UCLA’s visit to Nebraska is the first crossroad of the season.
The Bruins won’t face a tougher opponent until their trip to Stanford on Oct. 19, and may not see a tougher environment all season. (Oregon’s Autzen Stadium could challenge that on Oct. 26, but Memorial Stadium’s sellout streak dates back to 1962.) The Cornhuskers are still haunted by last year’s upset loss at the Rose Bowl, and aren’t eager to relive that in front of their home crowd. If UCLA pulls out a victory, it’ll like sit just outside the AP poll’s top 10 — giving it some inertia against damage from potential losses down the road.
To make conditions even more difficult, the Bruins are still reeling from the death of receiver Nick Pasquale. Nebraska and its fans have been empathetic, but a sold-out Memorial Stadium won’t let up against a UCLA squad unfamiliar with rowdy opposing crowds.
UCLA offense vs. Nebraska defense
It is difficult to bet against UCLA’s offense in most scenarios. After an already impressive freshman season, Brett Hundley looks improved in almost every respect. He’s bigger and faster, a better decision-maker, and a calmer pocket presence. Whether or not he dominates could depend on how his line does. UCLA obliterated Nevada in the trenches two weeks ago, but Nebraska is a better defense.
But without 2012 leading tackler Will Compton and all-Big-Ten defensive end Eric Martin, the Cornhuskers have struggled with consistency — missing tackles and allowing yards after contact. Nebraska early choked away their season opener by allowing over 600 yards of offense to Wyoming. It rebounded against Southern Miss, recording 12 tackles for loss and a sack, its only one this season.
The sheer diversity of options Hundley has at his disposal bodes well for facing an experienced secondary that returned two picks for scores last week. Devin Fuller, who had a 30-yard touchdown called back against Nevada, is going to have a huge breakout game sooner or later. It may come in Lincoln if all-conference cornerback Ciante Evans is busy trying to lock down UCLA’s Shaq Evans.
Jordon James should be good for another 100-yard performance. He looked like a more decisive runner against Nevada, and has the shiftiness to shake defenders once he gets to the second level.
Nebraska offense vs. UCLA defense
Taylor Martinez doesn’t have a big arm, but he’s a similar threat to run as Nevada’s Cody Fajardo — whom UCLA struggled to contain early in its season opener. Nebraska’s offensive line is also loaded with seniors, and will present a much stiffer challenge for UCLA’s very good front seven. If Martinez can get going on the ground early, he can open up space for the short passes he throws so well.
He has a talented No. 1 receiver in Kenny Bell, whose afro ranks among the best in college athletics. Quincy Enuwa is a solid target on the other side of the offense, and leads the team with three touchdown grabs. Neither is physically towering, so UCLA’s inexperienced secondary shouldn’t be overwhelmed there. Martinez also isn’t capable of making deep throws consistently, so this could be another game where the Bruins’ defensive backs aren’t tested too often downfield.
The quarterback also has a knack for turning the ball over: In 2012, he had 16 fumbles (eight lost) and 12 interceptions. Anthony Barr drew more attention against Nevada than he did much of last season, and admitted that he’ll need a bit of time to fully adjust. If he — or anyone else — can land a good hit on Martinez, the Bruins could have a game-changing play.
Next to him in the backfield is a solid running back corps led by Ameer Abdullah, Shifty freshman Terrell Newby, who picked Nebraska over UCLA, and 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore Imani Cross both add some versatility to the rotation.
Ka’imi Fairbairn still needs to prove he can hit from outside 40 yards with consistency, while freshman punter Sean Covington will likely make his collegiate debut. Both will continue trading off kickoff duties, and will need to continue landing touchbacks to limit the Cornhuskers on returns. Nebraska’s Kenny Bell has been good there this season, returning four for 161 yards — including a 63-yard scamper. His dad, Ken Bell, totaled over 2,000 yards in kick returns for the Denver Broncos (1986-89).
Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, who can also play receiver, has punted nine times this season for an average of 45.8 yards. The redshirt freshman has landed three inside the 20-yard line, and boomed one for 60 yards. Senior kicker Pat Smith, a transfer from Western Illinois, has only been asked to kick one field goal — a 24-yarder he sailed through.
Prediction: Nebraska can’t finish enough tackles, and Jordon James proves his starting debut wasn’t just a flash in a pan. He doesn’t hit 150 yards again, but gets two touchdowns. Taylor Martinez exploits UCLA on some early zone reads, but faces too much pressure down the stretch and turns the ball over. UCLA 38, Nebraska 34.
*Previewing UCLA’s visit to Nebraska, and how this year is or isn’t different from the last.
*A look back at UCLA’s 2012 win over Nebraska, and how it helped establish Jim Mora’s program.