The Huskers' offense may have sputtered in the second half last week, but the running game wasn't at fault. Ameer Abdullah topped 100 yards on just 16 carries in his first start and Braylon Heard provided a nice spark off the bench. The coaches hinted that Heard could see more carries this week, as could freshman Imani Cross, who was impressive against Southern Miss. With Taylor Martinez getting involved in the running game last week, the Huskers boast the nation's 16th best rushing attack with an average of 269 yards per game.
The Arkansas State defense returned only four starters from last season and it has showed in the running game. The Red Wolves have allowed an average of 218 running yards per game on nearly five yards a carry (though to be fair, one of their games was against Oregon's explosive offense). Arkansas State has 12 tackles for loss, led by defensive end Tim Starson.
If the Huskers stay committed to the running game, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Red Wolves shut them down. Though Rex Burkhead's return to the field is doubtful, his backups have proved capable of picking up the slack.
NU Pass Offense vs. Arkansas State Pass Defense
Through the first six quarters of the season, Martinez was doing a fine Peyton Manning impression with his arm. But the passing game stalled in the second half against UCLA. The Bruins' pressure got to Martinez and he was four for 14 with a pick after halftime. His receiving corps was also cut into when Tyler Wullenwaber tore his ACL at practice this week.
The Arkansas State secondary could allow Martinez to get back on track, however. The Red Wolves have allowed opponents to complete two-thirds of their passes and have just one interception compared to six touchdowns against. The pass rush isn't much to worry about either - Arkansas State has only two sacks to this point. Sterling Young and Don Jones are a few defensive backs that can make plays.
Martinez will be anxious to avenge his performance against UCLA and the Red Wolves will give them that chance. One component to watch in this matchup is whether freshman Jordan Westerkamp, who didn't play in NU's first two contests, drops his redshirt and plays. When asked about Westerkamp's playing status Thursday, Bo Pelini said, "We'll see."
Arkansas State Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
This has been a disaster area for Nebraska so far this year. Both Southern Miss and UCLA torched the Blackshirts on the ground, combining for 529 yards. The Huskers missed tackles left and right last week, allowing the Bruins to tack on plenty of extra yards. The linebacking corps could see a shakeup with Zaire Anderson and David Santos entering the fray and the defensive line rotation will look different with the departure of Chase Rome.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State has been plenty successful on the ground. Leading the charge is David Oku, the former Tennessee running back whom Nebraska heavily recruited coming out of high school. Oku and Frankie Jackson have combined for 321 yards and three touchdowns to this point. Quarterback Ryan Aplin is pretty fleet of foot himself and could add to NU's struggles against mobile quarterbacks.
The Huskers will face a great challenge going up against the Red Wolves this week. If the tackling improves, NU's chances of running away with the game increase exponentially. It will be interesting to see if the lineup's newcomers can plug up the leaky run defense. If they can't, it's uncertain where the Huskers will turn next.
Edge: ARKANSAS STATE
Arkansas State Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
While the secondary boasts plenty of talent, the Huskers were hurt several times last week by poor communication. A shift by the Bruins threw the defense out of whack and typically left a UCLA receiver wide open, something that obviously must change this week. Nebraska also must devise a better plan for covering running backs out of the backfield, as the linebackers struggled mightily in coverage against the Bruins.
Aplin and the Red Wolves have the weapons to make the secondary pay. Aplin has completed almost 60 percent of his passes and is averaging more than 300 yards a game through the air. Many of those passes have found the hands of Josh Jarboe, who has 19 catches and two touchdowns. He and J.D. McKissic do most of the work in the receiving game, as no other Arkansas State player has more than four catches.
All things considered, the Huskers' secondary has played well this year. Andrew Green has continued his strong play and Ciante Evans looks much improved in the slot. There is also the possibility that Mohammed Seisay could make his debut this week. Still, until the Huskers fix their communication issues and figure out how to defend backs, it's hard to call this a strength.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Brett Maher improved after his disastrous week one performance, but his struggles continue to mystify. After connecting a 54-yard field goal, Maher missed a critical 37-yard attempt. He did make three of his four tries and neutralized UCLA's kick return game with his booming kickoffs, but his punting was again subpar. Kenny Bell again looked strong in the kick return game as teams continue to avoid Abdullah.
Arkansas' State's special teams have been anything but special. The Red Wolves' kick returns have been ordinary and they actually have lost 10 yards on punt returns this year. Brian Davis has already missed two field goals inside of 40 yards and punter Neely Sullivent has yet to put a punt inside the 20. Give the Huskers the edge here, especially if Maher can discover his 2011 form.
Nebraska Will Win If:
The defense can make a few stops. The offense should be able to score with ease on the porous Arkansas State defense, so it won't require a Herculean effort from the defense to send the Red Wolves home with a loss. If the defense does show up, this one could get out of hand.
Arkansas State Will Win If:
It finds an offensive rhythm early and kills whatever confidence the Blackshirts have left. Forcing a few turnovers would go a long ways towards quieting the crowd and building some mojo for the Red Wolves.
The Nebraska defense was embarrassed by UCLA last week. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis will make some adjustments, but the Blackshirts' pride is clearly on the line. The defense will be anxious to erase the memory of last week's meltdown and that could energize the unit.