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Nebraska offers UW defense the supreme test

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Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2013 8:00 am | Updated: 8:40 am, Sat Aug 31, 2013.

The work began right after last season ended.

University of Wyoming defensive coordinator Chris Tormey, and the entire UW coaching staff, started working to improve a defense that allowed 33.4 points, 232.3 rushing yards, 470.2 total yards and a 51 percent conversion rate on third downs per game in 2012.

Recruiting, a scheme change, practices and meetings all occurred over the last nine months.

Today is the first test for UW’s defense — and the entire team — when it opens the 2013 season at No. 18 Nebraska at 6 tonight at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

“I am not sitting here saying I am comfortable, but I am sitting here saying I am excited,” Tormey said. “I am looking forward to how our guys will do.”

UW switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, but will continue to show multiple formations, depending on the opponent, down-and-distance, etc.

Seven starters return, but there will be plenty of new faces and some familiar ones in new positions.

Senior Marqueston Huff moves from cornerback to safety, and junior Sonny Puletasi moves from defensive end to the buck — a combination defensive end and outside linebacker. Junior Mark Nzeocha is back as an outside linebacker, a position he played as a true freshman in 2011, but he played safety last season.

Junior-college transfer Tyran Finley makes his UW debut at Huff’s cornerback spot, and redshirt freshman Lucas Wacha’s first game will be against a Nebraska offense that returns nine starters off a team that averaged 253.4 rushing yards and 34.8 points per game last season in the Big Ten Conference.

Whatever UW throws at Nebraska, it does not seem concerned.

“I think our offense can adjust to anything,” senior quarterback Taylor Martinez said. “Whatever they bring, we’ll be prepared.”

Will this be a fair gauge of whether UW’s defense is better?

“It will be a very strong test for us, and we are wondering how it will turn out,” senior defensive tackle Patrick Mertens said. “I think it will turn out pretty good.”

Added Tormey: “It’s the first of 12 steps. I don’t think we are going to come out of this game and make any final judgments of where we are at defensively. We are going to be fighting, scratching and clawing out there to hold our own, and hopefully we make our share of plays.”

Ironically, Nebraska is facing a similar scenario with its defense.

The Cornhuskers gave up more than 1,200 yards and 105 points in their last two games — both losses — last season to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. They also gave up 63 points earlier in the season in a loss to Ohio State.

Granted, those were three of the better teams in the nation, but uncharacteristic of any Nebraska defense in recent memory.

Nebraska has questions among its front seven heading into this season, especially along the defensive line.

“We have a lot of different options of guys that can play,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Early on we’ll try and play a lot of guys and try and see how they react when the lights come on. The nice thing for us is we’ve played a lot against our offense, which is multiple.”

UW’s offense heads into the season with high expectations. Junior quarterback Brett Smith enters his third season as the starter, and is coming off a 2012 season where he threw for 27 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Smith has a deep and talented receiving group.

Christensen, in his fifth season, is calling the plays, and the goal is to be more up-tempo than the past four seasons.

On paper, this game has the makings of a shootout, possibly similar to the last time UW played at Nebraska in a 42-32 loss in 1996.

UW is 0-11 against ranked teams under Christensen, and 0-4 the last two years. The Cowboys are 28-point underdogs tonight, game-time temperatures are supposed to be in the mid- to high 80s with high humidity, and there will be 90,000-plus in the stands — mostly rooting against UW.

“We have to block out the external distractions that go along with this game, and just go in there and play football,” Smith said. “We have to execute the plays. That’s what it comes down to.”

Cowboys game day

Game: Wyoming (0-0) at No. 18 Nebraska (0-0)

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: KOWB (1290 AM) Laramie; KFBC (1240 AM) Cheyenne

THREE KEYS FOR WYOMING VS. NO. 18 NEBRASKA

1. Move and score on offense: Wyoming’s fast-paced offense is not designed to milk the clock, which might be the best way to defend Nebraska’s offense in terms of keeping it off the field. When the Cowboys have the ball, they need to be efficient and score. Too many three-and-outs will put more pressure on the defense.

2. Key stops at key times: Wyoming won’t stop Nebraska’s offense throughout the game. But if it can get off the field on third down at critical times, hold the Cornhuskers to field-goal attempts instead of touchdowns and force a couple of turnovers, it will give it a chance. If not, it will be a long game.

3. Corral Martinez: Nebraska senior quarterback Taylor Martinez can hurt teams both running and passing. He ran for nearly 1,100 yards last season and threw for nearly 3,000. Wyoming must pressure Martinez, but not let him get into the open field, where he is dangerous.

— Robert Gagliardi

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