Husky Football Preview: @ Nebraska 09/17/11

Washington Huskies (2-0) @ #10 Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0)
Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
TV: ABC; Radio: KJR; Internet Audio:
Line: Nebraska -17.5

Nebraska defensive tackles Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler

There are two challenging things about writing this preview. The first is writing what hasn’t already been written about this matchup, the third in 12 months between these two teams. The second is predicting a Husky victory over a heavily favored, 800-win opponent on the road. But I’m going to try to do both. (I suppose paying attention in genetics lecture is also difficult while writing this preview. That I will not attempt. If you’re reading this, Dr. Shields, I’m 35 percent sorry.)

The Nebraska defense is laden with NFL talent. The offense is among college football’s most explosive. But here’s the thing. The Cornhuskers needed several minor miracles to beat a very average Fresno State team in Lincoln last week, and that was no fluke: the Bulldogs did what they do (run the ball in a slightly-above-average and perpetual fashion, do a little pro-style passing), and Nebraska simply couldn’t stop them.

The Huskers struggled some on offense, too—without six plays that went for 38 yards or more, they averaged only 3.8 yards per play. They went three-and-out six times, their longest drive only seven plays. Subtract the huge plays (and if there’s one thing Nick Holt’s bend-but-don’t-break defense is effective at, it’s limiting big plays), and they looked an awful lot like the Nebraska team that gained only 189 yards in the Holiday Bowl.

Also: if Fresno State can nearly ride 40 carries for 190 yards to a victory, what do you think Chris Polk can do? What did Chris Polk do last year?

Scouting the Cornhuskers:

  • Everything begins on defense for Nebraska, and the defense in turn begins up front with Jared Crick. The 6-foot-6 defensive line hybrid already has two first-team all-conference selections and a bachelor’s degree under his belt; he’s out for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year this season and will likely find his way into the first round come April. He overwhelms interior linemen with his quickness and offensive tackles with his size, allowing him to accumulate a Suh-like 19 career sacks. Nebraska lacks a true nose tackle, however, as the 285-pound Crick’s 4-3 running mate is 290-pound Baker Steinkuhler. But Crick’s effectiveness against the run eases the lack of a gigantic human in the middle. There’s a reason he’s preseason first-team All-America, folks.
  • Somehow, Crick is not the only preseason All-American on the Blackshirts defense. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David set a school record with 152 tackles last year (though mostly in the “peso” 3-4 scheme designed to stop the Big 12’s spread attacks) and already has 26 through two games this year. Holy hell. He also has a nose for the football, not just the ballcarrier—many NFL scouts even see him as a strongside safety. Gaze in wonder at this hip fluidity. Mike man Will Compton is primed for a huge year after a promising sophomore campaign was derailed by a foot injury before it started. He and David each had 15 tackles last week.
  • And of course you’ve heard about the Huskers’ third preseason All-American defender. Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (rhymes with “Leonard,” not Lil’ Kenard from The Wire) has been questionable all week with some sort of leg pull. The Nebraska secondary looks a whole lot friendlier without Dennard, as the other three 2010 starters are all gone (CB Prince Amukamara, first round to the Giants; SS DeJon Gomes, fifth round to the Redskins; FS Eric Hagg, seventh round to the Browns). In Dennard’s absence, head coach Bo Pelini has been starting sophomores Andrew Green and Ciante Evans alongside new safeties Courtney Osborne and Austin Cassidy. Evans has much more experience than Green, but the trial-by-fire development of all four new starters will be a huge factor in Nebraska’s fate this year. If Dennard plays, here’s all you need to know. Gape accordingly.
  • Cameron Meredith’s Mustache is reportedly at full strength for this game after offseason shoulder surgery. NFL scouts see the junior end as an early-round hybrid run-stopper, though he had two sacks to go with his pick and blocked kick in the opener against Chattanooga.
  • Offensively, Nebraska wants to run the ball. Roy Helu Jr. has moved on to bigger and better things (well, OK, he’s on the Redskins), but junior I-back Rex Burkhead and sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez still trail only Oregon and Michigan in terms of returning QB-RB rushing duos. Burkhead appears ready to take on a much larger role in Helu’s absence—he’s never had more than 20 carries in a game, however, so expect his YPC (5.5 last year) to go down as his workhorsemanship…ness? increases.
  • Husky fans understand that a healthy Martinez has better straight-line speed than any Washington defender and better acceleration than perhaps any other human. He appears to be healthy this year. Martinez can run so well that the Nebraska passing game essentially exists only to take advantage of opposing defenses putting nine men in the box (and that’s exactly what it does). BUT, Martinez has that young-Travis-Henry disease, that Steve Slaton affliction. He’s got a fever, and the only prescription is… five points of contact? Running out of bounds? Stickum? Martinez’ case of fumblitis is really quite impressive: he’s fumbled 21 times in 14 career games, five already this year. That’s a huge concern (even though only five of the 21 have resulted in turnovers), especially when paired with his interceptions. Martinez somehow managed to throw a pick, fumble and run for no gain on 4th-and-1 in a single possession last week. He’s a very subpar passer with a funky motion, a big reason the Huskers’ passing game is just a change-of-pace.
  • A guess: it will be a lot harder for Martinez to run wild against legitimate defenses this year than it was last year. Why? Right tackle Tyler Moore was the first true freshman in the program’s 121-year history to start a season-opener two weeks ago. Sophomore right guard Spencer Long had played in exactly zero games prior to this season. True sophomore left guard Andrew Rodriguez (two career starts, both this season) has been hampered by an injury; his potential replacement, walk-on junior Seung-Hoon Choi, is in his seventh year of football and eighth year of America. He’s seen maybe 20 college snaps in his life, all in the second half of blowouts against Chattanooga and Western Kentucky. Some have said that this is Nebraska’s youngest offensive line ever. That means a lot of pressure on senior center Mike Caputo and senior left tackle Yoshi Hardrick to mentor the kids and keep everything in line.
  • Senior leader Brandon Kinnie has two catches, seven receiving yards and six drops. The rest of the receivers are freshmen or sophomores. Not that experience matters in the Nebraska receiving corps—it seems like Martinez’ only completions in the Fresno State game were 40-yarders to wide-open receivers. Put my sister in there and you’d have the same result. Side note: Kinnie, Yoshi Hardrick and Lavonte David were all two-year teammates at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College before joining the Cornhuskers.
  • And I can’t not mention true freshman return man Ameer Abdullah. He looked like he could take every single kickoff back to the house last week, though he scored a paltry one touchdown on a paltry 100 yards. Combine that with the Huskies’ inability to cover kickoffs, and… We’ll see.

Three Choppy Sentences of Analysis and Some Numbers:

Nebraska’s defense looks shaky against exactly what Chris Polk does. AND the Dawgs have neutralized the big play thus far. THUS, another Erik Folk upset special???

UW 20, NU 17.