As someone who wasn’t afraid to go shirtless for warm-ups in frigid Pittsburgh last November, University of Miami middle linebacker Denzel Perryman is looking forward to Saturday’s showdown with 24th-ranked Nebraska in much the same manner.
For Perryman, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“What do they call it? The Red Sea or something like that?” Perryman said Saturday shortly after he and the Hurricanes flexed some defensive muscle with jarring hits and four sacks in a win over Arkansas State at Sun Life Stadium. “I’m excited to go out there and see all the fans with the little corn on their heads. I can’t wait for this matchup.”
The Hurricanes, much improved statistically this season on defense (eighth in total defense, 15th against the run and 35th in scoring), will have their hands full Saturday at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. And the 92,000-plus screaming fans in what is expected to be the Cornhuskers’ 336th consecutive sellout crowd will be among the least of their concerns.
Led by star tailback Ameer Abdullah, college football’s active leader in career all-purpose yards, dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong (10-1 as a starter), and senior receiver Kenny Bell (No.2 all-time in Nebraska receiving), the Cornhuskers (3-0) have one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
Nebraska is averaging 47 points (10th), 594.3 yards (fifth), 324.3 rushing yards (eighth) and is tied for the national lead with nine plays of 40 yards or more.
“This is probably going to be the best opponent we’ve played so far — a really physical team,” Abdullah told ESPN this week. “I feel like I have my best games when I play physical fronts.
“This game means a lot for my career. I really want to really exert myself [from] a national standpoint with this game, and I’m sure our team wants to do the same.”
The Hurricanes (2-1) have shrunk on the big stage before under Al Golden. They gave up an average of 41.7 points and 538 yards in the three games they played against teams that finished in the Associated Press Top 25 last season. All were blowout losses.
Saturday’s showdown in Lincoln is an opportunity for the Canes to prove this defense really is better, and for the program to show recruits it really is headed in the right direction.
“It’s going to be an extreme challenge for us,” defensive end Olsen Pierre said. “They’ve got a good senior O-line, a good running back, but it’s not a challenge we’re going to be scared of. We’re going to be ready for it.”
Defensive end Anthony Chickillo compared Abdullah (5-9, 200) to former North Carolina running back Giovanni Bernard, now a standout for the Cincinnati Bengals. Pierre said Nebraska’s No.8 looks a lot like Miami’s No.8 — Duke Johnson. “He’s a similar type of back,” Pierre said. “We’ll be ready for him.”
The Hurricanes, who have 11 sacks through their first three games, will again face an elusive quarterback in Armstrong (6-1, 220). Last weekend, Arkansas State’s Fredi Knighton made UM look foolish at times with point-guard type passes to evade the pressure. Pierre and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said UM’s defense must stay in its running lanes and stick to its gap assignments like it has thus far this season.
Nebraska’s offensive line isn’t loaded with experience, but the Cornhuskers have allowed just one sack and three quarterback hurries in the first three games. The left side, anchored by junior tackle Alex Lewis (6-6, 290), a transfer from Colorado, and senior guard and captain Jake Cotton (6-6, 305), has 32 games’ worth of combined starting experience. The rest of the line has 13 combined starts. Right tackle Zach Sterup (6-8, 320) is the only starter who was tabbed higher than a three-star recruit by Rivals.com.
Miami’s third-down defense is also an area that needs to improve, D’Onofrio said. Opponents have been in third-and-long situations 15 times this season and have converted first downs seven times. Overall on third down, Miami’s defense has given up a first down half the time opponents have decided to throw (12 of 24) against it.
“We’re not having precise pass-rush lanes like we should,” Chickillo said. “Credit to Arkansas State’s quarterback last game. He was a good scrambler and he got away from us a couple of times. That’s something we’re going to improve this week and really focus on.”