The first two months of Nebraska football this fall will revolve around its September 14 date with UCLA. Before this game, after this game and into the beginning of the Big Ten schedule, the Huskers will not be challenged like they will against the Bruins.
And while many of the same players from both teams will be returning for the rematch of last year's 36-30 UCLA victory, the absence of Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin will tip the scales in Nebraska's favor.
A season ago against Nebraska, the Bruins had success in every facet of their attack. They threw and ran the ball at will, gaining 653 total yards against a porous and seemingly unprepared Huskers defense.
But despite Brett Hundley's 305 passing yards and four touchdowns, it was Franklin's pounding on the ground that spelled disaster for the Blackshirts.
That is because everything UCLA threw at the Big Red began with Franklin.
Of UCLA's 36 first-down plays last year, 15 were handoffs to Franklin. And it is no wonder why he was such a focal point with a new set of downs. Of those 15 carries, 13 went for at least three yards, as Franklin was never tackled for a loss.
Franklin's rushes set the tone for close to half of the Bruins' sets of downs, allowing the playbook to open up for Hundley's passing attack on second and third downs.
But this time around, UCLA will not have Franklin as an option.
Instead, the majority of the carries will likely fall to Jordon James or Damien Thigpen, pending his recovery from a November ACL tear that ended his 2012 season.
No matter who steps into the starting role for UCLA this fall, he will be lacking in every-down experience.
Franklin was a workhorse back for the Bruins for the past four seasons, receiving at least 125 carries each year. James and Thigpen, on the other hand, combined for just 111 rushes a year ago.
Nebraska's defensive success is largely dictated by the performance of its rush defense, which is why it fell to UCLA in 2012. But after the departure of UCLA's Franklin, the Bruins will not have the same experience in the backfield on which to build their offense.
Instead, the Blackshirts will face a Bruins rushing attack in flux in the opening weeks of its first season without Franklin since 2009. And this lack of stability and consistent production will be the biggest difference in the second act of UCLA vs. Nebraska that may give the advantage to the Cornhuskers.
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