Game Day: Nebraska vs. Colorado

Boiling over

A controversial injury to Adrian Martinez in last year's game turned Nebraska-Colorado back into what it was before the programs dumped the Big 12 — a rivalry.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Colorado rush defense

It took one half of football in 2019 to realize NU’s run game has room to grow before it can be compared to 2018’s bunch, which averaged 5.41 yards per carry and 209 per game. Nebraska’s offensive line needs more time together, and lead running back Dedrick Mills needs to learn how to read blocks in a spread offense. He’s not Devine Ozigbo quite yet. The 98 rushing yards against South Alabama didn’t appear to include any designed calls for quarterback Adrian Martinez. Expect some of those — perhaps a lot of those — this week. Expect a full game of Maurice Washington to help, too. Colorado’s run defense was skewered by NU last season before improving considerably as 2018 progressed. Don’t be surprised if the Buffaloes, anchored by terrific linebacker Nate Landman, put up a good fight. CU’s defensive line is average, pliable and in a new scheme, which showed in the Buffaloes’ 52-31 win over Colorado State.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense

The way Martinez struggled to make the most basic throws and decisions against South Alabama, you’d think he was starting his first game instead of his second season. Martinez vowed to be better, and position coach Mario Verduzco vowed to coach him harder. NU seemed to miss former receiver Stanley Morgan a little bit, but JD Spielman, Mike Williams and Kanawai Noa were all open with some frequency. Tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen are matchup problems for foes. CU’s secondary is long and athletic, but the Buffaloes don’t have much of a pass rush. Presuming Martinez plays like he’s capable compared to what he showed against South Alabama, Nebraska should have the advantage. Then again — which NU offense shows up? The chemistry doesn’t seem to be quite there yet.

Colorado rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

New CU coach Mel Tucker may be a defensive coordinator, but he wants a tough-guy downhill running game similar to Georgia. CU doesn’t have the line or the backs yet, but Alex Fontenot is a shifty, hard-to-tackle runner for 195 pounds. Nebraska will counter with a deep, confident front seven that can essentially rotate 13 equally talented players for seven spots. The Huskers closed off the middle of the field against South Alabama, and if CU is insistent on running the ball to make a statement, Nebraska’s front will be there to rebuff.

Colorado pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

CU may have the best corps of receivers Nebraska faces all season, and do-it-all junior Laviska Shenault is the best receiver the Huskers have on their schedule. He burned the Big Red for 10 catches and 177 yards last season, and he’ll have a good game again Saturday if quarterback Steven Montez is halfway decent. Colorado’s pass protection against CSU was above average, and the scheme — featuring lots of deep passes interspersed with tunnel screen passes — was tough to defend. Nebraska’s secondary forced five turnovers in the season opener, but the Huskers aren’t facing South Alabama’s young starter. They’re facing Montez, who has started 25 straight games.

Special teams

Nebraska’s special teams played terrific in Week One, except for a muffed punt by Spielman one series after a 76-yard return touchdown. Punter Isaac Armstrong should enjoy the altitude advantage. NU does have a question at kicker, though, if Barret Pickering is unavailable for a second straight week. True freshman Dylan Jorgensen, in a close game, may have to make a field goal that decides the contest. Is he ready? CU senior punter Alex Kinney is among the Pac-12’s best, and receiver KD Nixon is a dangerous returner.

Intangibles

Nebraska has all the motivation after losing to the Buffaloes 33-28 last season, especially since Martinez was purposely injured by a CU linebacker late in the game. The Huskers are talking up and embracing the rivalry aspect of the game in ways that may surprise Colorado players, since their new coach, Tucker, hasn’t spent any time in the series and CU football isn’t quite what it used to be in the 1990s. Thousands of Husker fans should pack Folsom Field — Colorado’s stadium probably hasn’t been as full as it will be since the last time Nebraska played there — so NU players will be feeling the love.

Key matchup: NU's secondary vs. CU's Montez and receivers

Montez and his pass catchers are good enough to win a shootout, should it come to that. They did it last year in Lincoln and they’ve done it enough over their careers that this moment, in a fevered Folsom Field, could be for them. On the other hand, Nebraska’s secondary hasn’t given up a lot of deep passes stretching back to last season. Guys like Cam Taylor-Britt, Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee, Dicaprio Bootle and Marquel Dismuke are confident — and at this point resilient — playmakers in their own right. If you want to watch a bunch of NFL guys face off against a bunch of other NFL guys, this is your matchup. A lot Sunday players in the mix.

Our take

An encore of last year’s thriller seems likely. Nebraska is a better team, Colorado is probably about the same, the setting should be electric and, if things go according to plan, it could be quite a quarterback duel. NU’s choice to slim down its playbook for this week shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage because there’s a good chance the game plan for CU looks nothing like the game plan for South Alabama. If the real Martinez — the guy who runs hard and makes great decisions in the passing game — shows up in Boulder, NU should dial up a win. But the odd play against South Alabama gives a slight pause. Is the chemistry there on the Huskers’ offense? Is Martinez entirely comfortable with the offensive line? An old rival will force Nebraska to answer those questions.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 35, COLORADO 31

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