- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wyoming (0-0) at No. 18 Nebraska (0-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
Coaches: Wyoming, Dave Christensen (22-28, fifth year); Nebraska, Bo Pelini (49-20, sixth year)
Series: Nebraska leads 6-0
Last meeting: 2011, Nebraska 38, Wyoming 14
When Nebraska has the ball: Keep an eye on the feet of QB Taylor Martinez, the nation’s active career rushing leader with 2,858 yards. Martinez, for a guy with 545 rushing attempts in 40 games, has stayed remarkably healthy in three seasons. This fall, with an abundance of talent at I-back and receiver to help carry the load, Martinez may try to reduce the stress on his body. He rushed 195 times last season, a career high. If that number can drop to about 10 per game, the Huskers are doing something right to preserve the health of their quarterback for a tough November. The Cowboys are not good against the run, ranking 117th in 2012, so Nebraska can likely showcase sophomore Imani Cross and true freshman Terrell Newby behind I-back Ameer Abdullah. Look for backup quarterbacks Ron Kellogg III and redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong to see time, too.
When Wyoming has the ball: Brett Smith is a legitimate playmaker for the Cowboys as a third-year starting quarterback. The 6-foot-3 junior rushed for 710 yards and 10 scores last year in addition to his 2,832 yards through the air. He’s got a solid cast of receivers who will test the rebuilt Nebraska secondary, which figures to spend most of its night in dime formation with five defensive backs on the field. That means plenty of playing time for true freshman Nathan Gerry, the hybrid linebacker-DB brand of defender who has thrived historically in Bo Pelini’s scheme. Up front, the Huskers are reconstructed, too, with redshirt freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine set to play extensively alongside veterans Thad Randle, Jason Ankrah and juco transfer Randy Gregory. From that group, somebody must develop into a formidable force.
Who to watch: Senior WR Quincy Enunwa. Despite his 42 catches last season, he draws less attention than the more flashy Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner on the edge of the Husker offense. But Enunwa, at 6-foot-2 and a rock-solid 225 pounds, might just rank as the most feared wideout on this roster – at least, if you’re trying to tackle him. Martinez raved about a run after the catch by Enunwa in a recent scrimmage. “It was ridiculous,” the QB said. “I can’t wait to see anyone try to take him down one on one.”
Who else to watch: Linebackers David Santos and Zaire Anderson, key elements in the improved athleticism of the Nebraska defense. Santos has apparently blossomed into a leader, evidenced by the Blackshirt practice jersey he received Wednesday – one of seven awarded by the NU coaches. He’ll start at middle linebacker and serve as the glue of a defensive group that figures to endure a few rocky moments early in the season. Anderson showed promise a year ago before going down with an injury in September.
Pushing buttons: Yes, the aforementioned Blackshirts were distributed this week – to Santos, Ankrah, Randle, Ciante Evans, Josh Mitchell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Corey Cooper. It’s a tip of the cap to tradition by Pelini, who, since his 2008 arrival, had waited until at least midway through the season to reward his top defenders with such a prize. The coach also broke from his policy by naming season-long captains this season. Pelini wants his veterans to take on more leadership, generally a strong suit in championship contenders.
Mentioned this in Tuesday's blog, but it bears more detail: Ten teams since Pelini took over at Nebraska have won more than the Huskers’ 48 games – Boise State, Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Florida, Oklahoma, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. All 10 rank in the top 18 over that time in turnover margin. None come in worse than plus-29 in the category. Nebraska sits at minus-20, 100th among FBS programs.
Pelini is aiming for his 50th win as the Nebraska coach. (Remember the 2003 Alamo Bowl? It counts.) He’s one of only four head coaches ever at a major conference school to win nine games in each of his first five seasons at his first job. The others? Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Larry Coker at Miami.
Nebraska has won 27 straight season openers, dating to 1986, each by nine or more points.
Saturday’s crowd will break a stadium attendance record after the addition of 6,000 seats on the revamped east side. The official capacity of Memorial Stadium is now 87,000, but expect a number around 92,000 for the 326th consecutive sellout.
Nebraska is 15-1 in home non-conference games under Pelini. Its only loss was to Virginia Tech in 2008.
Final thought: Sophomore Mauro Bondi and senior Pat Smith, a Western Illinois transfer, remained locked in a kicking battle this week. Under Pelini, the position has never been a concern, thanks to the security offered by Alex Henery and Brett Maher. Can Bondi or Smith extend the run of success?
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