Nebraska coach Bo Pelini isn't looking for perfection in the opener against Wyoming. A win will do just fine.
The No. 18 Cornhuskers are replacing six of seven starters on the defensive line and at linebacker, and Pelini plans to shuffle a lot of young players in and out on what will be a steamy Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
"You're going to have your mistakes," Pelini said. "No matter how young or how old, I have never seen a guy play a perfect game."
The defense is squarely in the spotlight after a disappointing end to a 10-4 season. The Huskers gave up 70 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and 45 more in a bowl loss to Georgia. The Badgers and Bulldogs combined for 18 plays longer than 20 yards, including eight that went for more than 45.
Wyoming is no Wisconsin or Georgia, but the Cowboys' spread offense is capable of striking quickly. Brett Smith, entering his third year as the starting quarterback, threw four touchdown passes of 70 yards or longer last season.
But Smith's offensive line had to replace three starters, and he'll be going against an experienced secondary that again figures to rank among the national leaders in pass defense.
Plus, Memorial Stadium at night can be a tough environment for visitors. The Cowboys played in front of more than 100,000 fans in last year's opener at Texas. Stadium expansion in Lincoln has increased capacity to almost 92,000.
"It's definitely going to be challenging to get the calls in and get my cadence," Smith said. "I love it. It's what college football is about."
Here are five things to watch when Nebraska takes on Wyoming:
MARTINEZ SHARP IN OPENERS: Fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez passed for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns against Southern Mississippi last season. He ran for 135 yards and three touchdowns against Chattanooga in 2011 and 127 yards and three TDs against Western Kentucky in 2010. Martinez will be directing the best offense in Pelini's six seasons, and the question is how long he'll play if the Huskers take control early. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior Ron Kellogg III will be waiting their turns behind him.
RUNNING BACK ROTATION: Ameer Abdullah ran for almost 1,200 yards last season, and he's the Huskers' undisputed starter. No word on who will back up Abdullah. The coaches have good options. Imani Cross was the short-yardage hammer, and he's worked to put himself into position to have an expanded role. Freshman Terrell Newby emerged in early practices and is too good to keep off the field. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Newby came to Nebraska after back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons for Chaminade High in West Hills, Calif. "I could definitely see Newby get some playing time because he has some speed and is a very coachable guy," Abdullah said. "I could see him making some plays on Saturdays."
NEVER ENOUGH ENUNWA: Kenny Bell is the most recognized Nebraska receiver, perhaps as much for his massive afro as for his team-leading statistics. But Quincy Enunwa caught 42 passes for 470 yards last season and has been impressive in practices. "I think he took huge strides," Martinez said. "I don't think I've seen one person take him down. You should have seen a run by him in this scrimmage, it was ridiculous. I can't wait to see anyone try to take him down one-on-one, just how big and physical he is."
KICKING COMPETITION: The competition between Nebraska kickers Mauro Bondi and walk-on Pat Smith is ongoing. Pelini said they probably will share the duties against Wyoming, but it hasn't been decided how the work will be divided. Bondi, who handled a few kickoffs as a freshman, redshirted last season while Brett Maher earned All-Big Ten honors. Smith transferred from Western Illinois for his last year of eligibility. He was a finalist for the 2012 Fred Mitchell Award, which is given to the top place-kicker at an FCS school.
COMING UNDONE AGAINST RUN: Wyoming was 4-8 last season largely because of a defense that allowed 470 yards and 33 points a game. The Cowboys were especially vulnerable to the run, allowing 232 yards to rank 117th. "The stuff we weren't good at last year we emphasized in the spring and this fall, and with the new guys coming in and the personnel we have, we feel we'll be much improved," said linebacker Devyn Harris, who missed all but one game last season because of a foot injury. Cornerback Blair Burns is the Cowboys' top honors candidate on defense. Burns, who has started 21 straight games, returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown against Colorado State.
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