NCF Nation: Mauro Bondi
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska came back from a pair of first-half deficits and survived a late Wyoming rally to win its NCAA-record 28th straight season opener, 37-34 on Saturday night.
The Cowboys, of the Mountain West Conference, showed surprising resolve, gaining 602 yards before a Nebraska school-record crowd of 91,185 in the 326th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
The 18th-ranked Huskers rebounded from a sluggish start to score 21 consecutive points in the second and third quarters.
But Wyoming never went away as quarterback Brett Smith hurt the Huskers with both his arms and feet. Smith threw for 383 yards and rushed for 92. He fired a pair of late touchdown passes to nearly erase a 16-point deficit. His 29-yard strike to Jalen Claiborne with 6:02 to play made it 37-27, and a 47-yard dart to Robert Herron with 1:32 left sliced the lead to three points.
Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell sacked Smith on a two-point conversion attempt after the first of Wyoming's fourth-quarter TDs, and the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick after the second.
Wyoming stopped the Huskers quickly in the final two minutes to regain possession, but its final drive ended short of midfield.
It was over when: Smith scrambled wildly, using all of the final 11 seconds to throw across midfield as time expired at the end of a frantic fourth quarter. A pair of holding calls stymied Wyoming’s last possession, but it converted a fourth-and-11 to its 31-yard on a 14-yard strike to Claiborne before the errant heave fell to the turf, allowing the Huskers and their record crowd to sigh deeply.
Game ball goes to: Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste came up big several times -- none more important than an interception of Smith late in the first quarter. With the Cowboys already up 7-3, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste outwrestled freshman Tanner Gentry at the goal line, ending Smith’s streak of passes without a pick at 183. On the next Wyoming possession after Nebraska went up 10-7, Jean-Baptiste delivered a big hit on Gentry. Jean-Baptiste then fought through a block to corral receiver Claiborne for no gain on a third-and-2 reception to force the Cowboys’ only three-and-out series of the first half.
Stat of the game: Eight. The number of consecutive running plays Nebraska called on scoring drives midway through the second quarter and early in the third. The eight runs totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns, turning a 14-10 Wyoming lead into a 24-14 Nebraska edge. Against a rush defense that ranked 117th nationally a year ago, the Huskers, before turning to the run, called passes on six of seven plays in the first half, resulting in two incompletions, three receptions for 14 yards, a 3-yard Taylor Martinez scramble and two punts. The turnaround began with Ameer Abdullah’s 62-yard scamper and ended with a bruising 31-yard TD burst by Imani Cross.
Unsung hero: One man cannot replace the excellence in the kicking game provided over the past seven years by Alex Henery and Brett Maher, both of whom handled place-kicking and punting duties. So Nebraska went with three guys, and they all showed well. Sophomore Mauro Bondi consistently blasted kickoffs deep; senior Pat Smith, despite missing an extra point, connected on his lone field goal try from 24 yards; and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz boomed four punts for an average of 49.2 yards.
Best improvisation: It was a bit early to say Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, but the Huskers, down 7-0, had already muddled through one unproductive possession when, on the third play of their second series, Martinez fumbled the snap on third-and-5. The senior QB chased it down, bought some time with his legs and threw downfield. His pass sailed long, but tight end Jake Long caught the deflection to extend the drive with a 26-yard gain. The drive ended with Pat Smith’s field goal.
What Nebraska learned: The Huskers aren't ready for UCLA, who will visit Lincoln on Sept. 14 with QB Brett Hundley, a better version of Brett Smith. Wyoming’s third-year starter tormented the Blackshirts for much of Saturday. He ran effectively and used his feet to avoid pressure in the pocket. Hundley will inflict more pain if the front seven can’t dial up additional pressure. When the Huskers got to Smith, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for roughing the passer to negate a sack. Offensively, it went about as expected until the final minutes. Martinez showed nice composure. The backs ran well, and the receivers were sure-handed.
What Wyoming learned: If it can find a way to slow opponents’ running games, the Cowboys ought to improve significantly on their 4-8 finish of a year ago. Wyoming unexpectedly controlled this game for much of the first half and simply ran out of time at the end. It features a nice group on offense, with the multitalented Smith, running back Shaun Wick and several capable receivers.
For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.
As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.
5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.
6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.
7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.
8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.
9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.
10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.
11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.
12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Recruits: 20 (18 high school seniors, two junior college transfers, three players enrolled early)
Top prospects: The Huskers bring in the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in Aaron Green, ranked as the nation's No. 3 running back and No. 11 overall prospect by ESPN Recruiting. They also bolstered the offensive backfield with ESPNU 150 quarterbacks Jamal Turner and Bubba Starling, although Starling could bolt to play professional baseball. Both lines are addressed in this class with players like center Ryne Reeves and defensive tackles Todd Peat Jr. and Kevin Williams. The defensive backfield adds a key player in ESPNU 150 cornerback Charles Jackson.
Needs met: Nebraska needs a featured running back following Roy Helu Jr.'s departure, and the addition of both Green and Ameer Abdullah answers a need there. The Huskers also need to build depth at receiver and brought in two potential contributors in Taariq Allen and Daniel Davie. Life after star specialist Alex Henery begins this fall and Nebraska picked up kicker Mauro Bondi late in the recruiting process.
Analysis: If the 2011 class is any indication, Nebraska will be a formidable recruiting force in the Big Ten. The Huskers capitalized on their Texas connections with players like Green, Turner and Jackson and also did well closer to home with in-state products like Reeves. Although Nebraska didn't neglect its two lines, the overall athleticism in this class really stands out. Skill players like Green, Turner, Starling and Jackson should be able to contribute early in their careers.
ESPN Recruiting grade: B
- Steve Edmond, LB
Some schools have addressed these with their current class. Some haven't. Others are still trying.
We'll kick things off with the artists formerly known as the Big 12 North and examine the South later today.
Cornerback: Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith were pretty reliable for the Buffaloes, but both are headed to the NFL, and the Buffaloes could definitely use some depth behind their first-year starters. It's not quite as pressing of an issue considering their move to the less pass-happy Pac-12, but they still like to sling it out west.
Receiver: Colorado isn't exactly starving anywhere on offense, but receiver sticks out a bit. Toney Clemons was good, but maybe not quite what the Buffaloes hoped he'd be in 2010, but they caught a break in getting Paul Richardson back after a great freshman season. The Buffaloes need some complementary pieces around Clemons and Richardson to replace departed pass-catchers Scotty McKnight and Travon Patterson. Next year, that should be tight end Ryan Deehan and receiver Will Jefferson.
Receiver: It's been a struggle for Iowa State in recent years, but they have to get better outside to help out their quarterback. Sedrick Johnson's transfer only worsens the Cyclones depth at the position, but Jake Williams and tight end Collin Franklin, the team's leading receiver, are gone. Shontrelle Johnson looks ready to become a big factor in the offense, but the Cyclones filling the space at receiver will make it easier for Johnson to replace running back Alexander Robinson.
Safety: Both starters, David Sims and Zac Sandvig, are gone. So is the Cyclones top reserve at the position, Michael O'Connell. Sims was a top-notch talent that will be tough to replace, but Iowa State needs more depth here. They should be solid at corner with Leonard Johnson, Ter'ran Benton, Jeremy Reeves and Anthony Young, which could make the new safeties' jobs easier.
Defensive line: KU is losing three of four starters on the line, including the team's only All-Big 12 talent, defensive end Jake Laptad. Turner Gill wants more speed, and this is a place to install it. Tackles that tip the scales at 320 pounds aren't too necessary in this league, but speed on the edge can go a long way in stopping the pass.
Quarterback: Neither Jordan Webb or Quinn Mecham look like long-term answers at quarterback for the Jayhawks. Mecham will be a senior, and Webb might develop into a better player as a sophomore next year, but Kansas needs other options. The Jayhawks hope Brock Berglund, the top-rated recruit in Colorado, is the solution to the problem.
Running back: I hear your cries for Bryce Brown, Wildcats fans, but K-State can't expect to hitch their wagon to the former blue-chip recruit turned Tennessee transfer in the same way it did for Daniel Thomas. Thomas and his backup, William Powell, are gone, and the Wildcats need some depth at running back to show up.
Interior offensive linemen: K-State loses both guards and its center from an offense that produced the Big 12's leading rusher in 2010. Don't expect them to do it again in 2011 without Wade Weibert, Kenneth Mayfield and Zach Kendall, as well as Thomas and Powell, but finding some new talent behind them will help them come close.
Cornerback: David Garrett emerged as a budding star in 2010 ready for a breakout senior year in 2011, but the Wildcats lose Terrance Sweeney and Stephen Harrison, as well as safety Troy Butler. Like we've mentioned earlier, good secondaries are a must for success in the Big 12, and K-State had one of the league's worst in 2010.
Receiver: Missouri has some good ones ready to suit up in 2011, namely Wes Kemp, Jerrell Jackson and T.J. Moe, but the Tigers don't have a true gamebreaker. They have some younger players in Marcus Lucas and Jimmie Hunt who they hope will develop into big-time, All-American caliber receivers, a la Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander. In Missouri's system, though, adding a few receivers is always a good idea. They certainly don't need any more running backs.
Defensive backs: Mizzou doesn't have any huge holes that need to be filled with recruiting, but the Tigers lose both corners, Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland from their 2010 team. Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines look likely to fill those roles, but the Tigers could use some depth and keep recruiting in the secondary to help add some talent around Tavon Bolden and Matt White, safeties who will replace departed Jarrell Harrison, who actually had to play some linebacker in 2010 because of injuries.
Every kind of kicker: Alex Henery, the team's punter and kicker is gone. So is kickoff specialist and lover/producer of touchbacks, Adi Kunalic. Fan favorite Henery was hardly underappreciated by the Nebraska faithful, but they'll miss him even more if the Huskers can't find a suitable placekicker and punter. Bo Pelini was reportedly after Wake Forest commit Mauro Bondi this week.
Receiver: Niles Paul and Mike McNeill are gone. The Huskers need Brandon Kinnie to come through with another good year and it'd be nice if Quincy Enunwa broke through in 2011, but Taylor Martinez needs some more help at wide out, and a couple new recruits could provide it as Martinez's passing prowess matures.