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Thursday, August 1, 2013
Early look at Nebraska Cornhuskers

By Josh Moyer

Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Nebraska.

653, 498, 640, 589.

Mention those numbers to a Nebraska fan, and he'll probably shake his head because he knows exactly what they represent -- the yards allowed by the Cornhuskers in their four losses in 2012. That includes the 63-38 loss to Ohio State and the 70-31 thumping by Wisconsin.

There's not another team like Nebraska in the Big Ten. The offense is great, and Taylor Martinez will undoubtedly be in the conversation as a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award. But the defense? Well, the Huskers might be better served fielding a front seven from the MAC.

Think about the disparity between Indiana's offense and defense -- and then multiply it by three. That's as close to Nebraska's recipe as you can get. When the Huskers lost, they lost big. When the defense struggled, it struggled big.

Nebraska boasts the offense of a Big Ten champion and the front seven of a Big Ten pretender. Bo Pelini has his work cut out for him this season on defense, but there's no doubt this offense will be among the most exciting in the conference.

The only question, really, is if that'll be enough.

When: Time TBA on Nov. 23 at Beaver Stadium

Last season: Nebraska (11-3, 7-1 Big Ten); lost Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, 45-31

Series history: Nebraska 8-7-0

Taylor Martinez
Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will be tough to stop again, but will the Huskers' defense step up?
Biggest question marks: The defensive front seven has major issues, even more than last season when it finished with the No. 90 run defense. Three new linebackers will take the field this season, and Nebraska loses its top pass-rushers in Eric Martin and Cameron Meredith.

Getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run won't be easy for the Huskers, and that's the main obstacle preventing Nebraska from a BCS berth.

On special teams, kicker and punter is also a concern now with the departure of the Big Ten's best in Brett Maher. He earned the Baaken-Andersen Kicker of the Year Award (along with Northwestern's Jeff Budzien) and hit three field goals longer than 50 yards.

Nebraska will have to go with an unproven kicker-punter combo, and it'll undoubtedly be a dropoff from 2012.

Strengths: This entire offense. Martinez is a true dual threat -- running for more than 1,000 yards and throwing for more than 2,500 yards -- and this will be his fourth year starting. Besides Braxton Miller, Martinez might just be the top B1G offensive threat.

Ameer Abdullah returns as the starting tailback, Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa return as the leading receivers, and OG Spencer Long returns as a candidate on the Lombardi and Outland watch lists. There's a lot of experience here, and this offense really doesn't have a soft spot. It's improved from last season -- which says a lot considering it finished second in the Big Ten in scoring after averaging nearly 35 points a game.

On the subpar defense, there is one redeeming quality -- and it's the secondary. Ciante Evans paces the pass defense, and the cornerbacks are pretty good. Nebraska boasted the No. 4 pass defense last season, and while that will be difficult to top, this unit is no slouch.

Who to watch: DT Thaddeus Randle. For Nebraska's defensive line to experience some semblance of success, Randle will have to be on top of his game. He started in six games last season and will be depended upon to be the anchor here. DE Jason Ankrah saw more time and is the better player on the line, but a lot will be dictated by Randle.

If Randle plays badly, that makes more work for the new linebackers. If he plays well, that could help slow down Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 141 yards and averaged nearly seven yards a carry in last season's meeting. Zwinak had 21 carries without being tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Nebraska will have to limit those yards on first downs, and that starts with Randle.

What you might not know: One of the more inspiring stories in the spring came from Nebraska.

Jack Hoffman, a 7-year-old who was forced to undergo brain surgery because of a tumor, was a big fan of the Cornhuskers. He previously ate lunch with his favorite player, Rex Burkhead, toured the football facilities and even walked through the tunnel in the 2012 season opener. But Pelini decided to take it one step further this past spring.

Pelini and the Nebraska team decided to suit Jack up and plug him into the spring game. Jack only found out the night before. And, toward the end of the scrimmage, Pelini called his number -- No. 22, the number of his favorite player -- and handed off to him. The smiling 7-year-old sprinted 69 yards for a touchdown and the team hoisted him up on their shoulders.

If it's not a video or a story you've yet seen, you should really check it out right here. And get the tissues ready.

Early prediction: Nebraska 31-24. PSU's defense struggles neutralizing a balanced attack, and the Huskers key in on the run game.