Two weeks into the season, Nebraska football fans have already seen a lot. They have seen flashbacks of the Big Ten title game debacle last year as Wyoming ran up and down the field on the Blackshirts. They have seen an old-school domination by Nebraska over a lesser opponent, with the benches clearing for walk-ons to see the field in the fourth quarter.
So as we are now one-sixth of the way through the 2013 regular season, here are five of the biggest early-season storylines for Nebraska.
Nebraska’s defensive struggles against Wyoming on the opening day of the season alarmed many Nebraska fans. Surrendering 600 or more yards to teams like UCLA or Wisconsin, while painful, was at least in the realm of possibility.
But to Wyoming? A Mountain West team that went 4-8 in 2012? Was the Wyoming game Nebraska’s canary-in-the-coal-mine moment, like Nebraska’s last-second win over Ball State in 2007? Or was it …
Against Southern Mississippi, Nebraska’s defense rebounded in a big way. The Blackshirts only allowed 285 yards and 13 points against the Golden Eagles, a dramatic improvement from the previous week’s performance.
In that game, true freshman Josh Banderas was given the starting role at middle linebacker. True freshman Nate Gerry saw significant playing time at the "Will" linebacker. True freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice were in the rotation at defensive tackle. And that’s not even discussing the increased contributions of newcomers like Randy Gregory, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of new faces on defense. Were Nebraska’s struggles against Wyoming part of the growing pains of a new cast? Or were they symptomatic of deeper problems?
Most Nebraska fans suspected the defense would struggle, particularly at the start of the year, and the offense would need to carry the load. While Nebraska’s defense was the story against Wyoming, some were concerned that the offense was only able to put up 375 and 37 points against a team that was No. 99 in scoring defense last season.
The offensive performance rebounded, of course, against Southern Mississippi. But given how poor the Golden Eagles were as an opponent, it’s difficult to gauge how much to take from that outing. So while questions remain about whether Nebraska will be able to stop UCLA this Saturday, questions also remain about whether Nebraska’s offense will be able to keep up with UCLA in a track meet if needed.
Coming into 2013, most fans expected Ameer Abdullah to be Nebraska’s leading rusher. The statistics bear that out, with Abdullah having 36 total carries in two games, the most of any Nebraska ball-carrier.
But most would not have anticipated that true freshman Terrell Newby would have more carries (23) than Taylor Martinez (22) or Imani Cross (17) at this stage of the season. Sure, some of those came after the game was decided against Southern Mississippi. But the fact remains that it appears, at least through two games, that Nebraska is much more serious about truly spreading the rushing attack out amongst its weapons than it has been in years past.
Coming into 2013, Nebraska fans looked at the softer schedule and thought this might be the year that Nebraska finally makes the leap from being a team on the fringes of the top 25 to a team with national relevance. Nebraska’s near-miss against Wyoming was a massive wake-up call and may have significantly tempered expectations amongst the fanbase.
But the game against UCLA is a true test of where Nebraska is as a program. Given the schedule that lies ahead (although Illinois doesn’t look like quite the layup it did earlier after the Illini’s 45-17 demolition of Cincinnati), a Nebraska win on Saturday could set NU up at 7-0 going into the game against Northwestern in Lincoln.
Conversely, a loss to UCLA will likely knock Nebraska out of the top 25, with no real opportunity to get back in given the caliber of opponents in September and October. So if Nebraska is ready to reach that metaphoric “next level” under Bo Pelini’s leadership, a win on Saturday would go a long way to getting there.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge