As Cornhusker fans start looking toward the Nebraska vs. UCLA matchup, they could be forgiven for being a little confused as to what they should expect. Against Wyoming, Nebraska's vaunted Blackshirt defense was shredded for 602 yards and fans saw visions of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game flashing through their heads.
But then the Blackshirts buckled down, holding Southern Mississippi to 284 yards and 13 points in what looked to be a much more solid performance. Both Wyoming and Southern Mississippi, of course, are a level below the competition Nebraska will be facing in the B1G this season.
UCLA, however, will provide Nebraska's defense with one of its sternest tests all years. The Bruins knocked off Nebraska 36-30 in Pasadena last season, gouging NU's defense for 653 yards of total offense. So how Nebraska responds when faced with an opponent of UCLA's caliber should tell us a lot about how far the Blackshirts have progressed.
Here are five things in particular we will learn.
In the season opener, Wyoming piled up 602 total yards of offense, 219 on the ground and 383 in the air. Was it a fluke? Well, the Cowboys tallied 564 yards of total offense in a 42-10 home win over Idaho the following week. So clearly the Wyoming offense in and of itself has something going on.
The line coming out of the team after last week was that Nebraska lost focus after they went up 37-21, letting up and allowing the Cowboys back into the game. That explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory, given the 300 yards of total offense Wyoming notched in the first half.
Given the turnaround performance against Southern Mississippi the following week, Nebraska fans have seen two different defensive performances from the Blackshirts. Against UCLA, fans should have a much better idea of which performance is more indicative of the defense’s true level.
Given the defensive struggles from the previous week, Nebraska could not have asked for a better start than for Stanley Jean-Baptiste to break on an Allan Bridgford pass and return the interception 43 yards for a touchdown. With some changes in scheme and personnel (including a start at "Mike" linebacker for true freshman Josh Banderas and a bigger role for Zaire Anderson), Nebraska’s defense held the Golden Eagles to 284 yards of total offense and only one touchdown.
But Southern Mississippi, is, to put it charitably, a bit challenged as a football team. The Golden Eagles have not won a football game since 2011, after being winless in 2012 and dropping their season opener to Texas State. So it’s probably premature to declare Nebraska’s defensive woes solved because of a good performance against Southern Mississippi.
A good performance against UCLA, though? That would go a long way toward knowing Nebraska’s defense is getting back on its feet.
The Bruins got the week off last week, giving them an extra week to prepare for Nebraska. In the first week of the season, UCLA piled up 647 yards in a 58-20 rout of Nevada. Brett Hundley, UCLA’s talented sophomore quarterback, was 22-of-33 for 274 yards and two touchdowns passing and had seven rushes for 63 yards and another two scores.
Yes, tailback Jordan James looks to be a solid replacement for the departed Johnathan Franklin, gaining 155 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown against Nevada. But it is Hundley who makes the UCLA offense work and will cause Nebraska’s defense the most problems.
So how the Blackshirts are able to contain Hundley will tell a lot about where this defensive unit is this season.
Against Wyoming, Nebraska got only one turnover and struggled to get the Cowboys off the field. Against Southern Mississippi, Nebraska got four turnovers, all interceptions, including two returned for scores, and was able to take control of the game early.
UCLA only turned the ball over once against Nevada and was No. 38 nationally in turnover margin last season. If the Blackshirts can take the ball away from the Bruins a couple of times, it will be a very good sign going forward.
This really is the biggest question of them all as Nebraska faces its sternest challenge to date, likely the only ranked team it will play until Northwestern comes to Lincoln on November 2. Josh Banderas, a true freshman, earned the starting "Mike" linebacker spot last week against Southern Mississippi. Nathan Gerry, a true freshman, saw extensive playing time at safety. Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice, both true freshmen, were in the rotation at defensive tackle.
The kids have gotten their feet wet against Wyoming and Southern Mississippi. But UCLA is an entirely different challenge. Head coach Bo Pelini has broken form—out of necessity—and thrown his younger players into the fire. The preliminaries are done, and those players have gotten a taste of what college football is like.
But this week, UCLA—the defending Pac-12 South champions—come to town. Now we really get to see if these kids are ready for the big time.
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