Breaking down the key matchups for Nebraska-Colorado
Nebraska rush offense vs. Colorado rush defense
Hearing Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters say “We’ve got to run the football” was refreshing. He’s right. Nebraska can’t rely on true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez to throw the Huskers to victory. He might do it, but that can’t be the game plan. So NU better saddle up and try to shove the ball down the Buffaloes’ throat. Colorado State had no luck, running 39 times for 103 yards in a 45-13 loss. Sophomore Colorado linebacker Nate Landman was a beast with 16 tackles. Nebraska has more skill talent at running back than CSU, and Martinez is more mobile and dangerous as a runner than most. If the Huskers go for 150 yards against the Buffs, call it good.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense
NU has the talent at receiver to make hay in the pass game. Can Martinez deliver? That’s the big question. Count on Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman winning their matchups, and tight end Jack Stoll is an underrated asset and Colorado native with plenty of motivation to play the Buffaloes. CU counters with an experienced safety (Evan Worthington) who’s among its best tacklers. The Buffaloes were among the Pac-12’s worst pass defenses last season and their gambling style against the run will give Martinez some chances downfield.
Colorado rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense
The Buffs lost multiyear starter Phillip Lindsay to graduation, so they picked up Virginia Tech graduate transfer Travon McMillian, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards for the Hokies. He’s been through the battles and dropped 103 rushing yards in CU’s season opener. Nebraska’s run defense — awful by the end of 2017 — will sport many of the same players. It’s not likely to look like the 2017 defense, though. NU’s inside linebackers — featuring four guys Barrett Ruud likes — should be improved. Ditto for NU’s defensive line. If Nebraska doesn’t win this matchup, it’s not likely to win the game.
Colorado pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense
Quarterback Steven Montez is one of the best Nebraska will face this season. He’s mobile enough, accurate with the deep ball and experienced with 16 starts under his belt. He threw for 338 yards and four touchdowns in the Colorado State win. Receivers Laviska Shenault and KD Nixon make the grade, too. Shenault — 6-foot-2, 220 pounds — had 11 catches for 211 yards in the season opener. Nixon (5-8, 185) went for six catches and 112 yards. Nebraska’s secondary, while deep at safety, is probably its weakest unit. Corners Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle have their hands full. Shenault plays all over the field, so Nebraska will have to decide how to cover him.
It takes a few games to hash out whether special teams is a strength or not, but Colorado appears to have a decent punt returner in Ronnie Blackmon and a more-than-competent kicker in James Stefanou. Nebraska has questions there. CU also has the advantage of playing a game.
CU has not only played a game, but it’s played one away from home. The Buffaloes won’t be quite as intimated upon entering Memorial Stadium as some, and the jitters should be gone. Nebraska still has the home game, though, and the crowd should be through-the-roof excited since the first game was rained out. That’ll be worth something. Can NU play through early jitters and get on the board?
Key matchup: Adrian Martinez vs. Colorado’s defense
CU will almost certainly score its share of points. Even last year, during a 5-7 season, the Buffaloes averaged 26.4 points. Nebraska has to start fast, score first-half points and avoid needing a late scramble to pull off a win. That means Martinez, his first career start delayed a week, has to make plays early. If that’s with his feet, fine. If it’s with his arm, even better. Martinez has the weapons around him, and his offensive line isn’t bad. If he keeps his wits about him, NU’s offense should be fine, however aggressive the Buffaloes’ defense gets.