September 14, 2013

Match-up watch: UCLA

NU Run Offense vs. UCLA Run Defense
If Nebraska is going to win this game, it's going to need a strong performance from the offensive line. The Huskers should look to run early and often to keep the ball out of Brett Hundley's hands and give their young defense a chance to recoup on the sidelines. Ameer Abdullah (119) and Taylor Martinez (112) both broke the century mark in rushing yards in last year's meeting and Imani Cross and Terrell Newby have both proven to be weapons.

In its lone contest this season, UCLA bottled up Nevada's rushing attack, as only quarterback Cody Fajardo did much on the ground. The Bruins limited the Wolfpack's top two running back to 67 yards on 24 carries and Eric Kendricks was all over the field, piling up 11 tackles. UCLA had 11 tackles for loss in the game as it took Nevada out of its comfort zone in a 58-20 win.

If the Bruins repeat those numbers against Nebraska, they will almost certainly win, but that's extremely unlikely to happen. Spencer Long and crew have been solid in NU's first two contests, but if the line wants to be compared with the Huskers' national championship lines (as Andrew Rodriguez said earlier this week), this is the time to prove it.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. UCLA Pass Defense
Nebraska has done a masterful job so far of spreading the ball out between Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. All three are capable of having a 100-yard game on a given Saturday, making it a major gamble to double-team any of the trio. Jordan Westerkamp got in on the action last week with a pair of receptions and could be emerging, and Sam Burtch hauled in a nice over-the-shoulder catch for a score. Maybe the Huskers will try to get tight ends Jake Long and Cethan Carter involved more - the duo has been targeted a combined five times in two games.

The Bruins have a young, inexperienced secondary that NU will have some chances to take advantage of. But Martinez will need his internal clock to be in top shape, because Anthony Barr won't give him much time to throw. Barr is one of the best pass rushers in the country and will severely challenge the NU tackles, who have yet to give up a sack.

Martinez will need to be on top of his game here. He had an interception and was tackled in the end zone for a safety in last year's game, mistakes he simply cannot have today. If the Huskers commit to the ground game early on, the play-action passes should open up, which would help.

Edge: NEBRASKA

UCLA Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
The Blackshirts were embarrassed in this game last year, giving up the most yards in school history before a few UCLA kneel-downs saved them from setting the undignified record. The good news is Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for 217 yards, will be nowhere near Memorial Stadium Saturday. But Jordon James, his replacement, scampered for 155 yards against Nevada and Hundley has the running ability to make defensive coordinator John Papuchis very uneasy.

The Bruins' weapons are especially frightening considering that they are far more dangerous than Brett Smith and Shaun Wick, the Wyoming duo that lit the Huskers up for 193 yards on 20 carries (9.7 average) in the season opener. The Huskers looked improved last week, but Southern Miss made no real attempt to run the ball.

The defensive line must do a better job of fighting off of blocks, or at least eating blockers up to free up Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry for tackles. And don't be surprised if Zaire Anderson plays a big role in this contest - the coaches have been raving about his improvement for the past week or so. A strong game from him would go a long way toward helping Nebraska's cause.

Edge: UCLA

UCLA Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
This is the toughest match-up to call and should be watched very closely. The hype for Hundley is justified, and he showed that he's not slowing down with a four-touchdown game (two rushing, two passing) in the opener after a fantastic redshirt freshman campaign. He's a dark-horse Heisman candidate. Opposing him will be NU's most experienced unit, which features legit playmakers in Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste and already has eight picks this year.

Shaquelle Evans is UCLA's best receiving threat. After racking up 877 yards receiving in 2012, Evans hauled in six passes for 81 yards and a score against Nevada. Hundley trusts him and throws his way often, so it'll be up to Jean-Baptiste and Josh Mitchell to slow him down. Fortunately for Nebraska, six-foot-eight tight end Joseph Fauria (two touchdowns in last year's game) has moved on to the NFL.

One way to get to Hundley is with a good pass rush - UCLA has allowed 52 sacks (26 on blitzes) since the start of last season, the most in in the FBS. Randy Gregory looks like a beast rushing the passer, but NU's rush overall has been underwhelming (one sack in two games). Will Papuchis and Bo Pelini try to dial up some exotic blitzes to get to Hundley?

Edge: UCLA

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
The biggest story line no one is talking about coming into this game is NU's inexperience at kicker. Pat Smith and Mauro Bondi have combined to attempt one FBS field goal, and that was a 22-yarder by Smith that came in an extremely low-pressure situation against Wyoming (which he nearly missed). It's very possible that this game could come down to a critical fourth-quarter kick, and the Huskers haven't seen if either of these guys can handle that moment.

Nebraska's coverage teams have done very well, Bell has been solid on kickoff returns and Sam Foltz has been a revelation at punter. But Nebraska has returned just two punts this year for a total of six yards. The rugby punts have prevented Turner from making any impact on returns.

Unlike NU, UCLA knows what it has in its kicker, but that's not exactly a frightening fact for Nebraska. Ka'imi Fairbairn was 16 for 22 last year and just two for six on kicks of 40 yards or more. He also missed a field goal try in the opener. Evans is a threat on punt returns and will look to test the Huskers' coverage units.

Edge: PUSH

Nebraska Will Win If:

It gets some heat on Hundley, the running game does its job and Martinez avoids the head-scratching mistakes. At this point, we know he's going to have a couple of quirky plays a game, but that's just who he is, and some of those moments result in long gains and big plays. He just needs to avoid the crushing turnovers like his fourth-quarter interception in Pasadena a year ago.

UCLA Will Win If:

Hundley and James go bonkers on the ground. We've seen five defensive meltdowns in the past 16 games (UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Georgia in 2012 and Wyoming in 2013) and the Huskers simply can't afford to have another showing like that Saturday. Unfortunately, UCLA has the type of talent that makes another ugly outing a possibility.

X-Factor:

Nebraska's kicking battle. If this game is going to be close, there will likely be a high-pressure kick at some point. Smith and Bondi, who split extra-point duties last week, may very well both be capable of coming through in those situations. But no one has seen them experience it in a game, which is slightly worrisome.

Prediction:
UCLA 38, Nebraska 35




 

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