Big Ten football in the Central Valley is a rare sight. Not counting last year’s visit by newcomer Rutgers (which was a representative of the American), just two B1G teams have made the trip to Bulldog Stadium and both – Wisconsin in 2008, Illinois in 2010 – found out that the ‘Dogs can be a tough out on their home turf. Nebraska’s journey represents the second leg of a three-game deal between the two programs, and despite their obvious talent they will have a tough task on their hands. Fresno State has won 13 in a row at home, the fifth-best streak in the nation, and you can expect the crowd to be ready for its opener.
In the meantime, let’s take a first look at the Cornhuskers.
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska
Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Mascot: The Cornhuskers actually have two different mascots, Herbie Husker and Lil’ Red.
Head Coach: Bo Pelini. You can’t blame the Cornhuskers faithful for their high standards. Pelini’s run as head coach has been the focus of much consternation amongst fans of Big Red, though a 58-24 record in six seasons makes him one of the most successful coaches in the nation during that time. Entering his seventh year, the expectations of a conference title and perhaps more are as prevalent as ever.
Conference/Division: Big Ten West (formerly the Legends division)
2013 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten). Nebraska might have known 2013 would not be the year that the Huskers rejoined the highest echelon of college football programs when UCLA came to Lincoln and score a convincing win. Or it might have been when they were upended on the road by Minnesota. Nebraska beat the teams they should’ve beaten and had their issues against more competent teams, and though defeating depleted Georgia in a bowl game should have been a consolation, many fans were left wanting.
Last Bowl Game: Nebraska got the separation it needed in the 2013 Gator Bowl thanks to an unbelievable 99-yard strike and battled to hold off the Georgia Bulldogs, 24-19.
Five Key Players:
Ameer Abdullah, running back. Fresno State fans who haven’t swept the 2011 season into a dark and dusty corner of their memories probably remember Abdullah’s exploits. The program has groomed a wealth of top running backs throughout its history, but Abdullah may have been overlooked nationally in last year’s Big Ten with Carlos Hyde, Melvin Gordon and James White grabbing headlines. Another year like 2013, though, a year in which he ran for nearly 1,700 yards and nine touchdowns, means that he’ll have to be in the conversation for the mantle of NU’s best back ever.
Randy Gregory, defensive end. Quick, who led the Big Ten in sacks last year? If you guessed Gregory, you recognized the context of the question. His 10.5 sacks, along with 16.5 tackles for loss, were more than enough to garner All-Big Ten honors. Nebraska’s defensive line is laden with youth and promise, so Gregory will have to lead the charge to opposing quarterbacks.
Josh Mitchell, cornerback. Nebraska lost two key contributors from its secondary to the NFL this offseason, which means that Mitchell will be counted upon to assume the role of number one corner. He received six starts in 2013 and acquitted himself well, most notably with two turnovers and a bit of fight in the Huskers’ Gator Bowl win.
Tommy Armstrong Jr., quarterback. Taylor Martinez was a divisive quarterback during his time at Lincoln, but his injury woes last season gave Armstrong valuable experience under center. The results were mixed because, while it’s hard to argue a 7-1 record as the starter, Armstrong’s 52% completion rate must improve. Having Kenny Bell around helps, but we will have to wait and see how the sophomore works with the rest of his receiving corps.
Jake Cotton, offensive guard. Four jobs along the offensive line are up for grabs heading into the fall, but the senior Cotton will look to follow a solid 2013 as the unit’s only veteran. The Huskers will have to hope he can stay healthy, though, since knee injuries cost him time last year and back in 2011.
Offensive overview: Nebraska will have had two weeks to scrutinize its retooled passing attack before the team travels to Fresno, but expect Abdullah to be the centerpiece of this offense. He received at least 22 carries in each of the last six games in 2013. Other than Bell, the returning receivers made limited contributions, though many will remember Jordan Westerkamp’s heroics.
Defensive overview: This edition of the Blackshirts defense will be young, but they were battle-tested by the end of 2013 and stand to reap some benefits. Projected starting linebackers David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson were all in the lineup by season’s end, and in the last five games the Huskers allowed an average of just 324 yards of total offense. Gregory will lead the pass rush, while Mitchell and strong safety Corey Cooper provide stability in the secondary.
Early prediction: There were a few instances last year when Fresno’s aggressiveness on defense backfired, and opposing running back could run wild on occasion. That is my fear, at least for the moment, that the Bulldogs will know exactly what to expect… and the Huskers’ inexperienced offensive lineman will stifle the run defense, anyway. That Armstrong connects on a big play at some point. That the ‘Dogs have no good answer for Gregory. The offense will move the ball in fits and starts, but the Huskers will find its decisive score by a turnover or something of that ilk, handing Tim DeRuyter his first home loss. Nebraska 27, Fresno State 21.