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April 24, 2013

Early Look at 2013 Opponents: Nebraska

Football season is right around the corner, and it's never too early to talk about the greatest sport in the world. TheWolverine.com spoke to beat writers that cover all 12 of Michigan's 2013 opponents to talk about their impressions of the teams.

Michigan's 2013 Schedule
Aug. 31 - Central Michigan
Sept. 7 - Notre Dame
Sept. 14 - Akron
Sept. 21 - at Connecticut
Oct. 5 - Minnesota
Oct. 12 - at Penn State
Oct. 19 - Indiana
Nov. 2 - at Michigan State
Nov. 9 - Nebraska
No. 16 - at Northwestern
No. 23 - at Iowa
No. 30 - Ohio State


Nebraska looked to be on the fast track to Pasadena as it rode a six-game winning streak into the Big Ten title game in 2012, but found nothing but thorns in Indianapolis.

The Huskers were bullied and badgered by Wisconsin in a 70-31 decimation at Lucas Oil Stadium, and would follow up the embarrassing outing with a 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capitol One Bowl.

Despite last season's nightmarish end, many tab NU as a prime candidate to represent the Legends Division in the 2013 Big Ten Championship game. HuskerOnline.com writer Sean Callahan gives his take on this year's squad …

Offensive Strengths

Tempo, efficiency and experience.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck's spread attack ran more plays from the line of scrimmage (1,040) than any other team in the Big Ten in 2012, led the conference in total offense (460.8 yards per game) and first downs (23.6 per game), and finished only behind Ohio State in scoring offense (34.8 points per game).
Penn State
Nebraska Quick Facts
°Coach: Bo Pelini, 49-20, sixth year
°Record Last Year: 10-4 (7-1)
°All-Time Record vs. U-M: 3-4-1
°Last Game vs. U-M: L, 45-17 (2011)
°Last Bowl: 2012 Capitol One Bowl
°Starters Returning: 11; 7 Off. & 4 Def.
°Key Returners: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OL Spencer Long, CB Ciante Evans, DE Jason Ankrah
°Key Losses: RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, S Daimion Stafford

2013 Football Schedule
Aug. 31 - vs. Wyoming
Sept. 7 - vs. Southern Miss
Sept. 14 - vs. UCLA
Sept. 21 - vs. South Dakota State
Oct. 5 - vs. Illinois
Oct. 12 - at Purdue
Oct. 26 - at Minnesota
Nov. 2 - vs. Northwestern
Nov. 9 - at Michigan
Nov. 16 - vs. Michigan State
Nov. 23 - at Penn State
Nov. 29 - vs. Iowa

Fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to master the fast-paced attack, and the senior has made strides in each season as the signal caller in Lincoln. With his continued growth and understanding of the complex scheme, the no-huddle Huskers are expected to further eliminate the already miniscule time between snaps and consistently add even more points to the scoreboard.

"Nebraska is probably going to average around 40 points a game with that offense," Callahan said. "It is the tempo. You really have seen them continue to pick up the tempo. They don't quite run the no huddle as fast as Oregon, but they aren't far behind. It is only going to get faster this year with Taylor Martinez being a fourth-year starter in the system.

"They can really adlib this offense, and make checks and reads at the line of scrimmage that they may not have done the past couple of years."

Martinez will be protected by an offensive line that returns three starters, including first-team All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long, and will be surrounded by a plethora of weapons at the skilled positions, particularly in the backfield.

Although NU loses I-Back Rex Burkhead, who finished his collegiate career with 3,441 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns, junior Ameer Abdullah more than displayed the abilities to fill the role in extensive playing time last year.

Abdullah earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after subbing for the often-injured Burkhead, and finished with 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns.

Offensive Areas To Watch

Although there doesn't appear to be a weakness offensively for the Huskers, there is always room for improvement. Expect a breakout season from the NU passing game led by a trio of talented wide receivers.

"They probably have the best three receiver group in the Big Ten in [junior] Kenny Bell, [senior] Quincy Enuwa and [junior] Jamal Turner," Callahan said. "Those three receivers along with Martinez and Ameer Abdullah are as good of an offensive grouping as you are going to find."

Bell, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree in 2012, led the team with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdown grabs and is on track to become both the school's most prolific single-season and career performer at the position.

"Believe it or not, Nebraska has never had a 1000-yard receiver in school history and Kenny Bell has a chance at becoming the first," Callahan said. "Johnny Rodgers, who won the Heisman in 1972, holds most of the school receiving records but, with two years of eligibility left, Bell has a great shot at setting those records."

Enuwa (773 career receiving yards) and Turner (660 career receiving yards) augment Bell's big play abilities as reliable and explosive targets underneath for a dangerous and versatile offensive led by the always unpredictable Martinez.

"I think you'll see a lot of short passes because Enuwa and Turner are so good in space when they get the ball.

"They've said they want to throw the ball 25-30 times a game, but honestly they are still probably going to be a run first team. In a perfect world they are a 60-percent run, 40-percent pass offense. It is the ability of Martinez to keep the defense off balance with his feet and hit those passes that will make this team dangerous.

"This offense has really grown since the last time Michigan fans saw it in Ann Arbor, I think this offense is going to go far this year."

Nebraska completed an average of 16.6 passes out of 27.0 tries per game last season (61.5 percent). The last time the Huskers played at Michigan Stadium, Martinez connected on just 9-of-23 passes (39.1 percent) for 122 yards and a score in a 45-17 thrashing by the Wolverines in 2011.

Defensive Strengths

In its four losses last year, Nebraska yielded an eye-popping 53.5 points per game and, in total, finished ninth in the conference in scoring defense at 27.6 points per game. If the young Blackshirt defense, which returns only four starters, is going to improve upon that abysmal number, it will start in the defensive backfield.

"Right now the real strength would be the secondary," Callahan said. "They return almost every cornerback on the roster. Both of their starters return, [senior] Ciante Evans is easily their top corner and they add a former Army All-American in [redshirt sophomore] Jonathan Rose, who was one of Auburn's top cover corners - he transferred and is eligible this year. They also return redshirt seniors Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The list goes on and on."

Evans was an All-Big Ten performer in 2012 and Rose played in nine games as a true freshman for Auburn in 2011. Green started 12 games last season, and Jean-Baptiste's nine pass breakups last year was good for third-most in school history.

At safety, the Huskers must compensate for the loss of All-Big Ten safety Daimion Stafford, who started 14 games, made 96 tackles and intercepted four passes. Still, the young backend of the defense is a talented bunch.

"They have inexperience at safety, but they still have three or four pretty good players there, including [junior] Corey Cooper and [sophomore] Charles Jackson, who were both four-star recruits.

"There is a lot of ability back there."

Cooper saw action in all 14 games a year ago, recording 17 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and Jackson appeared in 13 contests, making 11 tackles and breaking up a pass.

Defensive Areas To Watch

Nebraska will have to replace starters all over the front seven, including its leading tackler in linebacker Will Compton and its best defensive lineman in defensive end Eric Martin.

Fifth-year senior Jason Ankrah is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and Bo Pelini and Co. will be in desperate search of a true impact linebacker during fall camp.

"They have an experienced defensive end returning in Jason Ankrah, but other than him the defensive line is going to basically be all new," Callahan said. "They really have to get this younger group of defensive lineman up to speed quickly.

"It is similar at linebacker. They don't have a LaVonte David or Will Compton. The leading linebacker is David Santos, and I don't think he even had 15 tackles a year ago. There will essentially be three new linebackers on the field."

Luckily for NU, it opens the season with five-consecutive home games, which should provide an opportunity for the younger players to acclimate themselves on the big stage, and gain familiarity with football on the highest level heading into the Huskers' week 10 matchup with Michigan.

"The early portion of the schedule is crucial. They play five-straight home games in front of 91,000 people. That is going to allow the defense to hopefully develop some confidence and swagger with the home stadium behind them.

"They will have some favorable matchups against Wyoming, Southern Miss and South Dakota State where one would hope the defense would at least get comfortable before some of the bigger games on the schedule."

Expectations

"I think the expectations are pretty high," Callahan said. "A lot of it has to do with the schedule. If you look at Nebraska's first eight games, other than the UCLA and Northwestern games, which will both be in Lincoln, the schedule is very favorable.

"Nebraska plays its first five games at home this year, and doesn't go on the road until week seven because of the bye week, and the first road games are at Minnesota and Purdue. I think the way the schedule sets up, especially with the offense that they return, they are pretty confident that the young defense can get going early on.

"I think anything less than a 10 or 11-win season will be a disappointment."



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