Nebraska and Arkansas State each posted opening-game blowouts. It’s the Red Wolves, though, and not the Cornhuskers who feel much better about their debut.
The No. 22 Cornhuskers try to open with consecutive wins for the fifth straight year Saturday when they face Arkansas State for the first time.
Nebraska cruised to a 49-3 win over Florida Atlantic last week. Roy Helu Jr. rushed for three touchdowns and 152 yards as the Cornhuskers’ offense finished with 490 yards.
That wasn’t the side of the ball in which Nebraska had problems. It gave up 358 yards to the Owls, and coach Bo Pelini called his defense “soft” on Tuesday.
“Overall, man to man, I thought we played soft at times,” Pelini said. “We’ve got to get that fixed.”
Pelini said Nebraska’s problems weren’t because of a lack of effort. The Cornhuskers didn’t record a sack.
“The want-to is there,” he said, “but the how-to wasn’t taken care of.”
Nose tackle Ndamukong Suh was left to defend his unit after his coach’s harsh words.
“I definitely take it personally, but I know exactly what he means, so I don’t take it too hard,” Suh said. “We weren’t as physical as he hoped. Basically, we want to start a new line of scrimmage. There is the main line of scrimmage where the ball is set, but we want to move their linemen into the backfield and start a new line of scrimmage. I don’t think we did.”
Arkansas State hails from the Sun Belt Conference like Florida Atlantic, and could provide stiffer competition. The Red Wolves posted a 61-0 victory over Mississippi Valley State, scoring 40 points in the first half.
“I think it was real obvious defensively that we controlled the game with our front seven,” Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said. “I thought our offensive line did a great job, especially against some of their bigger lineman.”
Senior tailback Reggie Arnold rushed for 126 yards and four touchdowns, and quarterback Corey Leonard became the Arkansas State all-time yardage leader. Leonard passed for 129 yards and a touchdown and rushed for seven more to finish the night with 7,433 career yards, surpassing Cleo Lemon’s mark of 7,309.
The strong performance has certainly gotten Nebraska’s attention.
“They’re a pretty talented football team, very well coached,” Pelini said. “They are very sound on what they do on both sides of the football. It’s well thought out and they have good athletes. It’s a challenge.”
The Cornhuskers also got an impressive debut last weekend from Zac Lee, who passed for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Lee took his most meaningful snaps since 2006 in junior college.
“There was a little bit of anxiety, but that faded pretty quickly,” Lee said. “Once you throw a couple passes, it’s back to playing football.”
The Red Wolves will be looking to replace two key seniors in offensive lineman Dominic Padrta and free safety Evan Van Dolah, who were each lost to season-ending injuries in the opener.
Arkansas State does have some major talent on defense in reigning Sun Belt defensive player of the year Alex Carrington, a defensive end who is considered an NFL prospect.
The Red Wolves are Nebraska’s first opponent from Arkansas since the Cornhuskers lost 10-7 to Arkansas in the 1965 Cotton Bowl.