Game Day: Nebraska vs. UCLA

Will Nebraska rise from its slumber?

Rewind, for a second, to kickoff on Black Friday and an electric crowd inside Memorial Stadium. Nebraska, which had roused its moribund, frustrating season with an upset win over Michigan State, had a fine shot at upending undefeated Iowa. Within the NU program, coaches and players were confident, especially after a bye week of preparation, that Iowa would have to play its best game to escape with a win.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. UCLA rush defense

One of the disappointments this season has been the Huskers’ inability to run the ball consistently or with regular authority. The worst of it came in back-to-back games against Northwestern and Purdue, resulting in NU throwing 48 passes in both. But the UCLA defense ranks No. 88 nationally in rushing yards allowed (187.8 per game) and has been dented by injuries.

Nebraska pass offense vs. UCLA pass defense

Nebraska can look good when things are going well, and several Husker receivers had big regular seasons as Tommy Armstrong passed for 2,856 yards and 21 touchdowns. The bugaboo has been interceptions, and Armstrong threw 10 of his 16 in his last four starts. UCLA picked off 12 passes this season, and opponents completed just 56.8 percent of their throws.

UCLA rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

UCLA isn’t one-dimensional, and Paul Perkins’ success the last two seasons backs that up. Perkins averages 5.7 yards per carry and makes defenses pay for missed tackles. Nebraska, however, stayed solid against the run most of the season and went into bowl season No. 8 nationally in rushing defense at 113.4 yards per game. The Huskers also have all their pieces back.

UCLA pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Only two freshmen this season threw for more than the 3,350 yards by quarterback Josh Rosen, who was an immediate good fit for the Noel Mazzone offense. The Bruins also have one receiver with 1,068 yards (Jordan Payton) and another with 10 TDs (Thomas Duarte). Nebraska watched six of its first seven opponents throw for 300 yards or more.

Special teams

UCLA has the Lou Groza Award winner with kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, who has made 38 of 45 field goals his last two seasons. Nebraska answers with Drew Brown, successful on his last 10 field goals and now 13 of 17 from 40-plus yards. Give NU a solid edge at punter with Sam Foltz (44.4-yard average), but UCLA has the bigger return threat with Devin Fuller.

Intangibles

Motivation will be hard to gauge until the game gets rolling, but UCLA obviously had some higher hopes after being ranked as high as No. 7, and Nebraska is simply fortunate to be playing after a 5-7 season. The Bruins should have the crowd edge and play more regularly on natural grass. Both teams have issues with penalties, but UCLA has a huge edge with turnovers.

Key matchup: UCLA receivers vs. Nebraska cornerbacks

One thing that became clear late in the season and into December is that Nebraska has found its 2016 cornerbacks with Josh Kalu and Chris Jones. Those two now face good final tests to their sophomore seasons, matching up with Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and company — with Josh Rosen trying to find them.

Our take

Nebraska is 3-4 against the Pac-12 since 2009, but the talent of this UCLA team is closer to the Bruin squad that beat it in 2012 and ’13 and the USC unit that hung 45 on it last year. NU will have to put up some points, but its defensive effort against a fast-paced UCLA offense likely will be the determining factor.

Our prediction: UCLA 38, NEBRASKA 27

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Game notes

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