(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
No. 16 UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska
Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ABC
Line: Nebraska -4
While it takes some coaches weeks, months and years to establish themselves on the college football landscape, it took Jim Mora Jr. all of two games. That’s right, “UCLA 36, Nebraska 33” last September wasn’t just some meaningless early season game in 2012; instead it was a statement.
It was a statement that UCLA wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore. It was a statement that the “football monopoly” was over in Los Angeles. And that there was a new player in the Pac-12 South race.
UCLA 36, Nebraska 33 wasn’t just a “win,” but instead a program defining victory for the Bruins.
Now, with these same two teams getting ready for a rematch a year later (this time in Lincoln), it’s Nebraska who is looking for their own signature win. UCLA spent all of 2012 and this off-season establishing itself as one of the up-and-coming programs in college football, now it’s time for Nebraska to make its own statement one way or the other. The program is in the midst of five straight seasons with at least nine wins, yet still hasn’t made a significant dent in the national landscape.
That could change with a win Saturday.
For UCLA to Win: Brett Hundley simply has to keep doing what he’s been doing.
After a 2012 season in which Hundley threw for 29 touchdowns and rushed for nine more, it looked like the redshirt sophomore picked up right where he left off in the Bruins’ season-opener two weeks ago. In that game, Hundley completed 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another 63 as well.
If Hundley can put up those type numbers (let alone what he did against the Cornhuskers last season when he threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns), the Bruins should cruise to victory.
For Nebraska to Win: It’s obvious, but basically, they need to stop Brett Hundley from being Brett Hundley. More importantly, they’ve got to figure out their identity on defense.
Of course sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Understand that this was the year that the Cornhuskers were supposed to return to their status as one of the nation’s best defenses. Yet they took a major step backward in their opener against Wyoming, giving up 602 yards of total offense, with over 400 of those yards (383 passing, 92 rushing) accounted for by quarterback Brett Smith alone.
For those who’ve never seen Smith play, think of him as “A poor man’s Brett Hundley.”
Of course if Nebraska had trouble slowing down a poor man’s Brett Hundley, what happens when they’re faced with the real thing?
We’ll find out Saturday.
Key Player, UCLA: The answer sadly, is walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale.
Please understand that we are in no, way, shape or form being facetious about the role that Pasquale- who passed away in a tragic accident just last Saturday- could play for the Bruins. It’s just that it’s impossible to speculate what this team’s psyche will be like, after losing one of their teammates under such awful circumstances. Frankly, it’d be completely understandable if the Bruins’ heads weren’t totally in the game when they take the field Saturday.
The problem is that for UCLA, the games must go on, and this is an especially tough game to play, while also grieving the loss of a teammate. The Cornhuskers are not only a legitimate Top 25 team, but you’ve got to imagine that Memorial Stadium will be rocking, even if this is “only” an 11 a.m. local time kick-off.
Speaking of which, the fact that this game will be a 9 a.m. Pacific start does them no favors.
Add in all those factors and you’ve got to wonder if “focus” will be an issue. Again, it’d be hard to blame anyone on the Bruins if it wasn’t totally there.
Key Player, Nebraska: On a much less serious note, we’ll go with running back Ameer Abdullah here. We’ve already spent an extensive time discussing what the Cornhuskers have to do defensively to slow down Brett Hundley, but at the end of the day they’re still going to need to score plenty of points to pull out the victory here.
Enter Abdullah. Through two games, the junior has been unequivocally this team’s most dynamic playmaker, rushing for 114 yards per game in each of the Cornhuskers two victories this season. He added two touchdowns last week just for good measure as well.
We’re not saying Abdullah has to be great Saturday. Just good enough to keep the chains moving, and keep UCLA’s high-powered offense off the field.
Key Stat: 13. Can you believe that’s the number of years since the Cornhuskers last finished the season ranked in the Top 10? It’s also the last time the Cornhuskers played in a BCS bowl game.
Simply put, Saturday’s game against UCLA will neither make or break that streak.
But it should be a pretty good barometer of where the Cornhuskers program stands. And how far they need to go.
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.