- Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: Big Ten Network
- Location: Memorial Stadium — Lincoln, NE
- Spread: Nebraska (-20.5)
- Over/under: 47
- All-time series: Nebraska leads, 2-0
- Last meeting: Nebraska 49, Louisiana Tech 10 — September 2, 2006
- Current streak: Nebraska, 2 (1998-06)
Setting the scene
It’s hard to believe some teams are already on their fifth game of 2023.
Louisiana Tech (2-2, 1-0 CUSA) is nearly at the season’s midway point after starting early in Week 0, and the Bulldogs wrap up non-conference play this weekend in Lincoln, NE. The Bulldogs are fresh off a wild finish at North Texas which involved coming back down 16 in the fourth quarter — with an onside kick recovery providing an assist — only to lose 40-37 on a field goal at the end of regulation.
Nebraska (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) finally made an edit in the win column last Saturday, comfortably cruising past Northern Illinois, 35-11, allowing the lone Huskies touchdown with four seconds left in the contest. The Cornhuskers, led by first-year head coach Matt Rhule, look to build on that momentum to avoid a 1-3 start for the second consecutive season.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs outlook
The loss to former CUSA rival North Texas didn’t only hurt in the win column, but it also affected the depth of the team. Starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier exited the game with a right shoulder injury in the late third quarter, causing backup Jack Turner to finish the evening against the Mean Green.
Bachmeier’s status is questionable for Saturday, but if the Boise State transfer is unable to go, it will be Turner’s first collegiate start. Turner checked into last Saturday’s matchup down 16 and he was responsible for spearheading the inspiring fourth quarter comeback. The 6’5” sophomore completed 9-of-13 passes for 145 yards and delivered the game-tying touchdown on a screen to Smoke Harris, which went 36 yards. The only other extensive action Turner has played was in last year’s finale against UAB, when he checked in during the second quarter to throw for 167 yards on 25 attempts.
The offense is also dealing with a laundry list of injuries in the running back. Projected starter Marquis Crosby still hasn’t suited up this year due to a leg injury. But in Crosby’s place, Keith Willis Jr. thrived with 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Week 2. However, Willis suffered a high-ankle sprain last game and will miss this matchup. Additionally, Charvis Thornton has been dealing with injuries at the position as well. That leaves Miami (OH) transfer Tyre Shelton as the lead back, and while he proved his capabilities with 152 yards on 16 carries last week, the depth behind Shelton is suddenly lacking against a razor sharp Nebraska run defense.
One position group where the Bulldogs are healthy and thriving is wide receiver. Harris, the ultimate open field screen threat in the CUSA, is off to his best start in his six years at Louisiana Tech. He is first in the CUSA and tied for ninth in the country with 24 receptions, and he’s utilized his speed near the sideline to convert those catches into 288 yards and three touchdowns. The perfect foil to Harris is Cyrus Allen, who thrives in the home run game. The true sophomore averaged 22.7 yards per reception in 2022, and Louisiana Tech will look to use him on deep shots after he attained a season-high 82 yards against the Mean Green.
The issue which has plagued Louisiana Tech the most this year is defending the run, and this is an extension of 2022. After fielding the second-worst run defense last season, the Bulldogs remain near the basement with the ninth-to-last unit, allowing over 205 yards per game. That is the strength of the Nebraska offense, which presents the threat of a mobile quarterback, so Louisiana Tech must witness drastic improvements in that department to pull off the upset in Lincoln.
The Bulldogs are more fortified in the defensive back room, where they’ve picked off four passes and broken up 16 this year. Cornerback Willie Roberts is the featured talent in this position group, with one pick and four deflections through four games in a follow-up act to a stellar 2022. Strong safety Myles Heard is another talent in this position group, but given Nebraska’s typical gameplan, he’ll need to do a lot of run-stopping to add to his team-high 44 tackles this year. Additionally, the use of a spy might be helpful against the Cornhuskers and outside linebackers Jeslord Boateng and Brevin Randle will likely be thrust into this job to prevent Nebraska from thriving on broken passing plays.
Nebraska Cornhuskers outlook
The Cornhuskers finally got the first win of the Matt Rhule era out of the way, and now they look to win back-to-back to improve to .500 in the standings. They’ll receive the backing of their home fanbase at Memorial Stadium where their defense suffocated Northern Illinois one week ago.
Defense is the calling card of this Nebraska team, and that’s been evident in all three outings. In Week 1, Minnesota didn’t score a touchdown until a desperation fourth down attempt with under three minutes to go. In Week 2, Colorado’s 36-point outburst was more of the result of Cornhusker turnovers and Nebraska forced four consecutive punts to start the contest. And last week, Northern Illinois was less than 10 seconds away from being held out of the end zone entirely. In summary, consistency has been established and scoring on Nebraska is not always the most feasible task.
The mark of a good defense usually involves stifling the run and keeping teams one-dimensional, and that’s exactly what this unit has done thus far. Allowing just 46.3 yards per game, Nebraska boasts the third-best run defense in the FBS and only surrenders 1.7 yards per carry. Not only are they countering running backs at the line of scrimmage, but the Cornhuskers exhibit one of the best pass rushes in the country, ranking fourth overall with 4.7 sacks per game. The team notably took down Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders eight times in a Week 2 defeat, and this pass rush is a collective effort.
Inside linebacker Luke Reimer leads the group with 2.5 sacks, but three other players have at least two sacks on the season including outside linebacker Nick Henrich, who is back to full speed after suffering a season-ending injury early in 2022.
At 93rd in the country, the pass defense has definitely been the lesser of the two facets, and the Cornhuskers’ main focus Saturday should be limiting the talented receiver duo of Cyrus Allen, who lines up on the boundary, and Smoke Harris, who is usually found in the slot. Nebraska will guard Allen with either Quinton Newsome or Malcolm Hartzog, but Harris could be challenged by numerous defenders, including nickelback Isaac Gifford who leads the team with 15 tackles.
On offense, turnover limitation is the team’s primary focus. Only Georgia Southern has coughed the ball up more times than Nebraska, which has nine giveaways through three games. The Cornhuskers improved in that aspect with only one in the Northern Illinois game, and they saw responsible quarterback play from Heinrich Haarberg, who made his first career start in place of the injured Jeff Sims. It is unknown which quarterback gets the start against Louisiana Tech, or if both will see rotating reps this week.
Haarberg completed 14-of-24 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown against the Huskies, but the most impressive aspect of his game was in the mobility department. He rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown, keeping that element in Nebraska’s offense in Sims’ absence after Sims posted 158 rushing yards across two starts.
Nebraska needs a boost in the running game, as the team’s top two running backs Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson were both ruled out for the season due to injury. That requires Anthony Grant to step into the lead back role, which he held last year when producing 915 yards and six touchdowns.
There are plenty of uncertainties heading into this matchup, many which involve the quarterback matchup. But one thing is certain. Louisiana Tech’s strength is its offense. Nebraska’s strength is its defense.
The Cornhuskers can muck up a game for an opponent, limiting the run and forcing teams into long-distance situations on critical downs. While Louisiana Tech has thrived running the ball this year, the Bulldogs are short on depth with three running backs banged up already, so the lack of depth could show. Thus, Louisiana Tech will need a handful of home run plays from its talented receiving duo to slide past the Cornhuskers.
Even with Nebraska’s limitations in its shorthanded running back room, the Cornhuskers still have the talent to generate yardage on the ground against the Bulldogs with a pair of mobile quarterbacks and an established option in Anthony Grant. As long as Nebraska doesn’t lose the turnover battle by at least two, the Cornhuskers should see a similar result to what transpired last week against Northern Illinois.
Prediction: Nebraska 26, Louisiana Tech 10