Michigan vs. Nebraska Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field, Saturday. Know your opponent with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.

#18 Michigan (8-2) (4-2) vs. #16 Nebraska (8-2) (4-2)

Michigan Schedule:
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) San Diego State 28-7
(W) Minnesota 58-0
(W) at Northwestern 41-2
(L) at Michigan State 14-28
(W) Purdue 36-14
(L) at Iowa 16-24
(W) at Illinois 31-14
Wisconsin Schedule:
(W) Chattanooga 40-7
(W) Fresno State 42-29
(W) Washington 51-38
(W) at Wyoming 38-14
(L) at Wisconsin 17-48
(W) Ohio State 34-27
(W)at Minnesota 41-14
(W) Michigan State 24-3
(L) Northwestern 25-28
(W) at Penn State 17-14

Wisconsin Players to Watch:
QB Taylor Martinez (So. #3) Denard Jr.; very comparable statistics rushing and passing
RB Rex Burkhead (Jr. #22) #2 in the Big Ten in touchdowns (16); #3 rusher with 1,072 yds
LB Lavonte David (Sr. #4) Team’s best defender; was key in wins over Ohio State and Penn State
CB Alfonzo Dennard (Jr. #15) Three PBU’s against MSU and held B.J. Cunningham without a catch

Both teams come into this game with possibilities of a BCS invitation. Nebraska has a home game with Iowa remaining, while Michigan, of course, has Ohio State. If either team can win out, a 10-2 record should raise their BCS ranking high enough to be considered, though neither team would be a lock. Adding to the irony is Michigan State’s position. The Spartans, who can clinch the Legends division Saturday with a win over Indiana and a Wolverine win over the Cornhuskers, would be out of BCS consideration if they lose the conference championship game. A third loss for any team would be difficult for the selection committees to overlook. Michigan’s chances of winning the division is remote, since they need the Spartans to lose twice, but a 10 win regular season, a potential BCS berth, and a win against a historic program against Nebraska, should provide plenty of motivation.

Joining the Big Ten
Michigan leads all of college football in wins (892) and in winning percentage (.735), but Nebraska fans like to point out that since  1970, the Cornhuskers have won more than anyone with 410 wins, 25 more than Ohio State in that span. Nebraska has 844 wins overall, seven ahead of Ohio State and seven victories behind Notre Dame for the #3 slot.

When Penn State joined the conference in 1993 for football, the Nittany Lions benefited with a schedule that include open dates before big games. It’s quite a contrast for Nebraska. In their inaugural Big 10 season, the Cornhuskers drew Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin to play out of the Leaders Division and didn’t get the luxury to play Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. In addition, Nebraska’s road schedule in Big Ten play, were Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State, and Michigan. Next year, they’ll get those teams at home and eventually, Big Red will get an easier schedule to rotate into.

 Meetings in Bowl Games
The two teams faced one another in bowls twenty seasons apart. Michigan was ranked #5 and Nebraska was #6 when they met in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. Michigan could make a few plays but had difficulties against the Huskers front seven. Nebraska would lead at the half 14-3. In the third quarter it was all Michigan. Nebraska’s first two possessions ended with early fumbles and the Wolverines capitalized with two touchdowns on a short field. Nebraska’s 3rd possession managed to be good enough to at least punt, but the kick was blocked by David Arnold, his 3rd blocked punt of the season. The Wolverines would score 24 points in the 3rd quarter. Deep in their own territory with a little more than minute left in the game and up 27-21, Michigan elected to take a safety and get a free kick from the 20 as opposed to punting out of their own end zone. A Wolverine interception by Garland Rivers in the end zone sealed the 27-23 victory vaulting Michigan up to #2 in the final rankings with a 10-1-1 record.

The 2005 Alamo Bowl in late December will be remembered for Michigan’s last play and the potential to be college football biggest play of all-time. Down 32-28 and too far away to throw a Hail Mary, Michigan decided to play Rugby and kept passing the ball backwards in order to find an open running lane. The play consisted of seven laterals with Tyler Ecker racing down the sideline thinking he could make it. He was forced out at the Nebraska 16 yard line, but if Ecker had just made one more lateral (and it would have been the easiest one of the bunch to make) to Steve Breaston who was in the clear, it likely would have been a Michigan touchdown. We’ll never know if the play would have been nullified due to Michigan bench players and a school administrator walking on the field thinking the game was already over. However, if it stood, the Cal-Stanford band play would have been erased as the consensus top college football play of all time. There would be no reason to play that 1982 clip anymore. The Michigan-Nebraska-sideline players-game had more laterals, was in a bowl game and was played by two of the most prestigious teams in the game.

Pelini is a Buckeye
Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini played free safety and was a team captain for the Ohio State Buckeyes from 1987-90. His class was 1-3 against Michigan. Pelini was a defensive coach in the NFL for nine seasons before joining the college ranks in 2003 at Nebraska serving as the team’s D.C. and interim Head Coach for the Alamo Bowl. When he didn’t get the job full-time, Pelini would coordinate defenses at Oklahoma and LSU, where he coached both teams to BCS title games. He earned a national championship ring with the Tigers under Les Miles with a win against his Buckeyes. Pelini is in his fourth season at Nebraska, winning or sharing the Big 12 North Division Crown in the previous three years.

What are the Blackshirts?
Broadcasters and writers mention the term Blackshirts often, but how did it come about. Similar to when Michigan came up with Winged Helmets to discern between offense and defense, according to Nebraska’s official website, black pullovers were purchased in the same way at practice. In the 60’s these shirts were given only to the defensive starters as a motivating tool for the back-up players. As the reputation of the Huskers defense rose to be among the nations finest, it became a badge of honor to wear them.

Over the years many changes and adaptations were taken from adding names and numbers to the way they were distributed. That included an increasing the amount of Blackshirts given out and how long they got to wear them. When Nebraska hit a rough spot defensively last decade, the use of the Blackshirts became a source of ridicule. Like the increasing amount of names added to each year’s Stanley Cup winning hockey team, some of the Nebraska veterans thought the team was to cavalier in giving them out, especially when the team was giving up 40 points or more during a game.

 Pelini put a stop to the mass distribution believing they had to be earned. Blackshirts were given out in practice for the first time this season after holding Michigan State to three points late last month.

Nebraska’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
They’re not an identical offense to Michigan. They resemble more like Rich Rodriguez’s offense than the hybrid spread/west coast look that Al Borges employs, but team statistics and the play ability of the quarterbacks at both teams are remarkably similar. Just take my word for it or go the Big Ten statistical page and you’ll see that how close together the teams and the individual ratings are for quarterbacks Taylor Martinez (So. #3) and Denard Robinson (Jr. #16).

As a runner Martinez is averaging a little more than 15 carries per game and ranks seventh in the conference in rushing (76.8 ypc).
“He is only a sophomore and he is still learning and growing and developing,” says Pelini.  “He is making a lot of progress and his confidence continues to grow, which is always a positive.”

Having confidence in November is the opposite of what Martinez was feeling last season. After returning from a mid season injury in 2010, Martinez and the team struggled; Nebraska lost three of their last four games and got crushed in their bowl rematch with Washington. The health of Martinez and whether he could improve was a major question and concern going into the year. Tough criticism continued earlier this season and especially after Nebraska’s Big Ten dud of a debut at Wisconsin, where Martinez threw three interceptions.

Under first year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck, they’ve been adding the option outside the tackle box. It’s not their base offense, but it’s a return to the staple offense that Nebraska ran under Tom Osborne and once used heavily by Michigan decades ago. It couldn’t have been executed any better than last week when Martinez pitched to I-Back Rex Burkhead (Jr. #22) as Martinez was being tackled. Burkhead hit paydirt and it wound up being the game winning touchdown. This week in practice, the offense is feeling confident in Martinez because they see clear tangible evidence that Martinez is improving in running the option and in his passing game.

Michigan Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison says he’ll be facing an offense that runs power, also runs option and runs them both up-tempo. He realizes what a more complete Nebraska offense means.

“I guess you’d say that every game is really really big – but I think this one will pose a real challenge to our defense because they’re like three offenses in one,” said Mattison.

The fans favorite player is Burkhead who epitomizes backs from the past. He’s a strong leader and a durable runner that doesn’t fall for many negative yards. He continued to make plays during their record setting comeback against Ohio State. Burkhead does take direct snaps in their version of the ‘Wildcat’ and last week he actually lined up under center as the team’s quarterback for a few plays. He’s yet to complete a pass but he has thrown the ball twice.

Against three pretty good run defenses in Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State, Burkhead has gained over 100 yards in each. He’s 3rd in the conference in rushing with 1,072 yards. Michigan’s Mike Cox (Jr. #15) is simulating Burkhead in practice.

The Huskers run a lot of two tight-end formations and Martinez uses them. Starter Ben Cotton (Jr. #81) and Kyler Reed (Jr. #25) have combined for 26 catches, 403 yards, but no touchdowns. Cotton is quoted as being doubtful for the game after he injured his arm last week. They do have a back-up tight end whose name could create some initial confusion for the casual observer. His name is Jake Long (So. #41).

There doesn’t appear to be a go to receiver on this team. Martinez is averaging 13 completions in nearly 23 attempts per game. Kenny Bell (RdFr. #80) is the X-receiver and leads the team in receptions (23) and yards (307). As a group, they need to reduce their drops. Mattison cautioned though that Michigan’s secondary like J.T. Floyd (Jr. #8) and freshman Blake Countess (#18) will have to show that they can be a run defender by throwing off blocks and not be a pylon when the ball carrier is coming after them. Husker receives are more physical than others Michigan has faced and that can translate into a mental challenge of not getting frustrated when they can’t get to the ball.

Nebraska’s biggest concern this week is at offensive line. At Penn State, the starting five players played every snap and both guards were walk-ons. Unlike Michigan, who teaches their linemen to be interchangeable so that tackles and centers can become guards at any play, it doesn’t appear to be that way for Nebraska. The latest injury occurred to guard Andrew Rodriguez (So. #63) who remains questionable for Saturday.

Nebraska can lull you to asleep with 3-5 yard carries, but if Michigan were to make a mistake in alignment, fall for the fake or read the wrong key, the Husker offense will exploit it. Like Michigan last season, they’ve made an inordinate number of big explosion plays. Mattison’s defense has improved 101 places in scoring and 93 slots in total defense in a field of 120 FBS schools. They are playing disciplined football and Mattison will stress that it needs to continue this week.

Nebraska Defense vs. Michigan’s Offense
The Husker defense was supposed to be the most dominant in the Big Ten. Instead it has given up at least 27 points in half the games they have played. Injuries can account this. Their best three defenders going into the season only got to play together for two games this season.  DT Jared Crick was up for national awards this year, but a torn pectoral muscle has sidelined him for the rest of the year. The defensive line is pretty thin. Not as thin as the offensive line, but another D Tackle Chase Rome (RdFr. #97) is trying to get healthy after missing the Northwestern game. He played some at Penn State last week. Defensive End Cameron Meredith (Jr. #34) leads the team with five sacks.

Lavonte David (Sr. #4) is one you have to watch on defense. David is the one who stuck Silas Redd on 4th and 1 late in the game to stop cold a Penn State rally that was starting to feel like it would ultimately take them to victory.

"It's a big-time play,” said Pelini. “I consider him a big-time player. It is not easy to make a tackle like that but you know what, I've seen him do that before… He has a knack. He is just such a fierce competitor. He wanted to make a play and he made it. It was a pretty good play."

 David made another big play earlier this year. His forced fumble against Ohio State triggered the team’s biggest turnaround in school history.  His big plays have put himself to be in position as a semi-finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Lott Trophies. David is fourth in the conference in tackling and will likely have more than 100 tackles after this game.

David has even faced Denard Robinson already. David’s prep team played Robinson in the state semi-finals when Robinson was a junior. David’s team came from behind late in the 4th quarter and eventually won the state championship.

CB Alfonzo Dennard (Jr. #15) became the first player to totally shutdown Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham. The MSU receiver had a 41 game streak of at least one catch before coming up empty against Nebraska. A leg injury caused Dennard to miss the first three games of the year.  He has only 16 tackles, but that means he’s either giving up a ton of touchdowns or opposing quarterbacks aren’t throwing to his side of the field. Hint: it’s the latter.

"He plays with good technique and is a very physical corner,” says Pelini. “I think since he came back he has played at a high level. I don't think he has played a bad game yet. I don't remember anybody catching many balls on him, and I've said this before and I'll say it again: I think he is as good of a corner as there is in the country. I believe that. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."

A huge key for the Michigan offense is that Nebraska won’t likely wait to see whether or not Robinson can throw the ball down field. This aggressive defense will likely add a safety in run support very early in an attempt to stop Michigan’s run game and force them to pass. The Wolverines only threw 15 times last week. Score and circumstances played into some of that, but the Wolverines need to show they can accurately throw downfield to keep the Husker defense honest.

Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game:  Craig Roh (Jr. #88)
The DT’s for Michigan could have a significant impact against the inexperienced guards for Nebraska, but remember this isn’t a drop back passing game. Martinez and Burkhead will look at the edges especially if the middle is clogged. Ryan Van Bergen (Sr. #53) had a career game last week, and it may be Roh’s turn this game.

Most Likely Fighting Illini You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Taylor Martinez
Burkhead is probably the better player, but Martinez is showing the most improvement. His decision making will be the reason why Nebraska wins or loses.


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