Settle It: Nebraska vs. UCLA, who will win this out-of-conference special?

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, UCLA’s 36-30 home win over Nebraska served as a harbinger of things to come for both programs. The Bruins, after recording a 6-8 record in 2011, would go on to post a 9-5 overall mark. The Huskers still managed to record a great 10 wins, but showed once again that they could not win when it really mattered. Coach Bo Pelini’s squad would go on to be embarrassed, 70-31, in the Big Ten title game by Wisconsin and then get beaten badly by Georgia, 45-31, in the Capital One Bowl.

Could UCLA use this year’s matchup as a springboard to another successful season? Coach Jim Mora’s squad will have tragically unexpected motivation to earn a huge, out-of-conference road win at Nebraska. During the Bruins bye last weekend, wide receiver Nick Pasquale was killed after being struck by a car while visiting his family. Obviously, the loss of a teammate and friend can be devastating.

Mora will be looking to his stars to remain focused, and to use it as motivation – but it won’t be easy. Not against a Nebraska team that is just as talented as any team in the Big Ten. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley was his usual, elite self in the team’s season opening, 58-20 drubbing of Nevada: 22-of-33, 274 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions. He also tacked on 63 rushing yards on a mere seven carries.

Speaking of the running game, that was easily this offense’s biggest question mark after losing the school’s most prolific running back of all time, Johnathan Franklin, to graduation and the NFL. However, junior Jordan James answered those questions early with a 155-yard performance on 21 carries.

Coach Bo Pelini’s defense was supposed to be vastly improved after giving up so many points to its big-time opponents a year ago. However, Big Red gave up a mind-boggling 602 yards to Wyoming in barely escaping its season opener with a 37-34 win over the Cowboys. Definitely not a great start. In fact, the 35 first downs the Cowboys amassed were the most ever given up by Nebraska in a single game.

Luckily, if defensive ends Randy Gregory and Jason Ankrah can’t make life difficult for Hundley, Nebraska has the offensive firepower necessary to win a shootout.

But can senior quarterback Taylor Martinez make it happen? Four years ago, Martinez passed for 1,631 yards, rushed for another 965 and totaled 22 touchdowns. He did not win the Heisman, but he was talked about similarly the way fans talk about Johnny Manziel now. However, whereas Manziel led his Aggies to a Cotton Bowl blowout over Oklahoma, Martinez has not been able to push his Huskers over the hump.

This his is final year in Lincoln. Could the UCLA game be the first in a series of big-time wins for the senior. Martinez can make things happen with both his arms and his legs, but he also boasts a number of weapons capable of dominating even UCLA’s defense; namely, 6-foot-4, 248-pound superstar pass rusher Anthony Barr.

Should Martinez be able to get rid of the ball before Barr is on him, he has three excellent receivers to throw to. Quincy Enunwa is a senior with three touchdowns on the season already. Kenny Bell leads the team in both receptions (10) and yards (102) and finally Jamal Turner is ready to break out as the third option.

Martinez can also turn around and hand off to Ameer Abdullah, Terrell Newby or Imani Cross. Abdullah is the unquestioned starter after collecting 1,137 yards in 2012. He already has 228 on 36 carries (6.33 per attempt) this season. Newby is just a young freshman, but with only 23 attempts he has compiled 136 yards. Finally, Cross, at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, is a load. The sophomore already has three rushing touchdowns.

All of this talent, however, is built around the effectiveness of Taylor Martinez. Will he finally step up in a big-time battle and out-duel a fellow elite quarterback, or will Hundley shred the exceedingly suspect Huskers defense and leave Lincoln with another win over Big Red?

Will UCLA and Mora be able to refocus, and get motivated, following the loss of one of their own?

The time for debate and conjecture will all soon come to an end. We don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps you do.

It’s time to settle it.

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Photo: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports