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September 3, 2011

Match-up watch: Tennessee-Chattanooga

NU Run Offense vs. UTC Run Defense
The time has finally come for Nebraska to unveil its new offense under first-year coordinator Tim Beck, and one of the most anticipated aspects will be the running game. Led by junior workhorse Rex Burkhead and the trio of explosive true freshmen Braylon Heard, Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah, the Huskers should have plenty of fire power to put on display against an overmatched Tennessee-Chattanooga front seven.

Of course, the player everyone wants to see is quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is said to be fully healthy for the first time since an ankle injury sent his season on a downhill skid. Not only is he healthy, but word is Martinez is a completely different player in terms of his confidence, meaning his command of the zone read and option game should be better than ever. Saturday should be a perfect opportunity for all of NU's electric runners to put on a show.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. UTC Pass Defense
Even more so than in the running game, the new and improved Martinez's biggest gains are expected to come in his ability as a passer. Martinez not being able to go through his reads and taking numerous costly sacks towards the end of last season was by far the most frustrating aspect of Nebraska's offense. His ankle probably played a big part in that, but now that he's back to 100 percent and a year wiser under center, the Huskers' passing game is expected to take leaps and bounds this season.

Martinez's composure in the pocket will get a nice test right off the bat on Saturday, as the strength of the Mocs' defense is its pass rush from the front four. Defensive end Josh Williams is on pace to set the school's all-time career sack record, and their overall size up front is as big as any FCS schools in the country. If Martinez is as improved as everyone is saying he is, though, this should be a perfect opportunity to show just how far he's come as a quarterback.

Edge: NEBRASKA

UTC Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Nebraska's front four is as good as any in all of college football, and this could be one of the biggest mismatches of all on Saturday. Not only did Tennessee-Chattanooga lose its starting running back for the season to suspension in the spring, the Mocs returns just two starters on the offensive line and will start two redshirt freshmen. Take all that and the fact that UTC is a fairly pass-heavy offense to begin with, and the Mocs' shouldn't pose much a threat at all on the ground.

This bodes well for Nebraska, as its depth at linebacker is still one of the biggest concerns entering the season. Not only will this take some of the pressure off those second- and third-team linebackers, it will also allow for the Huskers' front four to key in more on rushing the quarterback to help create some big defensive plays.

Edge: NEBRASKA

UTC Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
This is the area where Nebraska will be tested the most, as Tennessee-Chattanooga's offensive strength is far and away its passing game. The offense is led by quarterback B.J. Coleman, a transfer from Tennessee who threw for 2,996 yards and 26 touchdowns last season and is up for the Walter Payton Award this year. Coleman is no stranger to top defenses, either, as he played in three SEC games at Tennessee and started against eventual national champions Alabama in 2009 and Auburn in 2010.

The Mocs also feature a true playmaker at receiver in senior Joel Bradford, who should end his career as one of the top-10 leading career receivers in school history. That combination alone will give a great early test to Nebraska's cornerbacks, who took a big hit when senior Alfonzo Dennard suffered leg injury in fall camp. Sophomore Ciante Evans and redshirt freshman Andrew Green will be counted on to pick up the slack, so don't be surprised if UTC doesn't try to test NU's young secondary early and often. In the end though, Nebraska's DBs should be up for the challenge.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
For the first time since head coach Bo Pelini took over in 2008, Nebraska will have someone not named Alex Henery handling the place kicker and punter duties this season. Those responsibilities will go to junior Brett Maher, who beat out freshman Mauro Bondi during fall camp. Maher should do just fine at both spots, but there's no way he can replace Henery's production just yet. Also, Bondi should make his Husker debut as a kickoff specialist at some point during the game.

Then there's the return units, which remain two of the biggest question marks on the roster heading into the opener. The kickoff and punt return jobs will be handled by some combination of junior Tim Marlowe, redshirt freshman Kenny Bell and true freshmen Ameer Abdullah and Aaron green. Whoever ends up getting the bulk of the returns on Saturday, Nebraska will have some of its top playmakers manning the return spots.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Nebraska Will Win If:

It doesn't commit an absurd amount of penalties and turnovers and doesn't get torched by Tennessee-Chattanooga's passing game. Offensive efficiency has been the No. 1 goal throughout the offseason, so the mistakes should be cut down drastically this year. As for the secondary, Evans and Green and the rest of the defensive backs should be more than able to hold their own, especially with the help of a fierce pass rush from the front four.

Tennessee-Chattanooga Will Win If:

Nebraska completely falls flat on its face and essentially gives away the game. While the Mocs have a few playmakers on both sides of the ball, the mismatch of overall talent and size between the teams is undeniable, and it will simply be too much for UTC to overcome.

X-Factor:

There's not a single area Tennessee-Chattanooga's coaching staff is more concerned with than Nebraska's pass rush. The Mocs will likely try to counter the pressure by running tons of quick slants and screen passes to get the ball out of Coleman's hands and keep him upright, but those will only go so far before Nebraska jumps them for big plays. If UTC finds itself in too many long-yardage situations, it won't stand a chance in trying to buy Coleman a little extra time to get the ball downfield.

Prediction: Nebraska 55, Tennessee-Chattanoga 6



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