From The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: In what figures to be a complete mismatch, the eighth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers entertain the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the season opener for both programs this weekend at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska begins its 121st season with high expectations after a strong showing in 2009. In their second year under head coach Bo Pelini, the Huskers posted a 10-4 record and were just seconds away from winning a Big 12 Championship before Texas stole a 13-12 victory in the league title game. Now in his third year at Nebraska, Pelini has the program in great shape and ready to compete for another conference title. However, this will be the program's last shot at winning a Big 12 title, as the Huskers announced this offseason their plans to move to the Big Ten in 2011.
As for the Hilltoppers, they are the newest team at the FBS level and it showed in 2009. In their first full-fledged season as a FBS member, WKU went winless at 0-12, and the program brings the nation's longest losing streak into 2010 with 20 straight setbacks. Obviously a change was needed, as Willie Taggart, a former standout quarterback at WKU, was brought in to turn the program around. Taggart, who recently spent time as Stanford's running backs coach, brings a winning attitude and a fresh start for the Toppers.
"I have always followed Western Kentucky University, ever since I was in school here," said Taggart. "When I saw this opportunity, I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime."
This game marks the first-ever clash between WKU and Nebraska on the gridiron.
The Toppers previously ran a spread-option attack, but under Taggart, they are now set to use a West Coast style of offense. The change is drastic and it should help improve the unit in the long run. Kawaun Jakes was recently named the starting quarterback by Taggart, as the sophomore beat out junior Matt Pelesasa in the offseason.
"Kawaun did the things we were looking for to be the starting quarterback. He was consistent, made plays and became a leader," stated Taggart.
In 11 appearances, eight starts last season, Jakes threw for 1,515 yards and nine scores, while adding 366 yards and five more touchdowns on the ground. The Toppers, though, have a relatively inexperienced group of wideouts and are in need of someone to step up as the top option.
The team however, is settled at running back with the return of Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 939 yard and six touchdowns as a sophomore last season. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry and is clearly the best playmaker on this club.
WKU is also switching schemes on the defensive side of the ball, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under first-year coordinator Clint Bowen. A change is certainly needed considering the Toppers ranked 118th nationally in total defense (478.3 ypg) and 119th in scoring (39.6 ppg) in 2009.
The line is anchored by end Jared Clendenin, who had 40 tackles in 2009. He will look to become a better pass rusher for a defense that registered only 10 sacks in '09.
The most experienced part of the defense is the linebacking corps, and Thomas Majors leads the way. Majors paced WKU with 101 stops last season and he will be joined by Chris Bullard and converted safety Orlando Missalefua, who combined for 91 stops a year ago.
The biggest area of concern is the secondary, where WKU brought in many new faces to compete for playing time. Safety Mark Santoro is the most recognizable returnee after ranking second on the team with 91 tackles last season.
If the Huskers are going to build off last year's run, they will need more from an offense that managed only 25.1 ppg and 322.8 total ypg in '09. With that said, Nebraska has yet to announce a starting quarterback, though Pelini doesn't seem to think that is a big deal.
"The team is going to rally around whoever is out there. They've been practicing with all three guys and all three guys have gotten reps with the first unit. It's kind of like any other position."
The three man race is between returning senior starter Zac Lee, sophomore Cody Green and freshman Taylor Martinez. Lee, coming off elbow surgery, played with the injury most of last season and struggled at times, throwing for 2,143 yards with 14 touchdowns against 10 picks. Green, meanwhile, passed for 317 yards and two touchdowns as the back to Lee and he also added 158 yards and two more scores on the ground. As for Martinez, he caught the eye of everyone with his speed and athleticism in the spring.
An offensive line that returns nearly intact should help whomever ends up under center, as should the continued success of senior tailback Roy Helu Jr., who ran for 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns despite being slowed by a shoulder injury last season. Niles Paul also returns as the team's top target after leading the way with 40 receptions and 796 receiving yards in '09.
Nebraska's defense was the cornerstone of the '09 team, as the unit surrendered a mere 10.4 ppg to lead the nation. Replacing the nation's top defensive lineman in Ndamukong Suh, however, will be no easy task and the Huskers need to prove then can be successful without him.
"I think we have the potential to be really good on defense, but we're not right now," stated Pelini. I think we're getting better. I think we're better in some areas, I think there are other areas we need to work on."
While Suh may be gone, the line does still have a star performer in tackle Jared Crick, who tallied 73 stops, 15 TFLs and 9.5 sacks last year. Crick has All-American potential, but must prove he can be successful without Suh garnering most of the attention.
The linebacking corps isn't as stacked as other positions, and sophomore Will Compton will be counted on to emerge into more of a threat after registering 40 stops in '09.
The Huskers' secondary is deep and versatile and should benefit from the new Peso defense, which uses a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Filling that spot is senior Eric Hagg, who is a key performer that posted 40 stops and seven TFLs last season.
Even though the Huskers are unsettled at quarterback, they should have little trouble getting past a WKU club that simply lacks the same type of size, speed and athleticism. Expect a blowout in Lincoln this weekend.