Southern Miss.-Nebraska Preview
Despite posting its fourth consecutive nine-win campaign under
coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten was met
with mixed reviews.
With quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead
both returning, though, the Cornhuskers are hoping to join the
NCAA’s elite in year two.
No. 17 Nebraska tries to extend the nation’s longest active
winning streak in season openers to 27 on Saturday when it hosts
defending Conference USA champion Southern Miss.
After entering their inaugural Big Ten season with championship
aspirations, the Huskers finished third in the Legends division
with a 5-3 mark in conference play, going 9-4 overall.
They’re hoping a year of experience makes all the
“The transformation that we’ve had as a team these last seven
months – the amount that we’ve grown, not only football-wise, but
getting these guys together for a greater purpose – there’s no
individual minds thinking about themselves,” tight end Ben Cotton
said. “We’re focused on one thing, and that’s getting that
Offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles also believes there’s plenty
of room for improvement.
“We’ve had good years here in the past,” Sirles said. “9-4 is
not a bad year. 8-4 is not a bad year. It’s a good year. We’re
tired of being good.”
Nebraska appears to have a chance to be great in 2012 with
Martinez and Burkhead both primed to post big numbers again. The
duo combined for 2,231 rushing yards last season, and that number
could grow in the second year under offensive coordinator Tim
“A baby grows remarkably from age 1 to age 2,” running backs
coach Ron Brown said. “The first year seems like you’re bobbling
things all over the place. After that, you develop much more
expertise. You see a lot of growth that second year.”
While Nebraska’s 611 rushing attempts last season accounted for
nearly two-thirds of its plays, it’s hoping to come out with a more
balanced attack this time around. That could mean fewer carries for
Burkhead, whom the Huskers are hoping to keep fresh down the
“Rex wants to play every snap. It’s up to us to manage that,”
Pelini said. “At the same time, get the ball in his hands, get him
some carries. We have a lot of talent at the running back position,
so it’ll be in Rex’s long-term interest to offset that load
Joining Burkhead in the backfield are Ameer Abdullah, Braylon
Heard and freshman Imani Cross, who’s earned high praise for his
efforts thus far.
“He’s a man. He runs hard, he’s big, he’s physical, and he’s
mature training-wise for a guy that age,” Pelini said. “He adds
another dimension to our football team that maybe we haven’t had in
the past couple years.”
While the Huskers have won each of their last 26 season openers
by at least 10 points, they aren’t likely to take Southern Miss
lightly. The Golden Eagles are coming off a 12-2 campaign, setting
a school record for victories behind one of the most potent
offenses in the FBS.
Southern Miss averaged 36.9 points and 461.4 yards to rank 14th
and 17th, respectively. Though that unit may take a step back with
junior Chris Campbell trying to fill Austin Davis’ big shoes at
quarterback, the defense could be bolstered under new coach Ellis
After spending the last four seasons as defensive coordinator at
South Carolina, Johnson takes over for Larry Fedora, now the head
coach at North Carolina.
Although Johnson didn’t coach in the Gamecocks’ 30-13 victory
over Nebraska in the 2012 Capital One Bowl, he surely has a good
idea of what to expect Saturday.
“It’s certainly going to be a challenge … they certainly
deserve the preseason recognition that they’ve gotten,” he said.
“It’s just going to be a tough game for us.”
Though Southern Miss is looking forward to kicking off its
season, keeping its focus on the field hasn’t proven easy during
Hurricane Isaac’s move toward the Gulf Coast.
“We’re excited to play a game,” Johnson said, “… (but) we’re
certainly concerned about the safety of some of our players’
families, and some of them were a little upset about what was going
on. To say that this incident isn’t a distraction, I’d be
Saturday marks the fourth meeting between these programs.
Nebraska won the first two before falling 21-17 in Lincoln on Sept.