Game Day: Nebraska vs. South Alabama

Shifting into high gear

Nebraska’s up-tempo, no-huddle system has been souped up from its debut season of a year ago, and Adrian Martinez can't wait to take it for a drive.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. South Alabama rush defense

The Huskers ran for more than 200 yards per game last season, while the Jaguars allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game last season. Even if NU’s parts are a little different, and South Alabama’s defense is a little more seasoned, don’t expect much to change. Nebraska may or may not have sophomore Maurice Washington available for Saturday’s game, but with Dedrick Mills ready to rumble for as many carries as NU wishes, it shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Look for more wide receiver carries in general this season, but especially Saturday with Wan’Dale Robinson and perhaps Miles Jones. Remember: Both were elite high school running backs. They haven’t forgotten how to do the job.

Nebraska pass offense vs. South Alabama pass defense

Nebraska will likely have its usual complement of quick, short passes to the perimeter, but since South Alabama’s defense gave up a whopping 9.2 yards per attempt last season, coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters will have to be thinking “chunk play.” Yes, Nebraska’s wideouts will be involved, but who does South Alabama have to cover tight ends Jack Stoll, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal? Don’t be stunned if that trio has a good day, as does quarterback Adrian Martinez, who could only throw about 20 passes, aiming for a 75-80% completion rate.

South Alabama rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Jaguars aren’t a bad little challenge on the ground, as they feature a starting offensive line with four upperclassmen and running back Tra Minter, who gained more than 800 yards last season and can break a few tackles. Quarterback Cephus Johnson, just a sophomore, has some zone-read ability. Nebraska’s 3-4 defense, however, should be far more geared to stopping the run than it was last season. The defensive line, anchored by Darrion Daniels, is massive, and NU has a pretty aggressive group of linebackers. South Alabama ran for just 19 yards the last time it was at NU in 2015. It’ll run for around 100 this time.

South Alabama pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

If you took receivers Jalen Tolbert, Kawaan Baker and Davyn Flenord and put them on, say, Iowa’s team, they’d be pretty darn good. They’re all big-bodied guys who will test NU’s secondary. But Johnson, the quarterback, is a major question mark. He threw 19 passes last season and completed seven. He’ll be in a lion’s den of a stadium with an 11 a.m. start and will need a good first quarter to keep momentum going. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s secondary is going to be hungry. Really hungry. Ravenous. Don’t be stunned if NU snags two or three interceptions.

Special teams

Nebraska rarely wins this category, but give it the edge on Saturday. Kicker Barret Pickering returns, so does punter Isaac Armstrong, and NU wants its top receivers — Robinson and JD Spielman — as returners. Minter handles returns for USA — he’s one of their best players — and freshman Jack Brooks, from Wagga Wagga, Australia, plays in his first game as the Jags’ punter.

Intangibles

South Alabama is not Troy, the Sun Belt team that outplayed and beat Nebraska last season. Troy is the first- or second-best overall program in that conference. South Alabama may be in a few years — after its new stadium is finished in 2020 — but not yet. And it’ll show in the way the Jaguars play. Nebraska, meanwhile, has an unusual hunger for 2019. Atonement, really, for all the messy moments of 2018. The Huskers won’t take the Jaguars lightly. Just the opposite — Nebraska will be out to prove a point.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s offensive line and backs vs. South Alabama’s front seven

If NU can run the ball, it’ll roll, because the Jaguars just don’t have the offense to keep up. And there are signs that once Husker skill players get past that first line of defense, they’re not going to stop with a 20-yard run. Nebraska is built for big plays, and given that South Alabama allowed 24 rushes of 20 or more yards last season, look for a few long ones.

Our take

Nine months is a long time to wait for catharsis, and Nebraska has been itching to play this game for about that long. Wouldn’t matter who the opponent was, but South Alabama, projected to win three or four games in 2019, is a perfect foe for Big Red to face. Martinez should have a nice day and sit by the end of the third quarter. Bring on the backups from there. The big win denied the Huskers at the start of 2018 will not be denied by weather in 2019.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 48, SOUTH ALABAMA 17

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Game notes

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