I-A College Football News
Huskers take on Wolf Pack in season opener
Aug 29, 2007, 15:30 GMT
Lincoln, NE - Jumping into the AP's preseason poll at the 20th position, the Nebraska Cornhuskers try to get off on the right foot this weekend when they begin the 2007 campaign against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Memorial Stadium.
Preparing for their 283rd consecutive sellout in Lincoln, the Huskers will play as many as eight teams this season that made it to a bowl game following the 2006 campaign. This first-ever meeting between the programs comes after Nebraska took apart almost every non-conference opponent last year, save for a 28-10 loss at USC, but then had to contend with a heavy Big 12 Conference slate that saw the team bow to Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. However, Bill Callahan's squad did make it to the postseason after going 9-4 and was narrowly defeated by Auburn in the Cotton Bowl, 17-14.
As for the Wolf Pack, a team that was favored to take the regular season crown in the Western Athletic Conference in 2006, they lost their opener to Fresno State on the road and then faltered versus Arizona State to begin 0-2. Head coach Chris Ault, who was recently given a contract extension, pushed his unit to three straight wins and eight in the next nine outings. The lone loss during the run was a 41-34 setback in Honolulu to Hawaii. The run ended with a 38-7 defeat at the hands of Boise State, the only team in the country to go undefeated, but still an 8-4 regular-season record was more than enough to get the squad a postseason bid and a date with Miami in the MPC Computers Bowl. Unfortunately the Pack fell just short against the Hurricanes in a 21-20 decision, leaving the program with a 3-4 mark in bowl games all-time.
Nebraska currently owns the nation's longest winning streak in season openers, having claimed victory in 21 straight dating back to 1986.
Last year the Wolf Pack ranked sixth in the conference in passing with 187.4 ypg, and that number probably won't get much better this time around as the team tries to find a replacement for Jeff Rowe. While he may have taken a few snaps as a freshman a year ago, Nick Graziano is still not an automatic starter under center for the Pack, especially after redshirt freshman Colin Kaepernick, a hulking presence at 6-6, played his well in practices leading up to the opener. Junior wide receivers Mike McCoy and Marko Mitchell will be the primary targets for whomever lines up under center. McCoy had a total of only 23 catches last season, but thanks to an average of 15 yards per catch he stretched those opportunities into a team-high nine touchdowns, while Mitchell made it into the end zone four times on 39 grabs. There are a number of fresh faces taking up space on the depth chart under the heading of running back as well, with junior Luke Lippincott being the starter thanks to his 94 attempts for 456 yards and team-high nine rushing scores a season ago.
Senior nose guard Matt Hines will lead the attack in the trenches for the Nevada defense this season after earning Second Team All-WAC honors following a 2006 campaign in which he recorded five of his 35 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Joining Hines as a returning starter on the front is Erics Clark who was credited with two and a half sacks of his own. Three returning starters at linebacker, Ezra Butler, Jeremy Engstrom and Joshua Mauga, all finished among the top six on the team in tackles, with Butler posting a team-high 71 stops. However Butler, an All-WAC First Team choice, will not be in action for this game as he serves a one-game suspension for violating team rules. Mauga was all over the field as he intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and recovered a pair for Nevada. Paul Pratt and Jonathon Amaya are listed as returning starters in the secondary, but neither has shown the sort of aggressiveness that the Wolf Pack needs to be successful against pass-happy offenses in the WAC.
A transfer from Arizona State who had to sit out last season, Sam Keller has been named the starting quarterback for this Nebraska squad and expects to have the same sort of success he showed with the Sun Devils when he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. Keller will have some huge shoes to fill after Zac Taylor was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year as the Nebraska signal-caller. However, at least in the opener, Keller will be without the services of wideout Maurice Purify who has been suspended due to his being arrested twice in the span of just a month. Purify, a Second Team All-Big 12 selection a year ago, was good for seven receiving scores, which leaves senior receiver Terrence Nunn the primary target in Callahan's version of the West Coast Offense. On a team that has been known for running the ball more than anything else, Nunn is actually second on the all-time receptions list with 101 and has two of the top six single-season reception totals for the famed program. As the featured I-back, Marlon Lucky will again be an integral part of the offense after he gained 728 yards on the ground as a sophomore and also reeled in 32 passes for an additional 383 yards.
The scoring defense for the Huskers was one of the team's strengths a year ago, although the 18.3 ppg allowed had a lot to do with giving up a combined 10 points to the likes of Nicholls State, Troy and Kansas State. The main focus of the unit to begin this season will be senior linebacker Bo Ruud who is on a number of preseason watch lists (Lott, Bednarik and Lombardi) after being a First Team All-Big 12 choice following last year when he made 65 stops in 14 games. His performance was actually a drop off from his sophomore campaign when he recorded 80 stops, of which 14 came behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of 44 yards, with 10 quarterback hurries thrown in for good measure. Fellow linebacker Corey McKeon is also on the Bednarik Award watch list for this season and is hoping to pick up the pieces after a decent injury-plagued season in which he came up with 69 tackles. A year earlier MeKeon was Second Team All- Big 12 when he made 22 TFLs and registered seven sacks. Seniors Cortney Grixby and Andre Jones figure to be solid in the secondary, the latter placing second on the team with 74 tackles last season.
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