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.
#20 Michigan (5-2) (3-0) at Nebraska (5-2) (2-1)
(L) Alabama (in Dallas Tx) 41-13
(W) Air Force 31-25
(W) UMASS 63-13
(L) at Notre Dame 13-6
(W) at Purdue 44-13
(W) Illinois 45-0
(W) Michigan State 12-10
(W) Southern Miss 49-20
(L) at UCLA 36-30
(W) Arkansas State 42-13
(W) Idaho State 73-7
(W) Wisconsin 30-27
(L) at Ohio State 63-38
(W)at Northwestern 29-28
Nebraska Players to Watch:
What a win means for Michigan: In the driver’s seat to win the Legends division; it’s a two game lead and cushion over all those that could seriously contend for the division.
What a win means for Nebraska: Puts them in a tie for first with Michigan in the Legends division. The Cornhuskers would continue to control their own destiny for the division and it likely forces Michigan to win in Columbus.
Observation: This game could decide the Legends division for both teams. The game is in Lincoln, an intimidating place to play in front of the “Sea of Red” celebrating consecutive sell-outs for 50 years tonight. It’s also their first home game since their huge comeback against Wisconsin last month.
What Nebraska Brags About: College football winningest team…since 1970, 26 more than any other school; five national championships; 110 All-Americans; an NCAA best 102 Academic All-Americans; consecutive sell-outs have reached 50 years.
Rex Burkhead (Sr. #22) is doubtful after aggravating an MCL strain at Northwestern. It’s the 2nd time he’s reinjured his knee since originally pulling it in the opener. He has not practiced through the end of Thursday.
Starting cornerback Josh Mitchell (So. #5) says he’ll play. Mitchell missed the Northwestern game with an ankle injury.
Starting wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (Jr. #18) is likely to play after a shoulder injury suffered in the Northwestern game. Against the Wildcats, he had a career high 101 receiving yards on a career high matching six catches.
Defensive tackle Chase Rome (So. #97) will play after a concussion suffered against Ohio State.
The Last Time They Met
At the time they squared off, both Michigan and Nebraska had identical overall and conference records at 8-2 (4-2), yet most of the national talk during the week was the opportunity the Cornhuskers had to become the 2nd BCS team out of the Big Ten. Some noted that Michigan had the same opportunity, but the tenor in Michigan’s chances of making the BCS were about as dim as the Big 12 playing defense. Despite the Wolverines were playing at home, Michigan wasn’t expected to win.
Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) was exceptional in Michigan’s 45-17 pounding. Robinson rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two. The 38 yard touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms has been replayed hundreds of times during the off-season when illustrating evidence that Denard can deliver a bullet down field. Fitzgerald Toussaint (Jr. #28) carried the ball for 138 yards and had a 31 yard touchdown run. Michigan rushed for 238 yards while Nebraska was held to just 260 total yards. Three Nebraska fumbles in the 2nd half, two of them on kickoffs, and a blocked Nebraska punt allowed Michigan to dominate the 2nd half.
Nebraska would rebound to dominate Iowa to end the regular season, but fell to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Just a few minutes after Brendan Gibbons (Jr. #34) kicked the game winning field goal just inside the right upright against Michigan State, all the Cornhuskers could do was watch a 53 yard field goal attempt sail just outside the right upright. Nebraska held on to beat Northwestern 29-28 in Evanston. The Cornhuskers came back from a 12 point fourth quarter deficit for the 2nd time in school history. Taylor Martinez (Jr. #3) threw for two touchdown passes after long drives in the final eight minutes. Martinez was 27-39 for 342 yards, three TD’s and no interceptions.
The Nebraska defensive line overwhelmed Northwestern’s O-Line for most of the game forcing ten three-and-outs. A positioning mistake cost them seven when Venric Mark found a cavernous hole out of the defense and broke 80 yards into daylight.
Three turnovers, two on punt returns either set up the Wildcats with short scoring possessions or spoiled their own chances of great field position.
It’s still hard to say what this game says about Nebraska or Northwestern. The Wildcats have blown several double-digit 2nd half leads and are 11-17 in October while being 35-17 in the rest of the regular season under Pat Fitzgerald.
Their Season So Far
The end of last week’s game temporarily ended a label that the defense wanted to shed, that they couldn’t play a lick of defense against dual threat quarterbacks. Since joining the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, Northwestern’s Kain Colter, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Denard shredded the blackshirts on the run and through the air. The defense has been schizophrenic because in between the beat downs, the Cornhuskers have been a night mare for Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Iowa’s James Vandenberg and Penn State’s Matt McGloin, all classic drop-back pro-style passers.
The Northwestern game was a good recovery for a team that gave up 63 to Ohio State in their previous game, but giving up points and yards isn’t new to Nebraska this season. At UCLA, the Cornhuskers allowed for a 300 yard passer and a 200 yard rusher for a Bruin total 653 yards in a 36-30 loss. What’s ironic is that head coach Bo Pelini had a great defensive reputation when he was hired prior to the 2008 season.
The Big Red nation are divided about the future of the proud program. Even in wins there are glaring fundamental errors seen by the fans from the defense and special teams. The literal head shaking by fans usually last through Monday. Sometimes Nebraska plays inept, and that doesn’t settle too well with fans.
This Bo hasn’t earned the fans respect and admiration like Ann Arbor’s Bo. Fans expected 10-2, maybe 9-3 and like other highly traditional schools, don’t take losses very well. This isn’t a make-or-break game, but a loss Saturday almost closes the door on a championship in 2012. Two more regular season losses, say to Michigan and Michigan State or Penn State, and some will be through with him like some are through with dual threat QB’s here. Oh, by the way, Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne is retiring and new AD’s generally like to put their fingerprints on new hires. Shawn Eichorst, who starts in January, has had little to say about the future of Nebraska football.
On the other hand, Nebraska has come back from double-digit deficits twice this season. If they win the Legends division in year #2, something most didn’t expect would happen then perceptions change. Nebraska would be perceived as a resilient team that perseveres, Pelini likely gets an extension and this budding controversy becomes absurd.
Nebraska’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
Nebraska is averaging a Big Ten best 41.6 points per game and scoring 48.5 ppg at home. They’ve done this despite missing Burkhead, one of the Big Ten’s best players, for a significant portion of the season. The combo of Martinez and Burkhead in the backfield in 2011 was just as good a tandem in the backfield as Denard and Fitz or Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. The two combined for 2,331 rushing yards. In his absence, Ameer Abdullah (So. #8) has become the team’s rushing leader with 615 yards, averaging nearly six yards per gain. Last season Abdullah scored a touchdown against Michigan.
“He’s very fast. He’s more of an edge guy. He can get on that edge and he can go,” says Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison when I asked him about the differences between the two backs.
“Abdullah’s, he’s broken some big plays for them. He’s going to be a fast guy that we’re going to have to contend with.”
Yet, you still have to wonder how much Burkhead will be missed in short-yardage situations if he doesn’t play. Burkhead is a warrior in the scrum.
As an underclassman, Martinez was considered to be slightly less of a runner than Denard and had even more work to do as a passer. In 2011, he completed 56.2 % of his passes for an average of 160.7 ypg, threw 13 TD’s and had eight interceptions with an efficiency rating of 126.5.
This season his accuracy and production has taken a tremendous leap completing 67% (+10.8 from 2011) of his passes for an average of 230.7 ypg (+70), has thrown 15 TD’s with just four picks with an efficiency rating that’s 17 points better than any other Big Ten quarterback. His dramatic improvement can be explained.
Individually, he became more accountable by taking summer passing camps in California, an equivalent to a “Pete Newell Big Man Camp” that many college basketball centers enroll in between seasons.
Martinez also confessed that he hadn’t fully recovered from an ankle injury his freshman season. When he openly talked about completing 70% of his passes this season, he was scoffed and laughed at even by the locals. They’re not laughing now, though tougher defenses await the rest of the way.
The offense as a whole has helped Martinez the most. While the line had to replace three starters, there was plenty of depth with seven players with starting experience.
“His offensive line looks a lot more athletic this year,” Mattison said.
They’re also “big and physical” according to Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke.
There was also a ton of players returning at receiver and tight end, so that even if a couple didn’t play to expectations, there were others that were just as promising. Sophomore Kenny Bell (#80) is their deep threat. He doesn’t catch many (26), but is 2nd in the Big Ten at nearly 21 yards per catch. His 540 yds and five touchdowns far surpass last year’s totals of 461 yards and three touchdowns.
Nebraska likes to use a two tight end sets and both are pass targets much like Bennie Joppru and Andy Mignery were for the Wolverines in 2003. Ben Cotton (Sr. #81) and Kyler Reed (Sr. #25) have a combined career 49 starts, 1,226 yards and 14 TDs. The Cornhuskers have 127 receptions this season. In comparison, the Wolverines have 85. I don’t recall Nebraska ever threatening anyone with their passing game, but they are loaded with capable players.
The Michigan defense has been fantastic after a shaky start in their first two games. The Wolverines are allowing just 9.8 ppg over their last five games. The Cornhuskers rush (279 yds) just slightly less than what Michigan gives up in total defense (286 yds).
“We won’t get complacent. Believe me. That won’t happen,” Mattison assured.
Nebraska ran a lot of option last year, and Michigan’s defense was prepared to slow it down. This year the Cornhuskers are using it a lot less because teams like Michigan are doing a better job defending it, but the option isn’t going away.
“We can't just run options to bad looks, but if we get a look where we can run it by all means we're going to run it,” said Abdullah.
While the Wolverine defense statistically hasn’t stopped the run as well as you’d think (7th in the Big Ten), the Wolverines have done a much better job since the Air Force game in week #2. The Academy players were nearly beating the Wolverines at the boundary and turning the corner. In the weeks since, Wolverine defenders were stopping the horizontal run and short passes against spread teams. Against Michigan State, they faced a power back in Le’Veon Bell for the first time since Alabama and held him to 68 yards on 26 carries.
“Coach Mattison has our back through everything,” said Michigan safety Thomas Gordon (Jr. #30). “I think that as a whole we have become brothers, like a band of brothers on defense. It has definitely shown up on the field."
Michigan’s secondary did well enough to prevent MSU from making the big play vertically, though there were some opportunities.
“I thought J.T. (Floyd) (Sr. #8) and Ray(mon Taylor) (So. #6) both went out there and played confident, got some shots down the field. A little beat on one or two of them, but I thought those two upheld playing corner pretty well.”
A key for Mattison’s defense is to throw a few new wrinkles to unsettle a team that is prone to being rattled. It worked last year with the odd man fronts. Nebraska players are not one to be short on confidence in front of a microphone. Reed doesn’t seem to be too concerned saying, “Just talking to Coach (offensive coordinator) Beck, we’ve kind of got them down.”
His fellow tight end Cotton added, “Having seen those things I think our guys are going to be a lot more comfortable no matter what we see."
Nebraska’s Defense vs. Michigan’s Offense
From the outside, it just seems like the Nebraska defense implodes at times.
"Big plays are what killed us," said safety PJ Smith (Sr. #13) when asked about the Michigan offense last year. Smith went on to say that the self-inflicted carnage continued in Columbus earlier this month.
"I think we always had the confidence and it has always been high. At the Ohio State game, they didn't do anything special that hurt us, we killed ourselves.”
That may be but why? They lead the Big Ten in sacks (22), but they’re 9th in scoring defense.
“I don’t think they play a high-risk, high-reward type of defense, said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. “This head coach is an excellent football coach. He knows where they should be…, but I can promise you from a schematic perspective, they fit all the runs the way they should. They’re basically in the right position most of the time. Their coverage is sound. They don’t do anything that you look and say, ‘Oh my God, we can take advantage of that.’
It’s already been documented how the defensive lapses have been a focal point this season. Are they making too many mental lapses? It could be. That can happen when you hire new coordinators, but you have to wonder where the playmakers are. Nebraska misses Lavonte David, the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year as well as cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year. Figuring out a stand-out defenseman is as much as a head scratcher as naming a Nebraska hoopster. Linebacker Will Compton (Sr. #51) and defensive end Cameron Meredith (Sr. #34) were impressive in Ann Arbor, and defensive end Eric Martin (#46) could make All-Big Ten with 5.5 sacks and eight tackles-for-loss. Other than that, I don’t know of anyone who’s shoe-in for All Big-Ten on this defense, let alone someone who’s going to win the conference’s position player of the year.
It might be hard to believe for some of you, but Borges does want a balance offense. Without a doubt, he’s been heavier on the run lately and everyone liked it when Purdue and Illinois were blowing assignments and not liking it when Michigan State wouldn’t. Don’t be surprised in a very electrifying atmosphere, the most electrifying player runs zone read a lot initially. The Cornhuskers are prone to mistakes and running the ball calms the nerves of #16 more than winging it down field to start the game. Instead of passing to open up the run game, Michigan has been running to open up the pass game. They had balance against Nebraska in Ann Arbor and will try to do the same in Lincoln.
Nebraska Special Teams
Poor special teams greatly affected the outcome last year in Ann Arbor and nearly cost them again last week in Evanston. Back-to-back punt return fumbles came from two starters, Abdullah and Bell. Nebraska coverage teams have also given up two touchdowns this season. Personnel changes will be made this week, Pelini promises.
Punter/place kicker Brett Maher (Sr. #96) is a real threat. Last week he kicked four punts inside the Northwestern 7 yard line and had two punts that went more than 50 yards. He can hit the corners and make balls stop on a dime. He’s 9-13 on field goal attempts with a long of 54 yards.