Game Day: Nebraska vs. BYU

Question 'N' Answer

Nebraska’s season opener against BYU is a bit of a mystery to most who follow the program. The first game always carries a degree of uncertainty, but there is reason for the NU fan base’s feelings weighing more toward anxiety than optimism: plenty of unanswered questions.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. BYU rush defense

Few will be under a more watchful eye than Terrell Newby and the Husker I-backs, who face the challenge of replacing the production of second-round NFL draft pick Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska also has four new starters on the offensive line after ranking No. 19 last season in rushing offense (240.2 yards per game). Quarterback Tommy Armstrong will still be involved in the run game, but how much?

Nebraska pass offense vs. BYU pass defense

It’s safe to assume the ball will be in the air more often this season, which puts an onus on Armstrong improving his accuracy (52.9 career completion percentage) and limiting interceptions. The junior threw seven touchdown passes in his last two games of 2014, however, and hit USC for 381 yards in the Holiday Bowl. BYU tied for No. 114 nationally in pass defense last season by allowing 269.7 yards per game, although it saw an average of 42.2 attempts a week.

BYU rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Running quarterbacks make teams hard to defend, and BYU has one of the best with senior Taysom Hill. Nebraska will have to find a good mix of containing Hill and tackling him in space, so a team effort. The Cougars do lack an accomplished tailback, stung by the departure of 2014 leading rusher Jamaal Williams last month, but NU ranked just No. 80 in rushing defense last season (177.9 yards a game).

BYU pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

There is talk of the Cougars throwing it a little more to limit the pounding that Hill takes, and they already were fairly efficient last season (278.7 yards per game, 59.8 completion percentage). Nebraska has to replace some of the pass-rushing oomph supplied by Randy Gregory, and will have new starters at cornerback and safety.

Special teams

Mike Riley brought Bruce Read with him from Oregon State to coach special teams at NU, and Read had the good fortune of inheriting punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown. The Huskers did take a huge hit with the injury to punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El, though, and BYU was among the nation’s best last season in net punting at 41.2 yards. The Cougars aren’t particularly good in their return games.

Intangibles

Nebraska is banking on cleaning up some things with Riley in charge, and there should be a level of enthusiasm as his debut comes before a Memorial Stadium crowd of 90,000-plus. BYU won’t be intimidated by the noise or venue in a season that also includes trips to UCLA and Michigan in September. Both teams had negative turnover margins a year ago, but BYU took about 30 more yards in penalties a game. Nebraska also hasn’t lost a season-opening game since 1985.

Key matchup: Nebraska offensive line vs. BYU defensive front

There will be some unknown when it comes to the Nebraska offensive line vs. the BYU defensive front. Take out left tackle Alex Lewis and the Huskers’ other four No. 1's have two career starts between them. The Cougars will test them with stunts and a mix of three- and four-man fronts, and 6-foot-8, 280-pound left end Bronson Kaufusi is capable of mayhem.

Our take

No cupcake for Nebraska to kick off the Mike Riley era, with BYU the toughest opener for the Huskers since hosting No. 24 Oklahoma State in 2003. But the Cougars also have been a five-loss team each of the last three seasons, and not exactly flush with much preseason love in 2015. Look for a decent amount of points to be scored, with NU maybe having a big play or two more in it.

Our prediction: NU 38, BYU 30

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