Game Day: Nebraska vs. Arkansas State

Time for a reaction

All that chemistry is about to have some heat applied to it. Arkansas State’s defense pressures a quarterback like few other FBS teams. Its spread offense wants to move quickly and stress a defense. A Husker team with youth and inexperience everywhere has to transform all those good camp feelings into production.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Arkansas State rush defense

The Huskers’ run game is making a major transition. Gone are the quarterback read-option runs that marked coach Mike Riley’s two seasons with quarterback Tommy Armstrong at the helm. NU quarterback Tanner Lee will hand off to a trio of backs — Tre Bryant, Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo — and perhaps a few receivers, too. The Huskers’ offensive line is seasoned, but its last game out — vs. Tennessee in the Music City Bowl — wasn’t pretty. Just 61 yards, the lowest total in more than two full seasons. Arkansas State’s defense only gave up 3.57 yards per carry last season. ASU will try to use the quickness of its front seven against NU’s size.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Arkansas State pass defense

With risks come rewards — and busts. Arkansas State defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, probably hasn’t met a pressure, blitz or twist he doesn’t like, so ASU will come after Husker quarterback Tanner Lee. Expect Lee — and NU’s offensive line — to be ready, and the Husker wideouts to be the beneficiaries. ASU may give up some chunk plays by taking too many chances. Watch Red Wolves defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, though. He had 13.5 sacks last season, and he’s probably hungry for more in Lincoln.

Arkansas State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

ASU ran for a measly 3.45 yards per carry last season and has close to a brand-new offensive line. While new players may not be a bad thing, Nebraska’s front seven — full of strong, hard-hitting guys like nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg and defensive end Carlos Davis — should get the job done. The Red Wolves like to run a little read option, but they’re more fond of quick toss plays that try to get backs to the edge of the field. Arkansas State may find itself having a tough night running the ball.

Arkansas State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Red Wolves run a spread offense that tries to get its athletes in space and stress a defense vertically and horizontally. Here, quarterback Justice Hansen — at 6-foot-4 — should help. He has the Sun Belt’s preseason all-conference tight end in Blake Mack — watch for ASU to send him up the seam of NU’s defense — and some decent outside receivers. Nebraska’s corners are as green as new tree buds. Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle — likely to play a lot in the Huskers’ nickel defense — have never played significant snaps in a college game. Lamar Jackson played a lot in two games last season; he took his lumps in both. Safeties Joshua Kalu and Aaron Williams are solid, though. Can NU get a pass rush? Can new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco manufacture one?

Special teams

Outside of kicker Drew Brown and snapper Jordan Ober, it’s a big question mark for Nebraska. What schemes has new special teams coordinator Scott Booker cooked up? Reporters weren’t privy to them. De’Mornay Pierson-El was the nation’s most prolific punt returner as a freshman, but injuries have slowed him since. DPE looks and says he’s as healthy as he’s ever been. At kick returner, Nebraska will use redshirt freshman JD Spielman. The Red Wolves had the Sun Belt’s best coverage units — No. 1 in kickoff and No. 2 in punt coverage — and ASU blocked five kicks/punts, too.

Intangibles

Big advantage to Nebraska here. The Huskers haven’t lost a night game at home since 2008, and, other than a Hail Mary win for BYU in 2015, NU hasn’t lost a home opener since 1985. Both teams are young, which probably works against Arkansas State, being the road underdog. While ASU quarterback Hansen has experience, the offensive line protecting him doesn’t have a ton. The Huskers usually know how to leverage an opening-night crowd.

Key matchup: NU's offensive line vs. ASU's front seven

If Nebraska wins this matchup convincingly, the Huskers could roll by four touchdowns. Arkansas State relies on the aggression and toughness of its front seven to stuff the run and get after the quarterback. If NU’s line can protect Lee and crack open a few rushing lanes, Nebraska could get big plays off of ASU’s defense. If not? An upset may be brewing.

Our take

This season opener sits between the difficulty of BYU and the relative ease of an overmatched Fresno State team. Arkansas State has the athletes, quarterback and aggressive style to keep the score close. But ASU hasn’t beaten a Power Five conference team since Texas A&M in 2008. Other than BYU, Nebraska hasn’t lost to a non-Power Five team since Southern Mississippi in 2004. Lee handles the pressure OK, the defense flexes its muscle, but the jury will remain out on NU’s running game.

Our prediction: Nebraska 27, Arkansas State 13

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Game notes

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