One of the most anticipated games of college football's opening week happens to be Mike Riley’s first game as Nebraska’s head coach. Keeping the Huskers’ season-opening win streak alive will be no easy task as Bronco Mendenhall brings stud quarterback Taysom Hill and the BYU Cougars to town.
The Blackshirts have just been issued under Riley’s rules revamped from the Bo Pelini era, so those who don them in practice will obviously be anxious to prove they deserve them.
This game sets the tone for both teams’ seasons, as Nebraska could go on an undefeated tear for quite some time and BYU faces Boise State at home before traveling to UCLA and Michigan following the visit to Lincoln.
BYU at Nebraska
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Nebraska -6
Three Things to Watch
1. All Aboard The Suspension Train
Thanks to a brawl in last season’s Miami Beach Bowl and various honor code violations including linebacker Sione Takitaki, the Cougars will be holding out a few players, but head coach Bronco Mendenhall won’t name them until after the game. It’s impossible to say if those in the Quiet Corner will stay there for the entire game, the first half or only the first quarter.
On the Cornhuskers’ end, Mike Riley announced that outside linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, tight end Cethan Carter, cornerback Jonathan Rose, offensive lineman Robby Painter and defensive end Joe Keels will miss the contest with single-game suspensions.
2. Tommy Armstrong’s Passing vs. BYU’s Defense
To call Armstrong’s passing inconsistent up to this point would be… well, 100 percent accurate. However, with the addition of Danny Langsdorf to Riley’s staff, No. 4 may see a transformation similar to what he did for the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.
In a recent scrimmage, Armstrong went 15-21 for 242 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Yes, these are scrimmage numbers, but such a stat line is unheard of until recently. The Cougars ranked No. 114 in pass defense last season giving up a generous 270 yards per contest, so accuracy from Armstrong could go a long way in keeping Hill off the field.
While Nebraska’s most dynamic playmaker is on the sidelines in De'Mornay Pierson-El, Jordan Westerkamp is healthy and considered one of the best wideouts in the Big Ten. The Huskers’ pass-catching corps runs deep as not only do they have go-to guys like Westerkamp, but packages developed under Riley designed for both receivers and tight ends.
Whether Armstrong succeeds or not has to do with his confidence and that’s where BYU’s strategy comes into play. The Huskers knows that the Cougars don’t tip their hand when they’re going to blitz or where the attack is coming from. In addition, an offensive line looking to gel also is ripe for a few false start or holding calls in the Cougars’ favor.
3. BYU’s Offense vs. Nebraska’s Defense
If suspensions didn’t handicap BYU enough, running back Jamaal Williams’ departure from the program for 2015 due to personal reasons provided a sucker punch. He was on track to be the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher and was responsible for 22 percent of their 2014 rushing yardage.
Hill has to be every bit the leader for this offense to purr as a result. He’s bouncing back from a broken leg suffered last season, but don’t think it’s suddenly turned to stone. He’ll be facing an overall inexperienced corps of linebackers and Nebraska’s defensive ends aren’t the fastest he’ll see. Gang-tackling will be the necessity of the day if the Huskers want to lock him down.
Wide receivers Terenn Houk, Nick Kurtz (both 6-5) and Devon Blackmon could end up being Hill’s best friends when it comes to taking pressure off the run game and putting points on the board. However, they’ll be going against a Cornhusker secondary that has praised Banker for allowing them to react and attack the ball. It’s also one of the Huskers’ deepest and most talented units across the board.
Nebraska’s running game has been inconsistent in practice, but thanks to any holes made by a one-game recess, the Huskers may be able to finally break a hole through that wall. BYU’s loss of Takitaki for this game is a major plus for Nebraska. He’s regarded as one of the Cougars’ best pass rushers.
Hill is a tremendous athlete and will help put up points on the board. BYU could’ve really used Williams to add to a potential upset bid as he would’ve helped provide longer drives to keep the Blackshirts off the field.
There will be good and bad for both teams, but the game will ultimately come down to the talent difference and turnover margin. One already belongs to Nebraska and the Huskers have a high chance of winning the second.
Prediction: Nebraska 38, BYU 20
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Cavanaugh is the founder of Eightlaces.com, a site devoted to in-depth Nebraska coverage. Be sure to follow Brandon on Twitter @eightlaces and Periscope (eightlaces), and like his Facebook page.