1. Is there a cape around here?
A great many words have been uttered about Rex Burkhead this past week without the story budging even a yard. Husker coaches have been coy about the senior running back’s status ever since the postgame news conference a week ago. Could he play against UCLA? It’d seem unlikely given that he didn’t practice all week after suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee. Then again, maybe “Superman” has some dramatics to unleash in a city that can’t get enough of those. The better guess is the weight falls on the hungry young dudes behind him — Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross. That trio, especially Abdullah, looked formidable enough a week ago. But this is a bigger assignment against what many perceive as a better team. It’s also an opportunity. Burkhead will be needed during the Big Ten march if this Husker team is to achieve its championship goals. But Saturday night could offer a chance to learn a whole lot more about what Nebraska has beyond No. 22. Prime time. National TV. In the Rose Bowl. Perform on that stage and just see how much a young back’s confidence balloons.
2. Specialty items
Take it or leave it, but we’d say don’t worry about the kicker from Kearney. Brett Maher proved over an entire season last year he’ll kick a football where he wants it to go way more times than he won’t. So he had a few bad kicks last Saturday. Expect him to bounce back. It’s kick coverage that leaves you scratching your head. A year ago, the Huskers ranked 104th nationally at covering kicks. And then last week, an opponent takes it 100 yards. Special-teams coordinator Ross Els says adjustments are being made. Probably some personnel changes, too. We’ll see how the moves play out. Ideally for Nebraska, Maher boots all the kickoffs out of the end zone. But even if a Bruin return man fields it 7 yards deep, don’t be surprised if he tests the Huskers. He no doubt saw the same thing you did last week.
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3. Homecoming comes early
It’s a big day for a bunch of Californians on the Husker roster, including Taylor Martinez. The quarterback grew up a UCLA fan. The Bruins looked his way on the recruiting front, but mostly as a safety. A scholarship offer never came. “I was kind of disappointed by that,” Martinez says. One thing he’s not disappointed with is now having the chance to play the team he used to root for. Martinez might be hard-pressed to top what he did a week ago, when he completed 76 percent of his passes. But if he can equal that other stat he had last Saturday — zero interceptions — there’s a very good chance the Huskers are doing the shouting at the end.
4. A tackling test
The good? Nebraska had 11 tackles for loss last week. That’s a good sign for a team that ranked 112th in that category last season. The bad? As Bo Pelini pointed out, Nebraska could have had four or five more if it had tackled better. The Huskers will need to bring its best tackling tonight. Awaiting them is another one of those mobile quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. Then there’s slippery and speedy running back Johnathan Franklin, who had 214 yards against Rice. It’s hard to know exactly how good those guys are after Week 1. Rice doesn’t really do the whole defense thing. But, certainly, UCLA has some playmakers. The Bruins’ zone-read option attack will test Nebraska’s discipline. And Hundley’s arm will try out Nebraska’s secondary, which didn’t face many downfield challenges a week ago. Hundley’s a young guy, so he’ll probably make a few young-guy mistakes. The question is if Nebraska will be there to collect when those happen.