Two teams that posted impressive victories to open the 2009 season will square off at Memorial Stadium this Saturday afternoon when Nebraska takes on Arkansas State. Game time is set for 1:10 p.m. (CDT) with Fox Sports Net providing a pay-per-view telecast.
Nebraska opened the year with a 49-3 victory over Florida Atlantic, showing an impressive balance on offense and big-play ability on defense. The win was Nebraska’s nation-leading 24th straight victory in a season opener.
Arkansas State won its opener with even greater ease with a 61-0 rout of Mississippi Valley State in Jonesboro, Ark.The Red Wolves limited MVSU to just 69 total yards in the victory, while amassing nearly 500 yards of total offense, including 358 rushing yards. Arkansas State entered the season as one of the favorites in the Sun Belt Conference after a 6-6 record in 2008. The Red Wolves’ 2008 campaign included a victory at Texas A&M last September.
The matchup will be the first meeting between Nebraska and Arkansas State, and the Huskers’ second of three games against Sun Belt Conference foes this season. The Red Wolves will be the first Nebraska opponent from the state of Arkansas since the Huskers lost to Arkansas in the 1965 Cotton Bowl.
Nebraska: Bo Pelini (Ohio State, ‘90) owns an 11-4 record in his second season with the Huskers. Pelini guided Nebraska to nine wins in his first season as head coach, joining Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Frank Solich as the only Nebraska coaches to win nine games in their first season leading the Cornhuskers. Prior to taking over as the Huskers’ head coach, Pelini served as defensive coordinator at NU, Oklahoma and LSU. Previously, he had stints as an NFL assistant with San Francisco, New England and Green Bay.
Arkansas State: Steve Roberts (Ouachita Baptist, ‘87) is in his eighth season at the helm of the Arkansas State program. Roberts has a 38-47 record with the Red Wolves and is 87-80-1 in 16 seasons overall as a collegiate head coach. This is Roberts’ first meeting with Nebraska. He is 1-7 against Big 12 opponents at Arkansas State.
Huskers Opportunistic Against Owls
Nebraska made drastic improvements in several areas on defense in 2008, however one area left a lot to be desired in the eyes of the Cornhusker coaching staff–takeaways. Ball-hawking defenders have been a trademark of Bo Pelini-coached units, including his 2003 Nebraska defense that set a school record with 47 takeaways.
The Huskers had 17 total takeaways in 2008, including just one game with more than two takeaways (4 vs. Colorado). The lack of takeaways led to a -11 turnover margin, and the area was a major emphasis in the offseason.
Nebraska made immediate improvements in the turnover department in game one. The defense forced three Florida Atlantic turnovers, taking the ball away from the Owls on three consecutive third-quarter possessions. Senior safety Matt O’Hanlon recorded his second career interception and junior cornerback Prince Amukamara nabbed his first career pick. Redshirt freshman defensive end Cameron Meredith added a fumble recovery. O’Hanlon had another interception negated by a penalty and Nebraska also had six pass breakups. Nebraska’s plus-2 turnover margin against FAU also matched last year’s season best.
Guarding the Goal Line
Nebraska did not allow a touchdown in the 49-3 win over Florida Atlantic. The 2009 Huskers are just the third NU team in the past 40 seasons to not allow a touchdown in the season opener. The 1976 and 1994 Blackshirts opened their respective seasons by not allowing a touchdown over the first six quarters of the year. The last time a Nebraska team went more than six quarters without allowing a touchdown to open the season was in 1941, when the Huskers didn’t allow a touchdown until the third game of the season.
Dating back to last season, Nebraska has not allowed a touchdown over its last five quarters, a stretch totaling more than 85 minutes of game action.
Helu Jr. at the Forefront of Impressive NU Run Attack
Nebraska junior I-back Roy Helu Jr. has quickly emerged as one of the nation’s top running backs. In six games since Nov. 1, 2008, Helu has posted four 100-yard rushing games, including an impressive opening to the 2009 campaign. Helu paced the Nebraska offense with 16 carries for 152 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
After rushing for 57 yards on 11 first-half carries, Helu made the most of limited second-half work. The 6-0, 215-pounder had five carries in the second half, which resulted in 95 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The impressive work in the season opener continued a trend of success for Helu.
** Over the past five regular-season games, Helu has rushed 86 times for 662 yards, an average of 7.7 yards per carry. Last season, Helu averaged 6.4 yards on his 125 carries, the best per carry average by a Husker in seven seasons.
** Helu had runs of 28 and 44 yards against Florida Atlantic. He has 10 rushes of at least 20 yards over the past six games.
** Helu moved up nine spots on the Nebraska career rushing list in the season opener. His 1,164 career yards place him in 45th position on that chart.
** The emergence of Helu midway through last season has coincided with a rejuvenated Nebraska rushing attack.
The Huskers have rushed for at least 160 yards in each of their last seven regular-season games and are averaging 218.4 yards in those contests. Nebraska rushed for 259 yards in the opener against Florida Atlantic.
Nebraska Offense to Continue to Look for Balance
The improved rushing attack allowed Nebraska to become one of the nation’s most balanced offenses in 2008. If the season opener is any indication, Nebraska could feature similar balance this fall. The Huskers racked up 490 yards of offense against Florida Atlantic, including 231 through the air and 259 rushing yards.
** The 2008 late-season surge in the running game improved the Huskers to 37th nationally in rushing offense at 169.8 yards per contest. By improving its rushing average, Nebraska ranked in the top 40 nationally in all four major offensive statistical categories. NU was 12th in total offense, 15th in passing offense and 17th in scoring. The Huskers were one of just nine teams nationally to rank in the top 40 in all four major statistical categories, including Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.