LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska has won a nation-leading 27 straight openers, and the margin has been at least 10 points in 26 of them.
Even if Saturday night’s game against Wyoming turns out the same way — the No. 18 Cornhuskers are four-touchdown favorites — the coaching staff expects to have a much better idea how the pieces of its young defense fit together.
Coach Bo Pelini said Monday the Cowboys’ spread offense offers a good test. Third-year starting quarterback Brett Smith is one of the nation’s top returning passers. He averaged 308 yards in total offense and threw 27 touchdown passes against six interceptions.
Two years ago, in the fourth game of his freshman season, Smith threw for 166 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-14 loss to a ninth-ranked Nebraska in Laramie.
“He’s very poised,” Pelini said. “I don’t know what he runs, but he’s very elusive in the pocket and he buys time. He’s a really good player. I thought that going into that game, and I remember coming out I was very impressed with him. He’s a lot further along now as a player.”
The Huskers should have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten. Their biggest question marks are on the line and at linebacker.
Defensive end Jason Ankrah is the most experienced player among the front seven, and coaches have offered glowing reviews of junior-college transfer Randy Gregory on the opposite side.
Thad Randle, who has battled injuries throughout his career, is locked in at one tackle spot. Freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice are among the contenders for playing time next to Randle, along with Aaron Curry, Vincent Valentine and Brodrick Nickens. David Santos and freshman Josh Banderas had strong preseason practices at middle linebacker, and Zaire Anderson returns on the weakside after missing most of last season because of injury. The staff also is excited about freshman Nathan Gerry, who is working with the linebackers after being recruited as a safety.
“I like our linebacker group,” Pelini said. “They’ve gotten better. I was a little concerned about 10 days or two weeks in. The last 10 days or so I saw some guys make a big jump.”
Who starts won’t mean much this week. The plan is to move players in and out.
“It’s going to take some discipline on our part as much as anything else,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “because if things are going well, sometimes you have a tendency to lean toward the guys who are in the game. The bottom line, you’ve got to find out more about our guys in game situations.”
Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said he’s not sure there’s an advantage to playing the Huskers before they’ve got their defensive personnel settled.
“I don’t know catching them at any time is a good time. I guess the opener is as good as any,” he said.
Smith had a higher passer rating on the road last season, but he’ll be playing in an extremely difficult environment Saturday. A crowd of about 92,000, the largest in Nebraska history, is expected with the opening of a new addition on the stadium’s east side.
“There’s going to be crowd noise that’s going to be a factor,” Christensen said. “We prepare for that every day. We have more sound and music and crowd noise and stuff going on at our practice on a daily basis than most stadiums we visit.”