The “Sea of Red” is the destination for the Cowboys on Saturday night as the Pokes open the 2013 season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. This is Dave Christensen’s 5th year in charge and so far he has built a solid offense around Brett Smith. The question is can the defense improve enough to make the Pokes a viable top half team in the new look Mountain West? We will start to get part of that answer in Lincoln, Nebraska.
When the Cowboys Run:
Wyoming has a rebuilt offensive line and returns all their rushers from last season but leading rusher D.J. May is hurt and not on the depth chart and may face a redshirt year. The Pokes will mostly feature Brandon Miller and Shaun Wick in the running game. Nebraska has not released a depth chart but thy will feature a young defensive line and group of linebackers that will certainly be more physical than the Cowboys. Names you can look for include Linebacker David Santos and defensive lineman Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle.
When the Cowboys Pass:
Brett Smith with 23 career starts under his belt has the most athletic and talented group of receivers Wyoming has had in years. The Husker secondary is in flux and may have as many as three new starters. With their best corner Andrew Green being moved to safety, The Cowboys should be able to make some plays in the air with Robert Herron, Dominic Rufran and Jalen Claiborne.
When the Huskers Run:
The match-up between the Nebraska running backs/offensive line and the Wyoming front seven is the biggest mismatch in this contest. The Huskers return their two leading thousand yard rushers (Abdullah and Martinez) from a rushing offense that ranked 8th in the nation gaining 253 yards per game. While the Wyoming defense has struggled against the run for several years now giving up over 200 yards per game for the past three seasons. The move to the 3-4 defense will help some but given the size and athleticism match-ups in the trenches Nebraska should be able to run the ball at will against an undersized and undermanned Wyoming defense.
When the Huskers Pass:
Taylor Martinez is a train wreck in terms of technique when throwing the football but his offensive line generally gives him plenty of time to target a strong and athletic group of wide receivers. Martinez will make his usual mistakes but the Cowboys will likely not be able to put enough pressure on Martinez to stop him from finding the likes of Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner with the Wyoming defense having to put so much focus on stopping the run.
Both teams are facing changes from last season in the kicking game. Wyoming returns place kicker Stuart Williams (7 of 12 last season) but has a new punter in freshman Ethan Wood. Nebraska lost Brett Maher who handled both the kicking and punting duties last year and Maruo Bondi and Pat Smith are in competition to replace him. Nebraska has an edge in the kick return game though with Ameer Abdullah set to take on both kickoff and punt return duties again. Wyoming return man Jalen Claiborne could have a good night though as Nebraska is inconsistent in their kick return coverage and ranked 46th in kick return defense and 111th in punt return defense in 2012.
Bo Pelini has a 30-6 home record while Dave Christensen hasn’t been able to find that break through win (at home or away) against a BCS opponent like his predecessor Joe Glenn did. Pelini isn’t the greatest game day coach but he does have a 71% win rate and Christensen is still below 50%. When you take that into consideration as well as the experience levels on both staffs the Nebraska coaches have the edge.
Wyoming is certainly capable of scoring in the high twenties to low thirties if they are on their game and perhaps possibly more than that if Nebraska’s turnover habit continues. I am not confident that the Pokes will have the ball long enough to accomplish that amount of scoring though. Look for Nebraska to feature the running game early and often and grind the Cowboys down as the game goes on.
Cornhuskers 41 – Cowboys 17