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September 8, 2012

Match-up watch: UCLA

NU Run Offense vs. UCLA Run Defense
No Rex Burkhead, no problem. At least that was the case last week as Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross combined for 177 yards on the ground after Burkhead was lost to an injury in the first quarter. Burkhead will travel with the team to UCLA, but his playing status is still up in the air.

As for the Bruins, their run defense looked fairly stout last week - but that was against Rice. Holding the Owls to 3.6 yards per carry is nice, but the NU running attack is a completely different animal. The Bruins do have plenty of talent in their defensive front seven, namely defensive linemen Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh and linebackers Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks. But the Bruins were second to last in the Pac 12 in rushing defense last year and gave up 174 yards on the ground to Rice.

After watching the NU offensive line bully Southern Miss last week, it's hard to imagine a huge drop-off in production from the backfield this week. Don't be surprised if Taylor Martinez gets more involved in the rushing attack as well.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. UCLA Pass Defense
Once considered the Huskers' main weakness, the passing game was a thing to behold last Saturday. Martinez and his deep stable of receivers toyed with the Golden Eagles on the way to a career day for the quarterback. The line protected Martinez well and the receiving corps, which displayed inconsistent hands in 2011, proved to be dependable.

Meanwhile, the UCLA secondary boasts a handful of talented defensive backs, including Sheldon Price, who picked off a pass against Rice. The pressing issue for the Bruins is whether or not they can generate a pass rush. They finished 112th nationally in sacks last season but picked up seven sacks in the opener. Have new coach Jim Mora Jr. and his staff figured out how to get to the quarterback or did UCLA simply pick on the lowly Owls?

Martinez has shown flashes of passing prominence before - his performances against Oklahoma State in 2010 and Northwestern last year teased Husker fans with his potential. He wasn't able to keep up that level of play before, but now he gets another shot. If the line can keep UCLA's pass rushers off of him, another big day from Martinez could be in the works.

Edge: Nebraska

UCLA Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
The Huskers held Southern Miss to 3.9 yards per carry last week, but backup quarterback Anthony Alford zipped through the defense on zone-read plays for 84 yards. Nebraska, which has had its share of struggles against mobile quarterbacks, will face another this week in Brett Hundley, who ripped off a 72-yard run on the first play of his collegiate career against Rice.

But Hundley is far from NU's only worry. Running back Johnathan Franklin rushed for 214 yards in the opener and was just 24 yards away from completing his second 1,000-yard season in 2011. The Bruins are one of the best rushing teams in the Pac 12 and ran for 343 yards at a clip of 9.3 yards per carry last Saturday.

The Huskers were far from dominant against the run last season, but they showed flashes of getting closer against Southern Miss. Nebraska tracked down the Golden Eagles for 11 tackles for loss, but also missed its share of takedowns. UCLA displayed the ability to produce explosive gains in the running game in their first game under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and could be due for more if NU can't spruce up its shoddy tackling.

Edge: UCLA

UCLA Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The Huskers' secondary looked great against Southern Miss, but the Golden Eagles didn't try very hard to test Nebraska vertically. Andrew Green and the safeties are all solid, but UCLA could try it luck against inexperienced players such as Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste early. The defensive backfield will get Mohammed Seisay back from injury, although it could be only on a limited basis.

It's tough to judge Hundley as a passer after one game, especially against an overmatched opponent. He did well against the Owls, completing 21 of 28 passes for 202 yards. The receiving corps is mostly young and untested, but expect plenty of passes coming Joseph Fauria's way. The 6-foot-8 tight end presents Hundley with a massive target and could give NU some problems.

The secondary appeared to be one of Nebraska's strengths coming into 2012 and it didn't disappoint last week. Defending Fauria might be an issue, but defensive coordinator John Papuchis will have plenty of different looks to throw at the tight end. If Nebraska can generate a pass rush and make Hundley uncomfortable, they could rattle the redshirt freshman into a couple of mistakes.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Maybe the biggest surprise that came out of Nebraska's opener was watching a seemingly strong special teams unit struggle mightily. Brett Maher looked completely out of sorts, missing two fields goals and shanking a punt. The kickoff team allowed Southern Miss to return a kick for a touchdown, prompting Bo Pelini to say there would be changes this week.

On the bright side, Abdullah did well on punt returns and Kenny Bell showed some ability returning kicks. The Huskers will be without the injured Tim Marlowe, who started alongside Abdullah on kick returns.

UCLA was among the Pac 12's best kick coverage teams a year ago, but they struggled with field goals and don't appear to have a standout returner. Punter Jeff Locke pinned Rice inside the 20-yard line three times but also sent two punts into the end zone. Expect a bounce back week from Maher and an improved effort by the NU coverage units to win this battle.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Nebraska Will Win If:

The trio of backup running backs again succeeds in its Burkhead impersonation and Martinez displays the same poise and accuracy he did last week. The secondary should keep the UCLA passing attack in check and if the Huskers can slow down the Bruins running the ball, it could be a long day for UCLA.

UCLA Will Win If:

The Huskers return to their undisciplined ways. Martinez reverts back to his previous form and is careless with the football while Nebraska commits several unnecessary penalties. Hundley and Franklin have their way running the ball and capitalize off a few NU turnovers.

X-Factor:

A lot will be decided Saturday by Martinez's arm on the first few drives. If he has close to the same success he did a week ago early on, his confidence will spike and he'll continue throwing bullets to a very deep band of receivers. But if UCLA can get him out of rhythm and force NU to lean on its backup running backs, the Huskers will have a fight on their hands.

Prediction: Nebraska 38, UCLA 24



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