-- UCLA travels to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, Saturday morning to take on the Cornhuskers at 9:00 AM PST. The game will be televised by ABC with Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman in the booth, and Shannon Spake on the sideline.
-- Nebraska is ranked 23rd/15th in the country, with a drastic disparity between the Associated Press and Coaches poll.
-- UCLA is ranked 16th/17th in the country.
-- The Cornhuskers are 2-0 on the season, winning a 37-34 nail-biter against Wyoming in week 1 at home, and then blowing out Southern Miss in week two, 56-13.
-- UCLA is 1-0, beating Nevada 58-20 in Week 1 and then having a bye week this past weekend.
-- Over the bye weekend, the Bruins suffered the tragic loss of walkon wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who was killed by a vehicle in the early morning on Sunday. Pasquale had received his first game action against Nevada after redshirting last year. In honor of Pasquale, the Bruins will wear a No. 36 patch on their uniforms, while the Cornhuskers will wear a No. 36 decal on their helmets.
-- Saturday's game marks the second half of the home and home between the Bruins and Cornhuskers that began last season. In that game, unranked UCLA shocked Nebraska with a 36-30 victory that jump-started the Bruins' season.
-- In that game, UCLA gained 653 yards of total offense, which was the second most yards ever allowed by a Nebraska defense. UCLA's defense allowed 439 yards of offense to the Cornhuskers last year, but notably held them to 102 in the second half. The victory was just the second for UCLA in the last eight meetings between the two teams. Nebraska leads the all-time series between the two teams 6-5.
-- The last time UCLA faced Nebraska in Lincoln, the Bruins lost 49-21 in 1994 to the then No. 2-ranked Cornhuskers.
-- Nebraska has been ranked in each of the last 10 meetings between the two teams. Conversely, the Bruins have been ranked in just five of the twelve meetings between the the schools (including the upcoming game on Saturday).
-- There have been some memorable games in the series between the two schools, with the No. 5 Bruins knocking off No. 2 Nebraska in 1988, 41-28. In 1972, UCLA, led by quarterback Mark Harmon, beat the Huskers at home, ending Nebraska's 32-game winning streak.
-- Since 2002, UCLA's record in the month of September is 28-14. In that same time period, outside of the month of September, the Bruins are 45-54. In a quirk of the schedule, UCLA plays just two games in September this year.
-- This game will mark the first time Nebraska has hosted a non-conference, ranked opponent since No. 1 USC visited in 2007. In its last four games at home against ranked opponents, Nebraska is 4-0.
-- Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini is in his sixth season with the Cornhuskers and holds a 51-20 record. Despite the gaudy record, Pelini has drawn the ire of many Nebraska fans for the shoddy defense played by the Huskers over the past two years. Pelini's defenses have been gashed considerably in that time, with the most recent example being Wyoming's 602 yards in the opener. To his credit, Pelini has guided the Huskers to at least nine wins in each of his first five seasons with the team.
-- This marks Nebraska's third year in the Big Ten after switching over from its longtime affiliation with the Big 12. Last year, the Huskers finished 7-1 in conference, but lost badly in the Big Ten Championship game to Wisconsin (70-31) before earning a trouncing from No. 7 Georgia (45-31) in the Capital One Bowl.
-- 15 true freshmen saw action in UCLA's home opener against Nevada: Cameron Judge, Isaac Savaiinaea, Jayon Brown, Deon Hollins, Myles Jack, Kenny Clark, Kylie Fitts, Eddie Vanderdoes, Tahaan Goodman, Sean Covington, Jalen Ortiz, Darren Andrews, Thomas Duarte, Alex Redmond, and Caleb Benenoch. Last year, when much was made about UCLA playing many young players, the Bruins used 12 true freshmen the entire year. To break the school record for true freshmen playing in a season, the Bruins would have to use three more.
-- Much was made in the off-season about UCLA having to replace the production of running back Johnathan Franklin. In the home opener on August 31st, UCLA rushed for over 300 yards, with Jordon James gashing the Wolfpack for 155 yards by himself.
-- In non conference road games since 2000, the Bruins are 9-7.
-- The Huskers will wear alternate uniforms for the game on Saturday. Nebraska will debut new adidas TECHFIT black jerseys, featuring white stencil font numbers, a matte white helmet with a wide black stripe, and a face mask that fades from red to matte black.
-- The forecast for Saturday in Lincoln is 76 degrees with a 10% chance of rain.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NEBRASKA'S DEFENSE
The Nebraska defense under Bo Pelini has become the program's bugaboo. A defensive specialist, Pelini, in his first two seasons at Nebraska, instituted a high-standard of defense – or you could say re-instituted the traditional high-standard of Nebraska defense. In those first two years, the Cornhusker defense was ranked 10th and 9th. The last two, 36th and 22nd. Still respectable, but it was an indication of a decline. Last season Nebraska's rushing defense was 95th in the country. In its last two games of the 2012 season, the defense gave up an average of 614 yards, including 539 yards rushing to Wisconsin. In the off-season, the Cornhusker mantra was that Pelini was going to spend more time with the Nebraska defense in practice. It was thought second-year coordinator John Papuchis, along with a number of defensive coaches, were new last season and they'd be acclimated this season.
It's kind of a good-news/bad-news scenario when 8 starters are gone from that 2012 defense.
But so far in 2013, it seems like it's more of a bad news scenario. In fact, you could assert that the defense, ranked 90th in the country overall, continues to be the issue for Nebraska in its first two games, especially going against what were thought to be two fairly pedestrian offenses in Wyoming and Southern Mississippi.
And what was expected to be the team's defensive strength, pass defense, has looked like its weakness. It's currently 103rd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (303).
The big question defensively coming into the season was the front seven, since it had just one returning starter among the defensive line and linebackers, and, as we stated, the rushing defense from 2012 was atrocious. So far, after two games, it hasn't been as bad as expected, but it could also be that Wyoming, which did the most damage against the Cornhuskers, did so through the air (383 yards passing). Wyoming is a passing offense and it still ran for 219 yards.
Senior Jason Ankrah (6-4, 265), who is a solid defensive end, is the one lone returning starter in the front seven from 2012, and he's surrounded by a very young defensive line. Last season against UCLA, the consensus was that UCLA wore down a thin Nebraska defensive line, and Pelini admitted a mistake in redshirting some young DLs last season. The theory now is that they'll be prepared this season with many bodies, albeit young bodies. After Ankrah, there is senior defensive tackle Thad Randle (6-1, 290), who has been mostly a journeyman in his Nebraska career. The rest of the Nebraska defensive line two-deep is made up entirely of sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen. It appears that sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory (6-6, 250), a JC transfer, might be the guy to watch. You have to concede it was against Southern Miss, but Gregory had a good game coming off the edge.
|Linebacker Josh Banderas.|
Redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine (6-3, 325) is the other starting DT, and it was pretty late in fall camp that he won the job. He's big, but raw, and the reports are that he got a bit winded going against the hurry-up spreads of Wyoming and Southern Miss in the first two games. Wyoming was able to run effectively right through the middle of Nebraska's DL, and you would think UCLA, with its strong interior OL, will be looking to run right over Valentine.
The linebacking unit has all new starters from a year ago, and the unit is, obviously, inexperienced and, like the DL, very young. There is only one upperclassmen in the two deep, and that's a junior, and two starters are true freshmen. It has to be especially difficult when your MIKE, essentially the quarterback of the defense, is a true freshman, and that's Josh Banderas (6-2, 225). Banderas got decent reviews in his performance against Southern Miss, but he has to be "swimming" a bit in terms of reads and calls, not to mention actually playing. Freshman Nathan Gerry (6-2, 210) is listed as the strongside linebacker, but is kind of a mini-linebacker type used quite a bit in the Cornhusker nickel and dime looks, which they utilized quite a bit in their first two games. Gerry's strong suit is his speed, being the former South Dakota high school 200- and 100-meter champion. Against UCLA's spread, these two will probably get the bulk of the reps at linebacker, and then redshirt freshman Michael Rose (5-11, 230) will get the most time spelling Banderas, and junior Zaire Anderson (5-11, 220) will see action in relief of Gerry. Sophomore David Santos (6-0, 225) started the opener against Wyoming at middle linebacker and had 12 tackles, but he was relegated to third string for Southern Miss because he missed a number of calls. The unit looked like it was getting its feet wet against Wyoming and Southern Miss, and now it will be full-on swimming against UCLA.
The Nebraska secondary was thought to be its strongest defensive unit coming into the season, with two returning starters, from a unit that allowed just 168 yards passing per game in 2012. So far in 2013, it hasn't lived up to that standard, allowing 605 total yards in two games, ranking it 103rd in the nation. Yes, it was against two spread teams in Wyoming and Southern Miss, but it was against Wyoming and Southern Miss.
Two returning starters, senior Ciante Evans (5-11, 185) and junior Corey Cooper (6-1, 210), have struggled some. Evans, primarily Nebraska's nickel back, was easily one of Nebraska's best defenders last season, and he's been trying to step up to be a leader of the defense. Cooper, who is mostly a safety but plays some corner and nickel, too, had a spotty year in 2012 and looks a bit overwhelmed so far in 2013. At the other corner has been junior Josh Mitchell (5-11, 160), who shares time with a guy getting some pub, converted wide receiver, senior Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 220). Jean-Baptiste looks huge out there, like a tight end playing cornerback, and he's had a couple of nice interceptions in the first two games. He, however, doesn't necessarily look lightning quick, so match-ups against UCLA's quicker receivers will be interesting. At the other safety spot is junior Harvey Jackson (6-2, 210), so when Nebraska utilizes Jackson, Jean-Baptiste and Cooper, they practically look bigger than their linebacking unit. But, there does seem to be a lack of quickness when Nebraska goes big in the back.
UCLA's offense is in great shape heading into Nebraska. There were two big questions heading into the season: 1) How would UCLA replace departed running back Johnathan Franklin? And 2) Who would step up to be the one new starting OL, and would that guy be a liability? Even though the first game was against a poor Nevada defense, both of those questions were answered in UCLA's first game. Against Nevada, UCLA ran for a total of 354 yards, with starting tailback Jordon James getting 156 on his own. True freshman Alex Redmond plugged into the starting offensive line at right guard, and had a very impressive showing – in fact, having the best performance among the UCLA OL.
UCLA, of course, is as good as its quarterback, Brett Hundley, is on any given Saturday. He was good against Nevada two weeks ago, even though he didn't try to do too much. Overall, watching him through fall practice, he's improved over last season, better physically, quicker and definitely faster, has a stronger arm and is far better in his decision-making. That's really bad news for Nebraska's defense, who allowed Hundley to throw for 305 yards on 21-of-33 passing and four touchdowns, while adding 53 rushing yards – in just his second college start. It naturally stands to reason that Hundley, being so much more experienced and just plain better, potentially could top his performance against Nebraska from a year ago.
James looked very good in his debut as the starter against Nevada, but UCLA's running game was also bolstered by redshirt freshman Paul Perkins, sophomore Steven Manfro and senior Malcolm Jones, who combined for another 101 yards from the tailback spot.
Hundley threw a completion to an amazing 12 receivers against Nevada. On top of the list is go-to wideout Shaquelle Evans, but slot guy Devin Fuller showed flashes of the explosiveness he's had in spring and fall practice.
Redmond was perhaps the best surprise of the Nevada game. If you consider him to be a good addition, it makes UCLA's offensive line start to look like a strength of the team, plugging him in along with four returning starters, one of whom is Xavier Su'a-Filo, perhaps one of the handful best offensive linemen in the country. The interior OL against Nevada, with Su'a-Filo, Redmond and center Jake Brendel, was particularly devastating in run blocking.
Here's a pretty easy measuring stick: Last year, UCLA, against Nebraska, scored 36 points, gained 653 total yards, and rushed for 344 yards. It's not a stretch to assert that UCLA's offense has improved and Nebraska's defense is worse. At best, it's about the same.
Nebraska might have some elements on its side. The game, of course, is at home, at a loud Memorial Stadium, which has to affect visiting offenses. The Cornhuskers didn't really know too much of what to expect from UCLA's offense a year ago, and now they've played a game against it and have a season-worth of film. Nebraska has faced two spread offenses in the last two weeks, so UCLA's offense shouldn't be a shock. Pelini and the Nebraska defensive coaches have made it an emphasis to shuttle through fresh players on the defense, almost as a direct answer to the UCLA game last season when the Nebraska defense was clearly worn down. In its first two games, Nebraska's defense has gone deep into its bench.
There are, too, some indicators that, perhaps, it could be worse this season for Nebraska's defense in facing UCLA's offense. Nebraska's D is by far younger and more inexperienced. It's starting two true freshmen linebackers. It allowed Wyoming, a pass-oriented spread offense, to run for 219 yards, and the Cowboys did a great deal of it by running right through the heart of Nebraska's D. You'd have to naturally think UCLA would be better at doing this than Wyoming. Hundley is better. Nebraska had a difficult time with the Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith, who is a Hundley-esque QB, and he not only passed for 383 yards but ran for 92. UCLA's offensive players are far more experienced in OC Noel Mazzone's scheme and it looked like Mazzone went pretty vanilla against Nevada to not give away too much to Nebraska.
Nebraska, in its first two games, has just one sack. It couldn't get consistent pressure against Wyoming or Southern Miss. In the Wyoming game, it gave Smith a great deal of time to cut open the Nebraska secondary. If Hundley, who was barely touched in the Nevada game, has a good amount of time he's going to husk the Cornhuskers' pass defense, and also make a big difference with his feet.
It would have to go against most logical indicators to predict that Nebraska's defense was going to win this match-up.
NEBRASKA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Nebraska in 2012 was led by its offense, which was 8th in the nation in rushing (253 yards per game) and 26th overall (460 per game).
The Cornhusker offense took off because its quarterback Taylor Martinez (now a senior, 6-1, 210) really came into his own in 2012, setting school records with 3,890 yards of total offense and 33 touchdowns, passing and rushing. His totals for passing yards and touchdown passes were both the third most in Nebraska history, and combine that with Martinez being the fourth Nebraska quarterback to ever run for over 1,000 yards and you have a pretty devastating offensive weapon.
So far, this season, in two games, he's essentially continued on that pace, having thrown for 325 yards and six touchdowns and then running for 115 yards.
The book on Martinez is he'll get about 170-200 yards passing per game, and be efficient enough passing that you have to honor it. But he'll kill you with his running ability. Last year against the Bruins he threw for 179 yards but then ran for 112, including a devastating 92-yard touchdown scamper.
His bugaboo has traditionally been his turnovers, last year throwing 12 interceptions and losing 8 fumbles. So far this season, however, he's thrown just one interception.
It's pretty clear what Nebraska's offense is going to try to do, and that's run the ball. They're 8th in the nation after two games, averaging 330 per game, with a quarterback who can earn big chunks of yards on the ground and a talented group of running backs. Junior running back Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 190) is a Johnathan Franklin-type, quick at the line of scrimmage who can break tackles and get YAC. He's run for exactly 114 yards in each of the first two games, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Behind him is a talented true freshman UCLA recruitniks are familiar with, Terrell Newby (5-10, 185), a L.A. local boy who went to West Hills Chaminade whom, basically, Nebraska out-recruited UCLA to get. He's looked good in his first two college games, explosive and more physical than you might have expected. There's also sophomore Imani Cross (6-1, 225), who's the thunder change of pace to Adbullah and Newby. Between the three of them, they're averaging over 230 yards per game and 6 yards per carry.
|Receiver Kenny Bell.|
It's not as if, though, Nebraska is a run-only offense without a passing game. The Cornhuskers have a good amount of talent at receiver and return all three of their top guys from 2012, and all three are currently leading Nebraska in receiving for 2013. Junior Kenny Bell (6-1, 185) is the go-to guy, and he's grown into a leader on the team, making some critical statements of the Cornhuskers after they barely pulled out the season opener against Wyoming. There's also senior Quincy Enunwa (6-2, 225) and junior Jamal Turner (6-1, 185), and between the three of them in 2012 they had 124 catches and 1750 yards. In Nebraska's multiple-set offense, you'll commonly see all three in the pattern at the same time. Bell is the speedy deep threat, while Enunwa is more of the possession guy. The offense hasn't looked at senior tight end Jake Long (6-4, 240) much in the first two games, and it's a position Nebraska traditionally utilizes a good deal. A player to watch is redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp (6-0, 200), who reportedly had a good spring and fall and the Nebraska faithful believe is the next big thing at receiver.
Nebraska will throw to its running backs probably about five times a game, too, and Abdullah can be tough when he's out in space.
Nebraska's offensive line is a solid one, led by All Big-Ten senior right guard Spencer Long (6-4, 315), who is considered an All-American-type candidate. Two seniors man the tackle spots in Jeremiah Sirles (6-6, 310) and Andrew Rodriguez (6-6, 330), while Senior Brett Qvale (6-7, 315) also gets some time at left tackle for Sirles. All three are veterans who are definitely in the huge, mammoth mold rather than the quicker type. Nebraska had to find two new starters inside, and have plugged in junior Jake Cotton (6-6, 305) at left guard and senior Cole Pensick (6-2, 275) at center, and both have gotten generally good reviews from their first two games. Pensick is considered a bit undersized, and that 275 might even be a little stretch. There's also some depth, too, with Qvale and a JC transfer they like, Matt Finnin (6-6-7, 305), at tackle. Nebraska, of course, has always prided itself on its superior offensive line and for a number of years it wasn't that. This season this offensive line is being hailed as the best Cornhusker OL in a long time, and a throw-back to the dominating OLs of yesteryear.
UCLA's defensive line had a decent game against Nevada, conceding 171 yards rushing, which is pretty good when you're going up against what is one of the best running offenses in the nation (even if they are Mountain West). Nevada, even though it runs out of the Pistol, is about as effective a running team as Nebraska (7th and 8th in rushing in the nation for 2012, respectively). The UCLA DL looked a little shaky to begin the game and then, with the notorious UCLA defensive adjustments at halftime, did quite a bit better. It settled down, stopped trying to do too much, stayed more disciplined in its assignments and far more effective. Freshman Eddie Vanderdoes looked like a monster at defensive end, even though it was mostly against the fatigued Wolfpack in the second half, but you can probably bet he'll be seeing more time against Nebraska. Senior defensive end Cassius Marsh, who has been a beast all fall, didn't have a good game, mostly because he lost his cool, committed a personal foul and sat for a good portion of the night. We'd expect Marsh, in his money year, to settle down, most likely starting with Nebraska. It will be interesting to watch Nebraska's huge offensive tackles try to stay in front of explosive freshman DE/LB Deon Hollins.
UCLA's young secondary had a good showing two weeks ago, limiting Nevada to 182 yards passing and not getting burned on any big plays. The young corners, Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau, are going to get tested on a completely different level, however, against Nebraska's receivers.
Saying that Nebraska's offense has an advantage here doesn't mean they're going to dominate UCLA's defense. But they should have an edge. After watching UCLA's run defense against Nevada, we think Nebraska is going to be able to run the ball enough, probably about as much as it did last year (260 yards). And it will probably exploit UCLA's young secondary enough to have some balance offensively. UCLA will be looking to take away Martinez by containing his legs, but also harassing him in the pocket. When he's hurried and off-balance he loses quite a bit of his effectiveness throwing the ball, since he isn't a natural passer. But even without Martinez running for 100+ yards, we think the Cornhuskers and their good offensive line will be able to move the ball and put a good amount of points on the board.
UCLA's defensive brain trust will certainly throw some wrinkles at Martinez, with some blitz packages that they didn't show against Nevada. It will be UCLA's athletic pass rush against the huge Nebraska OL, and we think the quicker Bruins will have some moments in that match-up, but Martinez is tough to hold down for four quarters.
If this match-up goes by script, UCLA's defense will make adjustments at halftime and probably be far more effective in the second half. The Bruins have the conditioning advantage, with some great depth in the front seven, going up against some big Nebraska OLs who will probably get fatigued chasing around Barr and Hollins. So, if the Bruins can limit Nebraska's points in the first half that'd be a good sign.
Nebraska's offense is about as good as it was last season, perhaps slightly better. UCLA's defense is probably a bit better than last year, and better up front, where it probably counts the most against Nebraska. So, look for this match-up to look just about the same as it did last year.
The expectation heading into the spring was that Mauro Bondi, the talented sophomore, would take over kicking duties for departed Brett Maher after handling kickoff duties this past year. However, Nebraska received a stroke of good fortune in the form of Pat Smith, a fifth year transfer from Western Illinois who won the job coming into the season. In his career, Smith is 19 of 24 on field goals, but he's only kicked one this year. His career long is 54 yards, and he's acknowledged to have a pretty big leg.
In addition to the new kicker, the Cornhuskers are also breaking in a new punter this season. Freshman Sam Foltz has already shown some pretty big-time ability through the first two games, averaging 45.8 yards on nine punts, with a long of 60 yards.
At kick returner, Kenny Bell has handled the duties so far, and he has been very good through the early going, averaging over 40 yards per return, with a long of 63. Last year, he was mostly solid, not breaking any particularly long returns, but averaging about 23 yards. At the punt return spot, Nebraska has used Jamal Turner so far this season, who has good enough speed to be a threat there.
UCLA is in a similar position to Nebraska, having to break in a freshman punter and work through the growing pains of a young kicker as well. Sean Covington, the new punter, was not tested in the first game of the year, but in practice he has looked the part of a talented freshman punter: booming most of his kicks, but shanking about one of every five. UCLA would obviously love to go as long as possible not using him.
Sophomore place kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn missed one field goal against Nevada, and, while he's looked improved from last year, when his reliable range was basically inside of 35 yards, we're not sure he's ready to kick field goals beyond the 45. If we had to guess, his effective range might be more like 40 this season.
At the return spots, Shaquelle Evans will handle punts and Steven Manfro will handle kickoffs. Evans is the most reliable catcher among the options for punt returner, but he also has the ability to get a few yards on the return. Manfro has had adventures at the kickoff spot, last year muffing a couple and this year already muffing one return. Also, while it was a limited sample size, it doesn't look like UCLA has figured out a way to produce great kickoff return blocking so far, so we'll repeat what we said last year: if the ball is coming into the end zone, it'd probably be smart for the Bruins to just take the touchback. Now that the ball comes out to the 25, and UCLA can rarely get a return past the 25, it's just inviting unnecessary risk to return the ball.
With the two offenses involved in this game, we can't imagine special teams will play a decisive role in the game, but you never know.
In trying to predict how this game will go, we do have a measuring stick – last year's game. These teams are probably about as good as they were last year, at this time of the season. Nebraska's offense might be slightly better, but their defense probably is worse. UCLA's offense and defense are probably both slightly better. It's good for UCLA that it's catching Nebraska's young defense early in the season, and it's good for Nebraska that it's catching UCLA's young secondary early in the season.
UCLA's penalty problem has to be mentioned. It didn't get it under control against Nevada, so you'd have to think it will rear its proverbial ugly head again against Nebraska.
In terms of the intangibles, there are some pronounced factors that could impact the game. There's the revenge factor for Nebraska. The loss against UCLA last season really resonated over their entire 2012 season. There also, too, has to be some points given to Nebraska for playing in front of a sea of 90,000 loud red people.
UCLA is coming off a bye week. Sometimes that's detrimental; in the middle of the season it seems to give a team too much of a break and gets them out of the playing mentality. This early in the season, it stands to reason it only gets a team hungrier – and healthier. Nebraska has had one more game to play, and one more game to get more nicked up.
Then, there's the big intangible. It's difficult to foresee how the tragic death of UCLA walk-on Nick Pasquale will affect the team on Saturday. We'd have to think it was a distraction this week. But we'd also have to think that, once the Bruins are on the field, with the #36 patch on their jersey, right above their heart, it would have to be an inspiration. When Pasquale's father, Mel, talked to some players in San Clemente Sunday night, he, through teary eyes, told them to win this game for Nick. That's pretty powerful stuff.
All in all, we see two teams that are similar to their teams last year, and then so many factors seemingly balancing each other out. So, UCLA beat Nebraska last year, and it's probable it will do it again, in a game that should be pretty similar to last season's game.
In honor of Nick Pasquale, we predict UCLA will score 36 points.