GAME NOTES: Winners of 27 straight season openers, the 18th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers hope to keep rolling along as they kick off the 2013 campaign against the visiting Wyoming Cowboys.
Nebraska, which has won every opener since 1986 by at least nine points, opens the campaign ranked in the preseason poll for the fourth consecutive season. Last year, head coach Bo Pelini and his crew started off with a 49-20 win against Southern Miss, won four of their first five games, and eventually went on to post a 10-2 regular-season mark. A six-game win streak and the Big Ten Legends Division title sent the team to the conference championship game where it was pummeled by Wisconsin, 70-31.
Despite the awful showing against the Badgers, Nebraska still made it to the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 versus Georgia, the seventh-ranked team in the land. Unfortunately, once again the defense for the Huskers let them down in a 45-31 setback.
As for the Cowboys, members of the Mountain West Conference, they had a particularly tough time of it in 2012 as they won a total of just four games, finishing 3-5 in league play for head coach Dave Christensen who is now entering his fifth campaign in Laramie. Last year, was particularly rough on Christensen when you consider he was named the MWC Coach of the Year in 2011 after leading the team to an 8-5 mark and a bowl bid.
Nebraska has won all six previous meetings with the Cowboys, the first being a 50-0 stomping back in 1934, and the latest a somewhat closer 38-14 decision two years ago.
There are several key players who return for the Cowboys on offense, namely quarterback Brett Smith who has all the qualifications for being not only an all-conference performer, but quite possibly an All-American as well. Smith was on the mend last year after suffering an injury, yet still stepped up to complete 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,837 yards and 27 touchdowns, against only six interceptions.
In addition to his passing prowess, Smith also makes himself a valued piece of the running game, scoring a team-best six TDs in 10 games in 2012. Considering the Cowboys are bringing back a number of experienced runners, like Brandon Miller and D.J. May, Smith should be able to limit the times he over-exposes himself to aggressive defenses.
"Obviously, Brett (Smith) is a great player in this conference," said coach Christensen. "He has had a great offseason. He works extremely hard, and is getting better every day. Brett was very sharp during spring drills. He's done everything right, and is a tremendous playmaker."
Also working in favor of Smith and the aerial attack, is the return of a trio of starting receivers in Robert Herron, Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran. Herron was an all-conference wideout in 2012, separating himself from the pack by becoming the only player in the Mountain West to have two games with at least 150 yards receiving.
First and foremost, the Wyoming defense has to replace its top three tacklers from a year ago, chief among them being linebacker Ghaali Muhammad who paced the unit with 106 tackles, 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage and four recovered fumbles. Also on that list are Korey Jones (103 tackles) and Mike Purcell (93 tackles, eight TFL), leaving Blair Burns as the top returning tackler after logging a modest 60 stops from his cornerback position.
Clearly, having a player from the secondary be the leading tackler on the squad is by no means optimal, which is why it is crucial for Eddie Yarbrough and Justin Bernthaler to get settled in at new positions in order to take some of the heat off the secondary. Both players are making the move from defensive end to defensive tackle, opening the door for some new faces to make an impact.
The Pokes will have their hands full in this contest for sure, considering the Cornhuskers ranked eighth in the nation in rushing a year ago with 253.4 ypg and were 26th in total offense with 460.8 ypg. A major factor in all of that was quarterback Taylor Martinez who returns for his junior campaign.
Martinez, who could become just the second quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history to finish his career with 9,000 passing yards and 3,000 on the ground, joining Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, is one of only five signal- callers to have thrown for at least 4,000 yards and run for another 1,500 over the last two campaigns.
While Martinez obviously has the skills to put the ball in the air, the rushing attack remains the bread-and-butter of the Nebraska offense. The team has featured a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last four seasons and in 2012 there were four different ball carriers who recorded at least 100 rushing yards in a game. But make no mistake, while Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah are churning up the yards on the ground, Martinez will still be looking for Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner further down the field.
The aggressive Nebraska offense is augmented by a punishing Husker defense, one that ranked fourth in the country in passing yards allowed (168.1 ypg) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (105.32). Unfortunately, the squad was exposed quite a bit on the ground, permitting 192.5 ypg to rank 10th in the conference and 90th nationally, but a lot of that had to do with giving up 539 yards to Wisconsin alone and another 715 combined rushing yards to UCLA and Ohio State.
Cameron Meredith and Will Compton will aim to stem the tide here in the opener, the defensive end and linebacker having made 39 and 35 career starts for the Huskers already. With an average of close to eight tackles per game a year ago, Compton more than showed his leadership, but now more of his teammates need to follow his example.
"I think they (Wyoming) play really hard, and all indications are that they switched the team around, so we are preparing for everything," Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said in preparing for the Cowboys, "We want to make sure our guys go out there and play fast, and play hard."
But as hard as the Cowboys might play, they are still no match for the Big Red Machine on their home field.
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Recap: Nebraska vs. Wyoming
Lincoln, NE (Sports Network) - Taylor Martinez hurled three touchdown passes and Imani Cross ran for two as the No. 18 Nebraska Cornhuskers won their 27th straight season opener with a 37-34 victory over the Wyoming Cowboys.
Martinez, the first Nebraska (1-0) quarterback to start four consecutive season openers, went 17-for-22 for 155 yards, three scores and an interception. He also picked up 80 yards on the ground while Ameer Abdullah led the Cornhuskers' rushing attack with 114 yards on 19 carries and Cross earned 105.
Brett Smith was terrific in defeat, racking up a career-high 383 yards and four touchdowns through the air and 92 yards on eight carries. Shaun Wick ran for 101 and a touchdown, and Dominic Rufran caught 11 passes for 120 yards while Jalen Claiborne caught a pair of touchdowns.
The Cowboys (0-1), who finished 4-8 in 2012, gained 602 yards of total offense.
The visitors struck first on their second possession of the game. After forcing a Nebraska three-and-out, Wick broke off a 37-yard run, setting up a 6-yard touchdown toss from Smith to Claiborne.
Nebraska marched right down the field on its next possession but had to settle for three when Abdullah was stuffed for a loss on 3rd-and-1 from the Wyoming 4-yard line.
Following Stanley Jean-Baptiste's interception deep in Nebraska territory and subsequent 41-yard return, Martinez unleashed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner to help Nebraska claim its first lead.
Wyoming jumped back in front for the final time on Wick's only rushing score of the game, which capped a 5-play, 76-yard drive that began with a 47-yard scamper by Smith.
Later in the second, Abdullah's career-best 62-yard run down the left sideline set up Cross' 1-yard touchdown plunge, which put the Cornhuskers ahead for good.
Nebraska took a 17-14 edge into the locker room.
Cross found the end zone again early in the third period, this time from 31 yards out to give the home team a 10-point cushion.
Smith and Brandon Miller hooked up for a 22-yard touchdown strike late in the third quarter between two short touchdown passes from Martinez to Quincy Enunwa.
Trailing 37-21 with 6:02 left in the game, Smith fired a dart to Claiborne in the end zone, but a crucial two-point conversation try failed, leaving Wyoming in a 10-point hole.
Nebraska gave the ball back to Wyoming with 2:01 on the clock when Martinez was stuffed on a quarterback keeper on 4th-and-1, setting up Smith's 47-yard touchdown connection with Robert Herron less than a minute later.
Wyoming used two of its three timeouts and benefited from Cross falling out- of-bounds on second down, and forced a punt with just over a minute remaining.
The Cowboys' final possession started on their own 6-yard line, the worst starting field position of the night, and they were unable to get themselves into field goal range before the clock hit zero.