1-0, beating Rice 49-24 last Thursday.
-- The Nebraska/UCLA series dates back to a first meeting in 1946, and the Cornhuskers hold a 6-4 advantage overall. UCLA, however, leads 3-2 in Los Angeles.
-- UCLA and Nebraska have not met on the football field since 1994, when 2nd-ranked Nebraska beat the Bruins 49-21 in Lincoln. The two teams last played in California in 1993, with Nebraska winning in the Rose Bowl, 14-13.
-- Perhaps one of the most memorable UCLA games in the last 25 years was the Bruins' win over Nebraska in 1988. The Cornhuskers were ranked #2 and UCLA #5, but the Bruins ran over Big Red, 41-28, in the Rose Bowl. UCLA jumped off to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, behind the passing of Troy Aikman and rushing of Eric Ball and Shawn Wills.
-- Another big win over Nebraska came in 1972, when first-year quarterback Mark Harmon beat the Cornhuskers, who had won back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971, and snapped their 32-game win streak. A field goal at the end of the game by UCLA's Efren Herrera won it, 20-17.
-- Nebraska is, of course, one of the most winningest programs in college football history, one of just seven schools with 800 or more all-time victories (847-349-40). It's currently 4th on the all-time wins list, with 847, behind Michigan (895), Texas (860), and Notre Dame (854). It's won five national championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997), and 43 conference championships, while its 48 all-time bowl appearances ranks fourth nationally. Since 1970, NU has 413 wins, #1 in the nation and 26 victories more than any other program in the country.
-- Bo Pelini is in his fifth season as Nebraska's head coach, owning a 40-16 record, guiding the Cornhuskers to nine or more wins in each of his first four seasons. Pelini took charge of the Nebraska program after being a defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. He coached in the NFL for nine seasons before that. Pelini, then, is known for his defensive teams, and has had the Cornhuskers ranked highly in many defensive statistics since taking over as head coach. Even though Pelini has brought Nebraska back to consistent national prominence, he still had to defend his program late last season against the incredibly high expectations of Nebraska fans.
-- Nebraska four consecutive nine-win seasons is its first since the school's NCAA-record streak of 33 from 1969 to 2001.
-- The Cornhuskers will be in the their second year in the Big Ten. In its first year in 2011, it did moderately well, with a couple of big wins over Michigan State and Penn State, but losses to Northwestern, Winsconsin and Michigan. It ended its 2011 campaign with a disappointing loss to South Carolina, 30-13, in the Capital One Bowl, to finish the 2011 season 9-4.
-- UCLA played eight true freshmen last week in its season opener, OL Simon Goines, WR Jordan Payton, F Kenny Walker, DB Ishmael Adams, DB Fabian Moreau, DL Ellis McCarthy, PK Ka'imi Fairbairn, and DB Randall Goforth.
-- UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin became the first UCLA running back with two runs of 72 yards or more in a game (74/78). He is now only 32 yards shy of moving into 7th on the all-time school rushing list.
-- UCLA has won 21 of its last 26 non-conference matchups in the Rose Bowl (dating back to 1998).
The Bruins have won eight of their last 15 home games against AP-ranked opponents. Last season it lost to #24 Texas and beat #20 Arizona State.
-- Check out UCLA and Nebraska in national statistical rankings after the first week.
The Rose Bowl is in the midst of completing renovations worth $165 million, and the official word is that it won't impact fans much, even though the work is not completed. The improvements will include a new press box, less cluttered stadium rim, wider tunnels, added aisles, restoration of the historic field hedge, and added concession and added restrooms, but we are unsure what specific additions will be completed by Saturday. The renovations have been over budget and behind schedule, and at one point Rose Bowl officials estimated that the entire renovation job might not be completed until late 2014.
-- The weather forecast at the Rose Bowl is for a high of 91 and a low of 69 degrees on Saturday.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NEBRASKA'S DEFENSE
More and more in college football, so much of a defense's success from week to week has to do with the type of offense it faces. Luckily for the Nebraska defense, UCLA's offense isn't that far off from the Southern Miss offense it saw last week.
In that game, the Cornhusker defense allowed just 260 yards, which sounds effective, since it was against a Southern Miss team you'd think should be pretty good offensively, having one of the best offenses in the country in 2011. But the Golden Eagles are a rebuilding team from the one that went 12-2 in 2011, especially on offense, where it platooned three quarterbacks against Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers' defense looked a bit vulnerable against Southern Miss, particularly in run defense, allowing 185 yards rushing. Nebraska was consistently fooled against Souther Miss's zone read and option, especially against the quarterback that was athletic and could run. It was an issue in 2011 with Nebraska, with the Cornhuskers getting somewhat run over in its first year in the big, bad running conference of the Big Ten. In the off-season, Bo Pelini shuffled his staff a little, replacing his departed brother, Carl, at defensive coordinator with his DL coach, John Papuchis, and then hiring a new line coach, Rick Kaczenski, who came from Iowa.
What might be just okay in the Big Ten against the run, however, could be monstrous against a Pac-12 team. Up front, Nebraska should have one of the best defensive lines UCLA will face all season. Anchoring the line are two seniors, tackle Baker Steinkuhler (6-6, 290) and end Cameron Meredith (6-4, 260). Steinkuhler is every coach's dream, a two-year starter at DT who is on a list of pre-season watch lists that stayed for his senior season and graduated in 3 1/2 years. If the name is familiar he's the son of Nebraska legend, Dean Steinkuhler. Meredith, a former Mater Dei player, has the most career starts of anyone in the program (28). There's also one more returning starter, end Jason Ankruh (6-4, 265), who was considered a big recruit but has yet to live up to the hype, and they platoon at the other DT spot, using sophomore Chase Rome (6-3, 285) while junior Thad Randle (6-1, 295) continues to get himself back to full strength after a late-season knee injury in 2011. But Rome is considered one of their stars-to-be.
|Nebraska linebacker Will Compton.|
Perhaps the defense's weakest unit is the linebackers, having to replace two starters from 2011, including its leading tackler. The leader of the defense, though, is its middle linebacker, senior Will Compton (6-2, 230). Compton is another guy you wish you had three of, not only good physically and athletically but mentally, and a natural leader. He led the Cornhuskers last week with 12 tackles and a sack, and you can expect to hear his name mentioned quite a bit Saturday. At their "Buck" and "Will" spots are two seniors stepping into to start for the first time, Sean Fisher (6-6, 230) and Alonzo Whaley (6-1, 230). Fisher was a spot starter last season, after missing all of 2010 with a broken leg. At 6-6, he tends to be used more against the run than in pass coverage, so he might be on the sideline against UCLA's spread quite bit. Whaley has been a solid guy throughout his career, but a three-year back-up is a sign that Nebraska isn't greatly talented or deep at linebacker.
The secondary was its best unit in 2011, but it's going to need some guys to step up in 2012 to replicate that. It does have senior safety Daimion Stafford (6-1, 205), who was recruited highly as a JC player, choosing Nebraska over USC and Florida, among others, and he's proven his worth by being a big hitter. The other returning starter is junior cornerback Andrew Green (6-0, 195), who proved himself over the second-half of last season. After Stafford and Green, Nebraska hopes some other guys will now prove themselves. Senior safety P.J. Smith (6-2, 210) is a big kid who plays more like a linebacker in run support. He's earned his stripes over the years as a very good special teams player. He platoons with sophomore Harvey Jackson (6-2, 210) since neither has really won the job outright. California boy, sophomore Josh Mitchell (5-11, 155) got his first start at the other corner spot, but it's a position of concern. All-Everything JC transfer Mohammed Seisay (6-2, 200) was expected to come in and immediately own the spot but he's been bothered by a nagging ankle injury. He didn't suit up last week against Southern Miss but practiced this week.
UCLA's new, fledgling offense went for a test run last week against Rice and, for the most part, looked good. But the Owls can't really prepare you for playing against Cornhuskers, who are just bigger, faster and more athletic man to man.
UCLA's offense line could be a bit in shock when it sees the speed and athleticism of Nebraska's DL compared to Rice's. Last week, UCLA's interior OL, guards Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jeff Baca and center Jake Brendel, really had their way with the RIce interior DL, but we can't expect it to be as
Of course, the other big question for UCLA's offense will be how freshman quarterback Brett Hundley will fare against a real BCS defense. He got his feet wet last week against Rice, going 21 for 28 for 202 yards in his debut, but the Nebraska secondary will do far more to confuse and befuddle him than Rice's. A big, obvious element in this game will be Hundley's ability to run, which Nebraska will have to be keying on after Southern Miss freshman quarterback Anthony Alford exploited them with his legs for 84 yards on 15 carries.
We've been saying that UCLA's skill guys were ready to bust out in UCLA's new offense after being under wraps for so long in the program, and you got a little bit of a glimpse of that last week. Nine players caught passes, and it seemed like there was one shifty guy after another getting his hands on the ball. Jordon James looked like he gained some confidence, actually having the chance to run with the defense in front of him for a change, and Damien Thigpen looked explosive in the called-back touchdown.
Of course, tailback Johnathan Franklin looked very impressive, particularly explosive through the line, but he's going to have quite a few more guys getting their hands on him before he gets into the secondary this week.
We've said it so often, but it still has to be said every week: 6-8 Joseph Fauria presents match-up problems -- against any defense. Last week he caught three balls, one for a touchdown, but it still feels like he could be exploited more.
It's a tough call since we just don't have much to go on. There's no way you can take away anything from UCLA's offensive performance against Rice. We do feel we can take away a little more from Nebraska's somewhat suspect defensive effort against Southern Miss.
The strategic chess game is easy to predict, though: Nebraska is going to stack the box, try to take away UCLA's running game, shut down Franklin and contain Hundley, and then challenge Hundley to beat them through the air. It's easy to expect that Nebraska will blitz quite a bit, too, trying to get into the UCLA backfield to disrupt Hundley, and have confidence that their secondary will be able to cover UCLA's receivers long enough to get Hundley to panic. The Cornhuskers were generally pretty good last week, too, against Southern Miss, in pressing and smothering Southern Miss's receivers in the flat. Nebraska's big defensive weakness in 2011 was an inability to mount a pass rush or get many tackles for loss and it didn't look like it solved that too much against Southern Miss. The only way it seemingly can do it is to dedicate more men to the box and to blitzing than UCLA has to block.
So, it's then just as easy to predict that UCLA's offensive success will rely on a smart game plan that is going to aggressively put many receivers in the pattern and throw quickly and more vertically. Perhaps less swing passes, and more quick slants and digs seem like they should be the order of the day, with UCLA also probably trying to move Hundley's launch point enough to keep the Nebraska pass rush guessing.
We, though, are going to go out on a limb and assert that Nebraska's defense, while on a completely different level than Rice's, still isn't a dominating one. It didn't dominate Southern Miss, and probably won't be able to match up against UCLA's spread. It can possibly take away some things UCLA could do -- like running the ball -- but we feel if it dedicates extra men to doing that UCLA's new scheme under Mazzone is going to exploit it.
NEBRASKA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
It was perhaps the biggest surprise of the first week of college football -- that Nebraska's quarterback Taylor Martinez (6-1, 205) completed 26 of 34 for 354 yards and five touchdowns. Martinez was best known as a very good running quarterback, rushing for 874 yards in 2011 and 1839 in his career coming into this season, which put him in line to probably end up Nebraska's top running quarterback of all-time, which is quite a statement. But last week Martinez ran for just 10 yards on 6 carries. Only a couple of those plays, too, were designed for him to run. Martinez, last week, became a throwing quarterback.
So much, too, has been written about Martinez's ability to throw, how much time he spent in the summer trying to revamp and hone his throwing mechanics, etc. In 2011 he truly had one of the worst throwing motions of any quarterback in college football and, last week against Souther Miss, you could see the footwork and mechanics had improved. He's still not Troy Aikman by any means, but he clearly has improved his ability to throw the ball. Against Souther Miss, even though the mechanics broke down a bit at times, he far more consistently delivered a very accurately-thrown, strong, catchable ball. It was also against a not-too-bad Southern Miss defense whose strength was supposed to be their secondary.
What really helps out Martinez is the fact that Nebraska might have one of the best receiver groups in the Big Ten. Sophomore Kenny Bell (6-1, 185) was the surprise of the 2011 season, when the speedster led the team in receptions as a freshman. He only caught one ball last week but he's a big homerun threat. The go-to guy last week was junior Quincy Enunwa (6-2, 215), a guy who doesn't have the top-end speed but showed he was really strong on the ball and hard to move off his route. Perhaps the scariest guy is Kyler Reed (6-3, 230), who looks like a linebacker but runs like a receiver, so he can catch it short or take it over the top. Then there are waves of guys that can burn you, like sophomores Tyler Wullenwaber (61, 195), Tyler Evans (6-1, 200) and Jamal Turner (6-1, 185), and junior tight end Jake Long (6-4, 240). All of them caught passes against Southern Miss, as Martinez spread around the love to 10 total receivers.
Senior tight end Ben Cotton I6-6, 255) is expected back this week, but he's primarily a blocking tight end.
Nebraska is probably just as deep at tailback. Senior Rex Burkhead (5-11, 210) is a stud, earning pre-season second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated. He's strong, compact, runs straight ahead with power, and can get into the secondary and finish. He had a 57-yard touchdown last week, the longest of his career, but then suffered an MCL sprain later in the game. He hasn't practiced this week, and it's probably unlikely he plays. But it's not as if Nebraska will drop off much, with some guys behind Burkhead who are, really, scarier. Sophomore Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 185) stepped in and easily picked up the slack, running for a game-high 81 yards on 15 carries. He looks and runs quite a bit like
|Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah.|
A big question coming into the season was the offensive line, since it had to replace four starters from a year ago. The one Nebraska has put together certainly isn't the kind you'd expect; they're mammoth, five-star guys, but kind of a hodgepodge of over-achievers. The mainstay is senior guard Spencer Long (6-4, 305), the former walk-on, who is a strong run-blocker. The other senior guard is Seung Hoon Choi (6-2, 290), another former walk-on who is fairly quick but isn't the road-grater than Long is. Senior Justin Jackson (6-3, 280) won the starting center spot, in kind of a lesser-of-two evils situation in fall camp. Outside, junior tackle Jeremiah Sirles (6-6, 310) has been trying to come back from shoulder surgery last season. Another guy whose career has been slowed by shoulder surgery is junior Brent Qvale (6-7, 315), who stepped into the vital left tackle spot, after the leading contender for the job, Tyler Moore, left the team in fall. Qvale is still learning on the job after his first start last week. The line's strengh is definitely run blocking over pass protection.
UCLA's defense, if it plays like it did against Rice, is going to get bulldozed against Nebraska. UCLA's front seven didn't look great against Rice's running game, allowing the Owls to run for 174 yards. That translates to about 500 yards against Nebraska. The UCLA DL didn't generally play well as a unit, with so many linemen doing the same UCLA DL Dance of twisting and twirling out of the play, which basically opened up huge holes to run through. Defensive end Datone Jones was one good bright spot, holding up his blocker and making some plays.
The linebacking unit is facing a challenge this week. Last week it didn't look good against the run, constantly being surprised by Rice's option on both the edge and inside. It could get worse this week with the uncertainty of the availability of Jordan Zumwalt, who sat out some of the Rice game. It wasn't encouraging, either, that the guy who is hyped to be the star of the unit,
UCLA's secondary is going probably going to be left on an one-on-one island much like it was in the first half of the Rice game. The DBs didn't look particularly bad, keeping Rice's receivers in front of them, but now they'll be facing Nebraska's wave of receiving talent.
It's lucky for UCLA's defense that they didn't open the season against Nebraska, because now the UCLA defensive brain trust realizes it's going up against a passing offense rather than primarily a running one. It's not often that a Nebraska team gained more yards passing (354) than rushing (278).
But therein lies the dilemma. If UCLA goes for mostly the nickel and dime it used in the second half against Rice, which was its most effective, it's going to give up ground to Nebraska's punishing running game. If it opts to dedicate more defenders to the line of scrimmage and try to take away Nebraska's ability to run, it appears, after last week, that Martinez is now fully capable of exploiting you.
Nebraska last week came out in many different formations, using double-tights quite often and a conventional I-back look, but then also moving into a spread seamlessly, sometimes with no huddle.
No matter what, after how UCLA's defense looked merely in pursuit and tackling last week against Rice, it doesn't bode well for the Bruins' defense against Nebraska. If UCLA can be successful against the Cornhuskers it will have to be a brilliant coaching performance by UCLA Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos and Mora.
Nebraska kicker Brett Maher was very dependable in 2011, missing just one field goal attempt from within 50 yards. But last week, in one game, he missed two. Maher is also the punter, and he punted just once last week, and shanked it for 21 yards.
Ameer Abdullah is the punt returner and he was dangerous last week, almost breakking a couple. Kenny Bell also looked like he could break one on kick-off return.
UCLA had an adventure last week in place-kicking, with true freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn missing three extra points. UCLA also had a fumbled kick-off return and a bungled punt return. UCLA does have punter Jeff Locke, who could be a big weapon.
It's difficult to conclude anything from last week's opponents of UCLA and Nebraska. Both were Conference USA teams, and UCLA played Rice on the road and Nebraska had Southern Miss at home.
UCLA, actually, is very similar to Southern Miss. It runs a somewhat similar spread, and mostly nickel and dime alignments on defense. It had a running quarterback, and what looked like a fairly talented DL and secondary. The Golden Eagles, however, did have an experienced and pretty talented offensive line. All in all, UCLA, very well might look pretty similar to Southern Miss against Nebraska. The 49-20 score was a bit misleading, with Southern Miss answering Nebraska tit-for-tat in the first half, being tied at 14-14, until Southern Miss dropped some wide-open passes and committed some boneheaded turnovers and you looked up and Nebraska was up 35-17 in a few minutes.
What heavily tips this game toward Nebraska is projecting its offense against UCLA's defense. If you go by what we saw last week, UCLA would have to come out onto the Rose Bowl field and be a completely different defense for it to have a decent chance against Nebraska's now two-dimensional attack. UCLA didn't look strong against the run, and running the ball is Nebraska's strength. Nebraska will try to exploit the softness in the middle of the field, and UCLA was particularly soft there last week.
There is a crack in the armor, though: Nebraska's OL isn't great at pass protection, and if UCLA can put pressure on Martinez he showed he can revert to some pretty bad throwing mechanics.
Nebraska's defense didn't look scary at all. In fact, you could see UCLA's offense actually being effective, if it dictates play -- like forcing Nebraska to defend four wide receivers, instead of playing it conservatively and allowing Nebraska to stack the box. It could lead to Hundley having a good game throwing the ball, or also letting him throw quite a bit could also lead to a good amount of picks.
Both offenses, probably, are going to be able to score. But with UCLA's offense being run by a freshman in just his second game, it's going to hiccup quite a bit more often.
We'll take some points away from Nebraska since it's their first away game of the season, and add a few for UCLA, being its first home game.