Standing between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the team’s first winning streak in a calendar year is Georgia Southern.
The Eagles out of the Sun Belt come into Lincoln 1-0 after a 59-7 win over Morgan State. Traditionally, Georgia Southern has ran the triple option. That’s how the Eagles won most of their six national championships between 1985 and 2000.
But that’s not the team Nebraska will face off against on Saturday. Georgia Southern hired former USC coach Clay Helton to take over the program after the Eagles finished 3-9 last year. That was the program’s second-worst season in the modern era.
Helton’s more pass-centric offense should challenge the Huskers. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who Nebraska played last year when he was at Buffalo, threw for 367 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in the team’s opening win. His 29 completions were spread among 10 different receivers.
Helton has never been head coach against Nebraska but was the USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when the Trojans beat Nebraska in the 2014 Holiday Bowl.
“Have a ton of respect for him for everything he accomplished there as a coordinator and head coach,” head coach Scott Frost said on Monday. “I am sure coming into a new place that had run a different scheme on offense there was a lot of challenges there. Judging on the way they played first week, they have done a really good job.”
The Eagles split 137 rushing yards among multiple players in the opener. No individual back ran for more than 45 yards.
Players and coaches alike agreed it’s good to have experience against Vantrease. But that experience works both ways. And a more pass-focused offense could allow him spaces to make plays. That’s why the Huskers are determined to limit the Eagles’ offense.
“The first main goal is to stop the run. A lot of teams when they see that their ears pin back and they think every play is going to be a pass play until one gashes you on a run,” defensive lineman Ty Robinson said. “That’s going to be our biggest thing. Play level and cool-headed and understand that these guys can still run the ball. They have pretty solid offense and offensive line.”
Georgia Southern finished +3 in the turnover ratio against Morgan State after forcing four turnovers. That puts the Eagles fourth nationally going into Week 2.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has gone against Georgia Southern four times before in his career. He said they’ve always been a talented team that are better athletes than the tape would suggest.
“They played in a bunch of big games,” Whipple said. “They get good athletes and guys that can run.
“They’re a lot like Nebraska. They have their longstanding — won five or six national championships that way. Not long ago they were winning 10, 11 games and going to a bowl.”
Georgia Southern caused issues for the Morgan State quarterbacks in the opener, limiting two quarterbacks to 78 yards over 10 completions on 27 attempts. That along with three interceptions.
But, the Eagles gave up 172 total rushing yards. That’s something the Huskers will look to capitalize on with a rejuvenated offensive line and a definitive No. 1 running back in Anthony Grant. His consistency in practice in games has stood out the most to coaches.
“He’s shown in the times he can pop a run but I think he’s more patient in his reads and more consistent that way,” Whipple said. “Really had a good game last year and has really had a good start to his career. Proud of him and how far he’s come.”
Whipple and Frost both complimented Grant’s performance the first two weeks but want to continue getting other running backs involved.
All four Georgia Southern punts against Morgan State went inside the 20 against Morgan State. That gave the Eagles defense more space for stops.
Georgia Southern also converted its only field goal attempt last week from 20 yards out.
While Nebraska’s special teams — outside of punter Brian Buscheni — has struggled at times, Frost saw forward steps this week in practice.
“I’d like to see that unit start helping us win games and that’s creating more impact plays,” Frost said on Thursday. “Not making any mistakes. I think we’ve got the people capable of doing that now.”
Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff marks the first meeting between Georgia Southern and Nebraska. It airs on FOX Sports 1 with analyst Mark Helfrich on the commentary team. Helfrich and Frost coached together at Oregon.