Game Day: Nebraska vs. Akron

Scotlight

Of myriad storylines bound up in Nebraska’s prime time, nationally-televised game against Akron, the man who will lead the Huskers out of the revamped Tunnel Walk, he’s the main event. He may not want to be the big story and, once NU has taken a punch and delivered a few of its own, he won’t be.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Akron rush defense

The Huskers’ new spread, no-huddle offense should offer an immediate boost to a run game that ran aground in 2017, when NU had six games with fewer than 100 rushing yards. The backfield has some extra juice thanks to quarterback Adrian Martinez and newcomer backs Greg Bell, Maurice Washington and Miles Jones. The offensive line has matured, and the Zips’ run defense — anchored though it may be by a senior-laden defensive line — is likely to melt down. Akron gave up 5.03 yards per carry last year. Not pretty.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Akron pass defense

The Zips’ secondary is legit, returning four starters from a unit that helped intercept 19 passes last year. Nebraska would gladly take senior starting corners Kyron Brown and Darian Dailey on its roster tomorrow. Martinez, in his first career start, has his work cut out for him and will need the ingenuity of coach Scott Frost’s scheme to get chunk passes. A solid run game will help, too. NU’s receivers — led by Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman and Mike Williams — are no slouches and should get some opportunities, especially after catching shorter passes. Martinez is not likely to have a field day here.

Akron rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Few teams were worse than Nebraska at running the ball last season. Akron was one of them. The Zips ranked last in the Mid-American Conference in yards per game and although quarterback Kato Nelson helped some, he didn’t get very good blocking. Nebraska’s front seven, awful and unmotivated at the end of last season, should flourish under a new, aggressive scheme. Akron should be better running the ball in 2018, but not necessarily in Game 1.

Akron pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

In a half-season of play last year, Nelson completed 50 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns against two interceptions. Not bad. Receiver Kwadarrius Smith — just 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds — averaged 21.4 yards per catch last year, so he’s dangerous. NU’s secondary is a real wild card with so many new faces at safety and lingering questions at cornerback, but look for Nebraska’s pass rush, as coordinated by Erik Chinander, to get after Nelson from start to finish.

Special teams

Akron’s kicking game stunk in 2017. The Zips made just 6 of 13 field goals and missed two extra points. The Zips had 12 yards — total — in punt returns last season while giving up 330. Nebraska is breaking in a freshman kicker (Barret Pickering) but should make a little hay in the return game with Spielman, Tyjon Lindsey or whoever else Nebraska puts back there to return kicks.

Intangibles

The Huskers will be sky high for the first game of the Frost era. A new Tunnel Walk, a juiced primetime crowd — that’s going to be a lot for Akron to overcome. NU has to survive the jitters of all that, but it should find energy through all four quarters. Akron has only played in a handful of settings louder and more intimidating than Memorial Stadium. It’s not likely to go well Saturday night.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s tempo offense against Akron’s experienced defense

The Zips will have one of the better defenses in the MAC. NU’s offense, though, is designed to overwhelm lesser foes. The faster the pace, the more the talent advantage should reveal itself. Still, tempo can backfire when the execution is shoddy. The only way Akron stays in the game is if Nebraska commits turnovers or kills drives with miscues.

Our take

NU has played Akron just once — the season-opening game of Scott Frost’s senior year. Nebraska coasted to a 59-14 win. This game won’t be that lopsided, but the Huskers have more firepower than the Zips, and a serious dose of energy and excitement to boot. Martinez may take a few lumps, but Nebraska’s run game should be just fine, while Akron’s offense struggles to get to 300 total yards. The Frost era starts with a W.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 38, AKRON 14

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