Game 1: Nebraska vs. Western Kentucky
Sept. 4, 2010 | Memorial Stadium
Lincoln, Neb | 6:10 p.m.
Television: FSN PPV
Radio: Husker Sports Network
Series Record: first meeting
Capacity: 81,091 (305th consecutive sellout)
Nebraska opens its 121st season of play on Saturday, Sept. 4, when the Huskers take on Western Kentucky in the 2010 season opener at Memorial Stadium. Game time for the first meeting between the two schools is set for 6:10 p.m. with Fox Sports Net televising the game on a pay-per-view basis.
The Huskers enter the season with momentum from a strong 2009 finish. NU won six of its final seven games and was just one second away from winning the Big 12 Championship. The Huskers completed their season with a shutout of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, and finished No. 14 in both polls, their highest finish since checking in at No. 7 in 2001.
On the strength of the strong finish, Nebraska enters 2010 ranked eighth in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 9 in the USA Today coaches' poll. The Huskers are starting the season in the top 10 for the first time since 2002 and have already achieved their first top-10 ranking at any point during a season since 2003.
Western Kentucky is in its fourth season of play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, after moving up prior to the 2007 season. WKU was 0-12 in 2009 and enters the year looking to end a 20-game losing streak. The Hilltoppers are under new leadership in 2010, as former WKU star Willie Taggart has returned to lead the program.
Saturday's meeting will be the first between the two schools. The game marks the second consecutive year Nebraska opens against a member of the Sun Belt Conference, after defeating Florida Atlantic in last year's season opener. Saturday's game will be NU's first against a school from the state of Kentucky.
Nebraska: Bo Pelini (Ohio State, '90) owns a 20-8 record in his third season. Pelini has guided NU to nine or more wins in each of his first two seasons as head coach, joining Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Frank Solich in accomplishing that feat. Pelini is the first coach in Big 12 history to guide his team to at least a share of division titles in each of his first two seasons.
Western Kentucky: Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky, 1998) was named head coach on Nov. 23, 2009. He has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at Stanford. Taggart previously served as an assistant at WKU from 1999 to 2006, and he is one of only four players in Hilltopper history to have his jersey retired.
Nebraska is 827-341-40 all-time, one of just seven schools with 800 all-time victories * Nebraska has won five national championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997). * The Cornhuskers have won 43 conference championships. * Nebraska's 46 all-time bowl appearances rank fifth nationally. * Since 1970, Nebraska has 393 wins, 26 more than any other school. * Nebraska's 98 football Academic All-Americans lead the nation. w The Huskers have had 107 All-Americans in school history.
Scouting the Opposition-Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky begins its fourth season of play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level (previously Division I-A), after moving up a division prior to the 2007 season. The Hilltoppers were 0-12 in 2009 and have lost 20 consecutive games dating back to 2008, the longest active losing streak in the FBS.
But Western Kentucky is under new direction this season, as former Hilltopper star Willie Taggart has returned to lead the program. Taggart is a first-time head coach after spending the last three seasons as the running backs coach at Stanford, where he helped Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart twice break the school's rushing record.
Taggart selected Clint Bowen as his defensive coordinator. Bowen is familiar with the Huskers, as he spent the last 12 seasons at Kansas. Bowen was the Jayhawks' defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009, when KU won 31 games, including a 12-1 campaign in 2007 that included an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Bowen will have his work cut out for him this season, as Western Kentucky allowed at least 21 points in every game last year, including three times allowing at least 62 points. The 2009 Hilltopper defense ranked last among all 120 FBS teams in sacks and pass efficiency defense, while ranking next-to-last in scoring defense by allowing an average of 39.6 points per game.
Western Kentucky was better offensively. The Hilltoppers averaged only 20.4 points per game, but averaged nearly 173 rushing yards per game while finishing two spots behind Nebraska with an average offensive output of 320.8 yards per game.
The Hilltoppers can hope to build on a strong finish to last season. Although it was unable to snap its losing streak, Western Kentucky's final three games in 2009 were each decided by less than a touchdown, including a pair of road losses. The Hilltoppers led Louisiana-Monroe on the road before the Warhawks scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for a 21-18 victory. WKU then lost by six points at Florida Atlantic the next week before Arkansas State scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to rally for a 24-20 victory in the season finale.
Nebraska and Western Kentucky are meeting for the first time. The Hilltoppers are members of the Sun Belt Conference, a league that Nebraska owns a perfect 9-0 all-time record against. All nine meetings have come in Memorial Stadium. The average score of the Huskers' nine games against Sun Belt opponents has been 47-7. NU has posted three shutouts against Sun Belt foes and has never allowed more than two touchdowns. Offensively, the Huskers have scored at least 30 points in every meeting, including scoring at least 48 points five times.
Western Kentucky Head Coach Willie Taggart
Willie Taggart was named Western Kentucky's head coach on Nov. 23, 2009. The Hilltoppers' 17th all-time head coach, Taggart was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2007 to 2009, after spending eight seasons as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky from 1999 to 2006.
During his first coaching stint at Western Kentucky, Taggart worked with the offense while helping the Hilltoppers post eight consecutive winning seasons. As the co-offensive coordinator in 2002, Taggart helped lead Western Kentucky to the Division I-AA national championship.
Taggart played collegiately at Western Kentucky and is one of only four Hilltoppers to have his jersey retired. A standout quarterback, Taggart set 11 school records.
Blackshirts Looking to Add to Dominance
Nebraska returns nine defensive players who made at least five starts last season, and the 2010 Blackshirts will look to build on the impressive effort of the 2009 Nebraska defense. NU led the nation in scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and red-zone defense, ranked second in sacks, seventh in total defense and ninth against the run. For the second straight year, Nebraska also ranked as one of the nation's most improved defenses (see page 7 for more).
Points at a Premium vs. Huskers
The 2010 Husker defense has lofty goals, and has a tough act to follow after an impressive 2009 effort. The 2009 NU defense finished first nationally in scoring defense at 10.4 points per game. Nebraska held seven foes to single digits and eight teams to 10 or fewer points, with both totals leading the nation. Nebraska posted two shutouts for the first time since 2003.
- Nebraska's 10.4 points per game allowed were the fewest since the 1984 Nebraska defense also led the nation by allowing just 9.5 points per game. Nebraska had not allowed fewer than 15 points per game since 2003.
- NU allowed just 25 trips into the red zone by its opponents, the second-fewest red-zone chances in the nation. Only 11 of those drives ended in touchdowns and Nebraska's 64 percent rank in red zone defense was the nation's best.
- Nebraska allowed just 44 points in five games against ranked teams-an average of 8.8 points per game. NU allowed just four touchdowns against ranked teams.
- The Huskers had a streak of 11 straight quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown. Nebraska allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns in eight Big 12 games.
- Nebraska did not allow a touchdown in the final 10 quarters at Memorial Stadium and four of NU's seven opponents in Lincoln did not reach the end zone.
- Nebraska held its first five opponents under 20 points for the first time since 2003 and held 12 of 14 opponents to 17 or fewer points. To put that accomplishment in perspective, NU held just six opponents to less than 20 points in 2007 and 2008 combined.
- Nebraska held its final eight opponents to 20 or fewer points. The Huskers' streak of eight straight games holding the opposition to 20 points or less is the nation's best and only 14 teams enter 2010 having held more than one consecutive opponent to 20 or fewer points.
Stay Out of Our End Zone
The 2009 defense made the end zone foreign territory for most opponents and the 2010 Blackshirts will look to be just as stingy.
- Nebraska allowed only 16 touchdowns in 2009, the fewest of any team in FBS history with a 14-game schedule.
- The 16 touchdowns Nebraska allowed in 2009 tied for the fifth-lowest total among all FBS teams over the last decade (2000 to 2009). To account for an unbalanced schedule, the Huskers' average of 1.14 touchdowns allowed per game ranked third.
Fewest Total Touchdowns Allowed in a Season Last Decade (2000 to 2009)
1. USC, 2008 - 14 touchdowns (13 games)
Virginia Tech, 2006 - 14 touchdowns (13 games)
3. Alabama, 2005 - 15 touchdowns (12 games)
Florida State, 2000 - 15 touchdowns (12 games)
5. Nebraska, 2009 - 16 touchdowns (14 games)
Western Michigan, 2000 - 16 touchdowns (12 games)
Nebraska allowed only 14 offensive touchdowns last season, the third-fewest among all FBS teams over the last decade (2000 to 2009). The Huskers' average of 1.00 touchdowns per game last season tied for the best mark in the country so far this decade.
Over the last 15 games, Nebraska has allowed only 17 offensive touchdowns. Of those 17 touchdowns, four came after Nebraska turnovers and five of the 17 scoring drives totaled less than 45 yards.
Total Defensive Dominanace
Nebraska ranked seventh nationally in total defense at 272.0 yards per game, its best defensive average since allowing 252.3 yards per game in 1999.
- Nebraska held seven straight foes to fewer than 280 total yards from games 2-8, the longest sub-300-yard streak for an NU defense since 1996. Four of those games were against Big 12 foes, the longest streak by the Blackshirts in league play since 1996.
- NU held 13 of 14 opponents to fewer total offensive yards than their season average.
Blackshirts Boast Amazing Improvements over Past Two Seasons
Nebraska was one of the nation's most improved defenses in 2008, finishing second in the Big 12 in total defense just one season after ranking last in the Big 12 and 112th nationally in total defense. As impressive as the progress was in 2008, the Blackshirts made even larger strides as a unit in 2009.
- Two seasons after ranking 116th nationally in scoring defense (37.9 ppg), NU led the nation in that category at 10.4 points per game. NU allowed 28.5 points per game in 2008 and its 18.1 ppg improvement last fall easily led the nation. Nebraska's 79-spot move from 80th nationally in total defense in 2008 to first in 2009 was also the nation's best.
- In two seasons, Nebraska's sack total has increased from 13 to 35 to 44 in 2009.
- Against the run, NU cut its per-game average nearly in half in 2008, then shaved another 23 yards per game off its average allowed in 2009.
- Nebraska improved 48 places (55th to 7th) in total defense in 2009, improving from 349.9 yards per game to 272.0 yards per game and the 77.9-yard improvement was the sixth-best in the nation.
- Nebraska led the nation in pass efficiency defense and finished 18th in passing yards allowed per game, an improvement of 71 places--the fourth-best in the nation.
- No Free Passes
Nebraska led the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2009 and returns eight defensive backs with starting experience for this fall, making the Husker secondary one of the most highly regarded in the nation.
- A year ago, NU allowed just seven passing touchdowns, the second-fewest nationally, intercepted 20 passes to tie for seventh and opponents' 47.8 completion percentage was the fourth-best in the nation.
- Ten of Nebraska's 14 opponents completed 50 percent or less of their pass attempts, and five opponents had less than 150 yards passing.
- Nebraska allowed an average of 178.9 yards per game through the air, NU's best pass defense since allowing 177.8 yards per game in 2003.
Crick Hopes to Build on Breakout Season
Junior defensive tackle Jared Crick emerged as a standout performer last fall and is poised for big things in 2010. The 6-6, 285-pound Crick has been named the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team preseason All-America choice by numerous outlets.
Crick pushed Ndamukong Suh for team statistical leads in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss all season, finishing with 73 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. Crick had one of the most prolific defensive days in school history with a record-setting performance at Baylor.
- Crick had a school-record five sacks for 24 yards in the game. His five sacks were the most in a single game by any player in the nation in 2009, just ahead of Suh's 4.5 sacks against Texas.
- Crick had seven tackles for loss, tying the NU school record also held by Jim Skow (1985 vs. Missouri) and Suh (2009 vs. Texas). The seven TFLs by Crick and Suh were three more than any other Big 12 player in 2009.
Crick earned Big 12 and national defensive player-of-the-week honors for his performance, before going on to first-team All-Big 12 honors. Crick's 5.2 tackles per game ranked second only to Suh among Big 12 defensive interior linemen.
Henery Kicking Way Into Nebraska Record Book
Alex Henery enters his senior season poised to make an assault on the NU record book, while challenging Big 12 and NCAA records. The senior from Omaha also emerged as one of the conference's top punters in 2009. Henery was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last season and should be a leading contender for the award in 2010.
Henery connected on a school-record 24-of-28 field goals in 2009, including three games with at least four field goals. He hit 5-of-5 field goals at Virginia Tech, the second-highest field goal total in school history, trailing only Dale Klein's school-record seven field goals in 1985. He also supplied all the scoring by hitting 4-of-4 field goals in a 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game, and finished the year with a perfect 4-of-4 effort against Arizona in the Holiday Bowl.
- Henery has six career games with four or more field goals, an accomplishment that has already tied an NCAA record. He has 11 multiple-FG games in his career.
- Henery's 24 field goals in 2009 shattered the school record and gave him 50 career field goals in 57 attempts, making him the most accurate kicker in school history. His 50 field goals are just seven field goals from the school record, held by 11-year NFL veteran Kris Brown.
- Henery is the second-most accurate returning field goal kicker in the nation. He is also the most accurate kicker in NU history on extra points, hitting 139-of-140 in his career, a 99.3 percent accuracy rate. He has made 62 straight PATs heading into 2010, including 38-of-38 as a junior.
- Among Henery's seven career missed field goals, just two have come from less than 50 yards. In fact, Henery had a streak of 25 straight made field goals from inside 50 yards. Henery has made 13 career field goals from 44 yards or longer.
- Henery has 289 career points entering 2010, fifth on the NU career list. He has scored 110 points each of the past two seasons, eighth on the single-season list. His two 110-point seasons trail only Kris Brown (116 in 1997) for season scoring by a kicker. A third 100-point season this fall would move Henery to the top of Nebraska's career scoring list. Henery's point total is also third nationally among players returning for the 2010 season.
- Henery averaged 41.4 yards in his first season as Nebraska's starting punter in 2010, making him one of only three players nationally to rank in the top 50 in both field goals and punting average. Henery led the Big 12 with 30 punts downed inside the 20, including an impressive eight inside the three-yard line.
NU Offense Boasts Impressive Returning Experience
Offensively, Nebraska returns 10 starters for the season much different than last fall when the Huskers had a youthful offense heading into the season. NU returns 100 percent of its rushing and passing totals from last season, while also bringing back 93 percent of its scoring. Nearly all of NU's skill position players return, as all three quarterbacks who took a snap last season are back, as are all 12 players who had a rushing attempt and 17 of the 20 Huskers who caught a pass.
Helu Surging up NU Rushing Charts
Nebraska I-back Roy Helu Jr. emerged as one of the Big 12's top backs in 2008, and battled through injuries to surpass 1,000 rushing yards last year as a junior. Helu's effort in 2009 earned him second-team All-Big 12 honors and the 6-0, 220-pounder could be poised for big things in 2010. Helu is part of an impressive stable of Nebraska running backs that also includes sophomores Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson, who both saw significant action as true freshman in 2009.
Helu posted four 100-yard rushing games last season, and he has seven career 100-yard games. His best games seemed to come against top competition, as he surpassed the century mark against Florida Atlantic, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas with a career-high 169 yards against the Hokies. Helu's 81.9 yards per game ranked fourth in the Big 12 last fall and his 1,147 rushing yards was the 16th-best single-season effort in NU history.
- Helu enters 2010 with 2,159 career rushing yards, good for 22nd position on the Nebraska career rushing chart. He is just 540 yards from the career top 10, and if he were to post a second 1,000-yard rushing season this fall he would finish fourth on the Huskers' career list. Helu would also be the first Husker to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Calvin Jones in 1992 and 1993.
- Helu has shined against top competition and in road environments. Helu has three 100-yard rushing games in NU's last seven contests against ranked opponents and has averaged 6.2 yards per carry. In eight road games since the beginning of the 2008 campaign, Helu has rushed for 811 yards on 133 carries, 6.1 yards per tote.
- Helu had a Big 12-best 12 runs of 20+ yards in 2009 and 20 rushes of at least 20 yards over his past 18 games.
- Helu had three of the nine 150-yard rushing games by Big 12 players in 2009, and four of the top 13 rushing efforts in the league last season.
Paul, McNeill Headline Receiving Corps
Nebraska returns a pair of senior receiving targets who have made an impact in the passing game.
Wide receiver Niles Paul was the leader of NU's receiving corps in 2009, catching 40 passes for 796 yards and four touchdowns. Paul's receiving yardage total was the fifth-best in school history and his 19.9 yards per catch led the Big 12 Conference. His per-catch average also ranked third in school history among players with at least 20 receptions and top among players with 40 catches in a season.
- Paul tied the NU school record in 2009 with four 100-yard receiving games, including three in Big 12 play and against Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. His 154 yards on four catches at Kansas was the sixth-best receiving day in NU history, while his 143 yards vs. Iowa State ranks ninth.
- Paul earned Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP honors by accounting for 237 all-purpose yards, including 123 receiving yards. He had a career-long 74-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to cap the scoring in a 33-0 rout.
- Paul had 11 catches of at least 20 yards, with nine of those covering 35 yards or more. His 38.5 yards per catch at Kansas was the second-best single-game effort in the Big 12 in 2009.
- Paul ranked second in the Big 12 in both kickoff return and punt return average and his 121.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked ninth in the Big 12.
- Paul became the first Husker since Dana Brinson (1986) to lead Nebraska in receiving, kickoff return yards, punt return yards and all-purpose yards. The only other Huskers in history to lead the Huskers in all four categories in the same season are: Johnny Rodgers (1970, 1971, 1972), Pat Fischer (1958) and Dick Hutton (1946). The only other Husker in history to lead NU in four offense/special teams yardage categories in the same season was Frank Solich (1964 - all-purpose, KOR, PR, rushing).
Paul needs only eight receptions and 141 yards to move into the NU career top 10 in each category. Paul's 64 career receptions are 17th on the NU career list, and he is 36 catches from becoming the sixth player in school history with 100 catches. His 1,016 career receiving yards are 18th in NU history, and he is less than 500 yards from moving to fourth.
The 6-4, 235-pound McNeill has been a fixture in a deep group of NU tight ends the past two seasons. McNeill was second on the team with 28 catches for 259 yards last season. He also tied with Paul for the team lead with four touchdown catches. McNeill has made the shift to the receiving corps this season where he will likely team with Paul and junior Brandon Kinnie to give Nebraska one of the Big 12's biggest and most physical receiving corps.
- In 2008, McNeill set a position season record with 32 receptions, while his six touchdown receptions were just one shy of the position record.
- McNeill has 61 career catches to rank 19th on the Nebraska career list. McNeill should shatter the Nebraska career tight ends reception record of 65 by Matt Herian from 2002 to 2006. McNeill is 274 yards from becoming the 19th Husker and fourth NU tight end to reach 1,000 career receiving yards.
Fall Camp News and Notes, Possible First-Time Starters, Misc.
Nebraska has endured its share of injuries during fall camp, with two returning starters sidelined for the upcoming season. The Huskers also have seen some new faces step to the forefront during fall camp and move into position to possibly start for the first time in their careers.
- Senior offensive lineman Mike Smith suffered a leg injury during the first week of fall camp that will sideline the Las Vegas native for the season. Smith has been Nebraska's starting left tackle each of the past two seasons, collecting 26 career starts-tied for the second-most among returning Huskers. Smith was set to play a key role on the line this fall, with the ability to possibly serve as a key backup at tackle, guard or even center.
- Sophomore linebacker Sean Fisher also suffered a season-ending leg injury during fall camp. Fisher started six games as a redshirt freshman last fall, and was expected to be among the Huskers' top candidates at linebacker for the 2010 campaign.
- Junior cornerback Anthony Blue suffered his second knee injury in the past 2 1/2 years during fall camp and will be sidelined for the year. Blue was expected to be among Nebraska's top reserves at corner, and was also one of the Huskers' top special teams perfomers last season.
- No depth chart has been finalized heading into the opener, making first-time starters a bit of a guessing game. However, those that could see their first appearance in the NU offensive starting lineup include junior center Mike Caputo, and either redshirt freshman Jeremiah Sirles or junior Yoshi Hardrick at left tackle. Redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez has also been in a tight three-way battle at quarterback. On the defensive side, those possibly making their first career starts include either sophomore Baker Steinkuhler or junior Terrence Moore at defensive tackle, sophomore Cameron Meredith at defensive end, linebackers LaVonte David and Eric Martin, and sophomore P.J. Smith at safety.
NU Building Fourth-Quarter Reputation
- The fourth-quarter highlight was at No. 24 Missouri. NU trailed 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, before scoring 27 unanswered points. The rally from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit tied a school record, and the 27 points were the most by NU in any quarter since the 2004 season opener, and the most in the fourth quarter since 2001.
- Nebraska allowed nine Big 12 opponents just 23 fourth-quarter points and held eight foes without a fourth-quarter point.
- Nebraska outscored its opponents 154-55 in the second half in 2009. The 55 second-half points were the fewest allowed by any team in the nation. Only two opponents scored more than seven points in the second half in 2009 (Baylor-10, Colorado-13), and NU allowed only five offensive TDs in the second half.
- Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska is 19-2 when leading at any point in the fourth quarter. The lone losses were one-point setbacks against Virginia Tech and Texas in 2009.
The 2009 season was no different as NU outscored the opposition 96-32, with the 32 points allowed tying Alabama for the lowest in the nation. The 64-point differential in the fourth quarter was the fourth-best nationally.