We all know that college football's Week 3 main event is taking place at 3:30 p.m. ET in College Station. But the undercard is pretty ferocious, stocked with telling games from noon to midnight, coast to coast. And one of Saturday's most interesting contests is a Lincoln rematch between two teams that put on quite a show last September: UCLA and Nebraska.
UCLA's 36-30 victory in L.A. was a statement win for head coach Jim Mora, Jr., then in just his second game leading the Bruins. Fans were skeptical of the hire, but this game was a sign that Mora might know what he's doing a little bit. The Bruins operated at a breakneck pace (94 plays), gained 654 yards, scored 36 points, and did just enough to fend off an exciting Nebraska offense (and raise questions about the Nebraska defense).
This time around, Nebraska's strengths and weaknesses haven't changed. The offense is perhaps even better, and the defense might be worse. Meanwhile, UCLA is looking for an opportunity to prove itself after losing stars at running back (Johnathan Franklin), tight end (Joseph Fauria), and defensive end (Datone Jones) and basically every contributor in the secondary.
As with last year's contest, this game will provide a long list of both questions and answers.
Those shirts are not black
The defense really wasn't that bad. Honestly. For the season Nebraska ranked 30th in Def. F/+, not "Blackshirts" worthy, but not bad at all.
In this summer's 2013 Nebraska preview, I defended a defense that looked absolutely dreadful at the end of the 2012 season. The Huskers weren't always what we saw in the Big Ten title game and Capital One Bowl, when they allowed a combined 1,229 yards and 115 points. Though I maintain that, it was also obvious that a defense that finished the year on shaky footing (to put it kindly) might struggle to improve in 2013 unless newcomers thrive quickly.
Nebraska was tasked with replacing five of its top seven linemen and its top three linebackers and both starting safeties. Despite taking on a less-than-fierce pair of early offenses (Wyoming, Southern Miss), early returns have not been encouraging. Wyoming gained 602 yards and scored 34 points in a tighter-than-expected Nebraska win, and while an awful Southern Miss offense was held mostly in check (284 yards, 13 points), there were at least a couple of breakdowns indicative of the previous week's struggles.
Through two games, Nebraska's defense has been pretty uniformly bad. The Huskers rank 96th in Rushing S&P, 98th in passing, 104th on standard downs, and 92nd in passing downs. These are early-season numbers, unadjusted for opponent, but needless to say, opponent adjustments would probably only worsen the rankings.
The problems have seemingly come in two distinct, and terrifying, ways: runs up the middle and long passes along the sidelines.
Our 2013 charting data shows us that while runs to the edge of the defense have been defended properly -- five rushes off left end/tackle have gained 21 yards, and 11 rushes off right end/tackle have gained 40 -- attacking the middle of the Nebraska defense has been disturbingly successful: 23 carries between the tackles have gained 213 yards. A lot of this damage was done by Wyoming, which successfully pulled off a few big gains on zone reads, but Southern Miss had a couple of moments, too.
Meanwhile, while Nebraska has defended shorter passes just fine and seemingly tackled well (5.1 yards per pass on throws that travel fewer than 10 yards in the air), both Wyoming and Southern Miss found success with the deep ball: in 12 passes thrown further than 20 yards in the air, opponents completed six for 201 yards. Ten of these 12 attempts were thrown close to the sidelines, and one of the six incompletions was a drop.
This is problematic for obvious reasons. If you've got a new rotation of defensive tackles (and the Huskers do: four of the top five in the rotation are sophomores or younger and have combined for one tackle for loss in two games), and if your new starting safeties aren't providing proper coverage over the top, you're going to get gashed in the middle and burned deep.
And if you are getting gashed in the middle and burned deep by Wyoming, what's UCLA going to do to you?
In its first test without Johnathan Franklin, UCLA's offense looked just fine in a 58-20 romp over Nevada. New starting running back Jordon James carried 21 times for 155 yards, backups Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro chipped in 87 yards on 10 carries, and Brett Hundley broke off 63 yards in seven carries. Plus, Hundley completed two-thirds of his passes at a solid 8.3 yards per attempt and found quite a bit of success throwing downfield on second- or third-and-long (13-for-18, 185 yards).
Yes, that was just against Nevada's defense, but at this stage in the season we cannot guarantee that Nebraska's is any better.
Nebraska has proven capable of making plays. Corners Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste have combined for five interceptions and five passes broken up, and fellow corner Josh Mitchell has already made three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. But the middle of the defense is pretty easy to soften up, and the safeties have not yet proven their worth. UCLA will have opportunities to put up numbers against a defense it did quite well against last year.
This is going to be a shootout, isn't it?
Okay, so the UCLA offense is going to move the ball well. Can UCLA prevent Nebraska from doing the same?
Will any defense prevent Nebraska from doing the same? If the Huskers can keep up their reasonably good fortune on passing downs, they could be even harder to stop in 2013 than in 2012. They have been perfectly decent (and run-heavy) on standard downs, but not only have they put a little more faith in quarterback Taylor Martinez, throwing the ball more than 60 percent of the time on passing downs (still lower than average but pretty high for Nebraska), but that faith has also paid off. Nebraska is 30th in raw Passing Downs S&P, and Martinez has completed 11 of 13 passes to receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamal Turner on such downs.
Big plays have been an issue for Nebraska thus far, but it might only be a matter of time. Running back Ameer Abdullah did rip off runs of 62 versus Wyoming and 37 versus Southern Miss, but Martinez has been hemmed in for the most part, and his longest completion to date has been a 26-yarder to tight end Jake Long. And while the three receivers above have managed a great catch rate, those catches haven't really gone anywhere (10.4 yards per catch). But we know what Martinez can do in the open field, and we know that both Bell (17.3 yards per catch in 2012) and Turner (13.0) can get downfield.
One has to figure that if you're looking for a Nebraska tuneup, Nevada is a pretty good opponent to put on the schedule. The Huskers are more shotgun than pistol overall, but the "run-first spread(ish) offense helmed by a dynamic quarterback who can pass semi-efficiently" description could go for either team. Against Nevada, UCLA did a solid job of surviving to play another down. Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo rushed 20 times (not including sacks) for 121 yards and completed 59 percent of his passes, but Wolf Pack receivers averaged just 8.7 yards per catch, and running backs Don Jackson and Kendall Brock combined to gain just 67 yards on 24 carries. Against a team that runs a lot of option and, in Nebraska's case, has a history of fumbleitis, tackling well and bending without breaking can pay off.
Of course, "bend-don't-break" isn't tremendously apt for UCLA thus far. First, the Bruins did make a lot of plays in the backfield against Nevada, rolling up 11 tackles for loss (only two of which were sacks). OLB/missile Anthony Barr had a pair of TFLs, as did freshman end Eddie Vanderdoes. Plus, while the big plays were minimal, Fajardo still had both time and room for finding open receivers on passing downs. Three of UCLA's top four corners are sophomores and younger and played quite soft against the Wolf Pack; if Fajardo can complete 59 percent of his passes (70+ percent on passing downs), Martinez can complete 65.
It could be up to UCLA's more seasoned front seven to make some plays and force as many passing downs as possible to protect the secondary from making a lot of tackles 15 yards downfield. Nebraska's line, much improved a year ago, has been strong thus far: only 11 percent of Husker runs have been stopped for a loss, which is one of the better Stuff Rates in the country. But Wyoming and Southern Miss don't have Barr, inside linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks, end Cassius Marsh, etc.
As with so many other teams, the first two weeks of the season have given us hints about UCLA and Nebraska. We will begin to find actual answers on Saturday.