Few people probably expected the week two match-up between the UCLA Bruins and the Nebraska Cornhuskers to be a contest between the #3 and #4 offenses in the nation, but both teams come into the Rose Bowl this week on the heels of flashy Week One offensive performances.
The Bruins, in their first game under new head coach Jim Mora, gained 646 total yards of offense in their 49-24 win over Rice in the opener. The Huskers nearly matched that, with 632 yards in their dominating 49-20 win over Southern Miss.
Both teams have talented featured running backs, but in Week One, UCLA and Nebraska both relied on their quarterbacks – athletic players who are just as good, if not better, making plays with their feet instead of their arm.
UCLA’s redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley made a big splash in his college debut, with a 72-yard touchdown run on his first snap. He finished 21 of 28, throwing for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez earned Big 10 Co-Offensive player of the Week honors for his 354 yard, five touchdown performance. It was a career day for the junior, who’s been better known during his college career for his speed and elusiveness as a rusher.
In the last two season openers, Martinez had a combined 262 yards rushing with six touchdowns, but this year, he got the win with his arm, throwing to ten different receivers last weekend. The quarterback has come out strong in the first week before and then faded, but he’ll have a big opportunity to shine again this game, going up against a young Bruins defense that surrendered 358 yards to Rice.
Against UCLA, Martinez might be tempted to go back to his roots as a runner. UCLA’s defensive line leads the nation in sacks after one week, with six against Rice last week.
Nine different players carried the ball for the Huskers in the first game, but they might not mind having an extra set of legs, either. Nebraska’s top running back, Rex Burkhead, sprained his MCL early in the Huskers’ win last week and is questionable for the game against the Bruins. Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross played filled in well, but even on just three carries, Burkhead racked up 68 yards and a touchdown, demonstrating just how explosive and important he is to the Nebraska offense.
Burkhead’s counterpart for the Bruins, Johnathan Franklin, is coming off an outstanding performance and is healthy and ready to go. Franklin ran for 215 yards and three touchdowns against Rice – and two of those touchdown runs went for more than 70 yards.
It’s unlikely that Nebraska’s defense will let him run away with that kind of performance, but UCLA might prefer to keep the ball on the ground with Franklin and Hundley rather than test the freshman quarterback’s arm against a traditionally stout defense.
UCLA will also need their rushers to chew up time on the clock to help out the young offensive line, which features three freshman and sophomore who missed two years for a Mormon mission.
Nebraska has won six of the seven meetings between these two squads. Will they make it seven of eight?
Maybe – if Martinez can continue to pass as well as he normally runs; if Burkhead’s able to go; and if the Huskers’ defense, which allowed 185 rushing yards against Southern Miss, can keep Franklin and Hundley from busting more long touchdown runs.
It’s still too early to tell if UCLA really turned the corner under Mora, or if their talented young guys just had a field day at the expense of weaker competition, but the Bruins have the key pieces, and the momentum, that could make them a factor in the Pac-12 this year. (Even at 6-6, they technically won the South in 2011 with USC ineligible.)
Overlooking them could prove to be a very dangerous mistake.