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September 12, 2009

Match-up watch: Nebraska vs. Arkansas State

NU Run Offense vs ASU Run Defense
As expected, Nebraska's running game was its unquestioned strength in last week's win over Florida Atlantic. Led by junior Roy Helu's 152 yards and three touchdowns, the Huskers racked up 259 yards on the ground against the Owls.

True freshman running back Rex Burkhead also looked about as good as advertised, helping ease some of the fears over what would become of NU's running game after the dismissal of Quentin Castille.

However, Arkansas State's front seven presents a bit tougher of a challenge. Behind senior defensive end Alex Carrington - a potential first-round draft pick - the Red Wolves ranked 32nd nationally against the run last season.

In their 61-0 blowout of Mississippi (so take it for what it's worth), the Red Wolves allowed just 30 yards on 28 attempts

This definitely won't be a defense Nebraska can simply line up against and run all over, but the Huskers should eventually be able to wear down ASU and get Helu and Burkhead plenty of chances to break off some big plays on the ground.


NU Pass Offense vs ASU Pass Defense
Junior Zac Lee didn't need to put up huge numbers last week to show he was more than capable of running Nebraska's offense. Lee connected on 15-of-22 passing for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

The Huskers also showed they might not need a legitimate No. 1 receiver to have a successful passing game, as eight different palyers caught at least one pass against the Owls.

On the other hand, Arkansas State allowed just 39 passing yards on six completions last week. While the competition isn't even comparable to NU, the Red Wolves looked much improved from the unit that gave up more than 211 yards a game through the air last season.

With Lee and Co. now having an actual full game under their belts, things should only continue to click for Nebraska's passing game. Combine that with ASU having to focus so much attention on the Huskers' rushing attack, and there could be lots of chances to put up some big passing numbers.

ASU Run Offense vs NU Run Defense
If there was one area where Arkansas State might have an advantage against Nebraska, it would be its running game. Behind the duo of quarterback Corey Leonard and running back Reggie Arnold, the Red Wolves feature easily the most explosive running games in the Sun Belt Conference.

Leonard has rushed for more than 1,400 yards rushing in his career, and Arnold is coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Last week, Arnold put up 126 yards and four touchdowns on 12 carries, while ASU ran for 358 yards and eight touchdowns as a team.

However, the real question lies along the offensive line. Arkansas State lost two all-conference tackles from last season, and senior guard Dominic Padrta is the only returning full-time starter.

While the Red Wolves were able to run wild last week against MVSU, Nebraska's front four will be the best they see all season. Don't expect those yards to come so easily this week.

ASU Pass Offense vs NU Pass Defense
Because of Leonard's mobility, Arkansas State presents a unique challenge for Nebraska's secondary compared to what it saw last week against FAU. Leonard has accounted for nearly 7,300 yards of total offense in his career, meaning he can hurt defenses in a number of different ways.

Not only that, the Red Wolves return their top two receivers from last season as well in Jahbari McLennan and Brandon Thompkins, who combined for 64 catches last season.

As for Nebraska's pass defense, Florida Atlantic was able to put up more than 230 yards through the air despite scoring just three points. To the Huskers' credit, FAU threw the ball 41 times, and that doesn't even mention the two interceptions (which arguably should have been more had it not been for penalties and drops).

By comparison, Florida Atlantic's passing game was far more of a test than what Arkansas State will bring to the table, and Nebraska handled the Owls fairly well overall. If the Huskers can contain Leonard in the pocket, they should be able to get pressure and keep ASU off rhythm.

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior kicker/punter Alex Henery didn't get many opportunities to showcase his talents last week, but there's still no doubt how big of a weapon he is. The only real potential problem was a blocked punt in the third quarter, but head coach Bo Pelini said that was merely a matter of miscommunication. Arkansas State has a pretty good kicker in Josh Arauco, who connected on 17-of-20 field goals last year. However, with a new punter and an inexperienced return game, ASU still has more questions than answers on special teams.


Nebraska Will Win If: It can contain the pass rush of Arkansas State's front four and simply beat up the Red Wolves up front with its running game. ASU certainly has its share of weapons, but Nebraska has more. If they can get the same production out of the running game and keep the turnovers to a minimum, look for the Huskers' stars to shine in this one.

Arkansas State Will Win If: It can capitalize on some turnovers and control the ball offensively to keep Nebraska's offense off the field. The Red Wolves have the players to move the ball, and if they can grind big chunks of time off the clock each drive and get some points to show for it, they should be able to keep the game close and be in a position to win late in the game.

X Factor: After coming out with a fairly conservative defenive game plan against FAU, don't be surprised to see Pelini dial it up a notch with some blitzes today. The Huskers will have to be careful not to let Leonard slip away and burn them on a scramble, but if they can keep him in the pocket they should be able to get some hits on the quarterback. If you shake up Leonard, the Red Wolves' entire offense is thrown out of sync.

Prediction: Nebraska 31 Arkansas State 14

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