Michigan vs Nebraska: The keys to victory

It's not enough to be good. Sometimes you have to be spectacular. Within the whole of the Nebraska team, there are units that have been that and are quite capable of being that again. They will have to, because in order for the Huskers to best the Wolverines, there are a variety of keys in how to make that happen. Let's look at the biggest ones for the big red.

1 – Establish a running game – It's no secret thatNebraska hasn't done this all year. To think that they can do it against Michigan is probably stretching it a bit. But if the Huskers can establish a running game, that will open up an aspect of the Husker offense that has been seen rarely this season.


First, you are going to figure they will anticipate Cory Ross's ability to cut back, so they will be doing a lot of stuff on the backside as far as pursuit, but also making sure they are gap sound in their pursuit up the field. Expect Michigan linebackers and even safeties to be shooting up the field, because they will anticipate Nebraska trying to run, even if they haven't had much success in that area up to now.


What Nebraska needs to do is mix it up. They have a great contrast in running backs with Ross, the nimble-small one, freshman Cody Glenn, the bruiser and freshman Marlon Lucky, who has shown to have a little of everything if he can just get the room to work.

Ross's ability to make something
happen is key in order for Nebraska
to win this game


Another issue will be in calling plays in respect to their personnel. I can't remember a time where Cody Glenn was on the field and they didn't run right up the gut. With Lucky, it's either off-tackle stuff or him motioning out of the backfield to wide receiver. There has to be some diversity here or just by who they put in, Michigan will have a good idea of what Nebraska will run.


Ross coming out of the backfield as a wide receiver is a good thing for a couple of reasons. It first gives you perhaps Nebraska 's best weapon in yards after the catch. But if you have either Lucky or Glenn slotted back there with Ross, if Nebraska has success early with Ross at wideout, that will open up the running game, at least a little.


The score early on will dictate just how much Nebraska sticks to trying to move the ball on the ground. If they get down early as they have in many of the games late in the season, it will be quarterback Zac Taylor from the shotgun for the rest of the game. But if they can keep it close early, establishing the running game, even if it's not putting up big numbers, helps the passing game that much more. To have one working is great, but to have both working makes Nebraska a tough team to stop on offense


Key player of the game: Cory Ross – Ross is going to have to make stuff up throughout this entire game. All season he's had to deal with gaps that weren't there, creases he's barely seen and holes on the outside that simply weren't there.


He's going to have to improvise, maybe make an extra cut and actually go against some of the philosophies that have made him so successful. For the early part of his career, much of the criticism on Ross was that he was too east/west, not trying to get up field enough. Chances are, there won't be a ton of opportunities straight up the field, unless Nebraska can catch Michigan on the blitz. He'll have to make that extra cut, perhaps reversing his field altogether, but he's going to be the key in making this running game work.


Protect the quarterback – While it doesn't appear that Michigan is a real heavy team in terms of the blitz, if they are banking on Nebraska not being able to run, that would more than likely mean they will be putting a lot of pressure on Taylor .


Considering the probable starting line up for the Huskers, you can expect a lot of that early pressure to come from the outside, based on freshmen Lydon Murtha and Matt Slauson starting. Honestly, it wouldn't matter who they have at tackle right now, because everyone has been susceptible to giving up the sacks, but just based on their experience, Murtha and Slauson will likely have targets on their chests.


Up the middle the Huskers haven't been strong all year.  The interior of this offensive line hasn't been able to get a real push on anyone. That opens up the door not for just the tackles to try and get to the quarterback from the middle, but for linebackers as well, looking to shoot the gaps.


Murtha will have to have his best game
of his brief career.
Taylor is an opportunistic runner, not a prolific one. He seems to make good decisions on when to tuck and go. But his strength is being able to sit back in the pocket and read the field. Taylor has done well out of the pocket at times, but that doesn't go to his strength as a pocket passer.


Zac doesn't need a huge amount of time, but he does need time. Nebraska will be utilizing that short part of the field and I have no doubt they will test the middle, because Michigan should be running a lot of zone coverage. Iowa State and Colorado both ran zone and Taylor had the biggest games of his career in terms of passing efficiency and yards.


And if Taylor does have early success, expect the blitz to come even harder, which will put the onus on the running backs to pick off the blitz. That's not a problem for Ross, but one of the reasons we haven't seen as much of Lucky or Glenn as we thought we might, both struggle in picking up the blitz.


You can't have a weakness here. If Nebraska is weak on the outside, the safeties or even cornerbacks will be coming in force. If Nebraska is weak on the inside, the linebackers will be relentless in trying to get up field. And if all that happens to such an extent a running back HAS to be back there just to pick off an on-coming defender, it effectively throws the entire game plan out the window.


Linebacker Lamar Woodley is Michigan 's best pass rusher, totaling six sacks on the year. That's a complete mismatch for the running backs of Nebraska , should Woodley have some early success penetrating gaps on the interior.


Early on it would probably benefit Nebraska to go to some two tight end sets, with both the fullback and running back on the field. Single back sets will probably be all but useless in this game, unless Nebraska can spread the Michigan defense out enough that the quick passing game and draws can have at least some effectiveness.


Key player of the game: Lydon Murtha – If Murtha starts, he has Zac Taylor 's blindside, which is the most important job on the field. If Taylor can continue his progression as a solid quarterback in this system, he has to stay upright and with possession of the ball.


With the blindside tackles, you not only get the sack, but there's a good chance you get the forced fumble as well. Taylor isn't going to beat Michigan with his feet. It's going to be hard enough beating him with his arm. But he has to at least have the chance to do that, which means Lydon Murtha will have to have the best game of his brief career.


Turnvers, turnovers, turnovers – Don't have them and cause some. It's pretty simple and one of the most basic things about the game of football. If you don't turn the ball over, you have a chance to control the clock, hence control the game. If you cause turnovers, you create opportunities for the offense with possibly short fields, plus you take that invaluable momentum away from the other team.


The downside to this is the secondary and how they have seemingly tried more for the strip than the actual tackle. Yards after catch and contact will be crucial in this game, so players should wrap up before trying to take the ball away from Michigan .


Also, with the fact that the linebacking corps is depleted and they have been the best in regard to grabbing interceptions, players are going to have to step up. There's no way Nebraska plays man coverage all game against Jason Avant and Steve Breaston. That would be akin to football suicide. There should be a generous helping of zone, so that means the safeties need to play a key role in not just stopping the stuff over the top, but they have to get some turnovers of their own. They have been all but absent in that category this year, but they can't afford not to be in this game.

Daniel Bullocks needs to force a
turnover in this game


Key player of the game: Daniel Bullocks – his brother led the country in interceptions two years ago and Daniel led the team in that category last year. He's got the instincts to take the ball away from the opponent, but the success hasn't materialized this year. His game will have to be near flawless today, so he not only has to be successful in stopping the deep routes, but in reading the quarterback and making plays on the ball.


Sacks – hurries – pressure – If you give Chad Henne the time, with the receivers he has, he'll tear you apart. He's very efficient and despite his age, he's not prone to a lot of mistakes. His touchdown to interception ratio on the year is nearly 3 to 1.


Nebraska hasn't had any trouble getting to the quarterback, but that's when the opponent thinks it can protect, thus they don't change a lot of what they do offensively. The teams that have adjusted, though, have had some good success against Nebraska , getting rid of the ball quick, utilizing a lot of empty backfield sets and the three step drop.


It's only logical to assume Michigan is going to do some of that, but they could also be going out of the shotgun if the pressure is getting to them early. That means while the defensive line is trying to get a push, the linebacker, safeties and even corners will have to be spot-on with the blitz.


Nebraska will blitz and plenty. You can bank on that. Michigan has far too many weapons in the passing game for Nebraska to think it can sit back in zone coverage and either grab interceptions or keep the Michigan receivers to short gains.


The key here, which is really the key to stopping any pro-style offense, is getting in the face of the QB. You don't even have to sack the kid, but if you can force Henne out of the pocket, make him think that something is coming even when it's not, you have effectively interrupted the rhythm of their passing game.


There's no substitute for pressure in the backfield. It disrupts both the running and passing games of the offense. It's going to be a gamble at times, Nebraska banking on the fact that Henne can't hurt them a lot with his feet, so you can expect the house to come against Henne and company in a variety of situations during the game.


Key player of the game: Adam Carriker – He's used to the double team and still leads the team in sacks. Carriker will have to be just as prolific today. Chances are he's going to see a lot of All-Big Ten tackle Jake Long and he is going to have to be solid not only against him, but solid enough that Michigan will feel the need to keep either a tight end back for blocking and in the best case scenario for Nebraska, even utilize either the fullback or funning back to chip him should he get into the backfield.


If they pay that much attention to him, it opens up a number of one-on-one situations in the middle and on the other side. That opens up the blitz even more and the entire strategy of pressuring the QB works that much better.


Carriker simply has to do what he does and it will help everyone across the board.


Stop Hart – With all of this closed door secrecy on the status of Michael Hart, I have to think that even if he doesn't start, he's ready to go. That means Nebraska will have to be firm in one of its usual directives and that's stopping the running game of the opponent.

If Nebraska can stop Hart, they greatly increase their
chances of winning this game.


It's so key to stopping Michigan as a whole, you could call it the single most important aspect of what Nebraska has to do. It's one thing to say you want to make a team one-dimensional, another to actually do it and against Hart, to do that is an achievement in and of itself.


He's shifty with good explosion and he sees the field very well. If there are gaps and creases, Hart will have a lot of success in exploiting them. He's just one of the best backs in the country when he's healthy, so the Huskers have to be gap sound and know their assignments to the outside as Hart can easily step outside of the tackles even if the play wasn't mean to go that way.


Make Hart a blocker not a runner. If there's enough pressure in the backfield, someone has to stay back to block. I can't say how good Hart is in that aspect, but against an Adam Carriker, Jay Moore, Barry Turner or even Corey McKeon, you have to feel good about that little battle, if you are a fan of the big red.


If there is one thing you don't want is for Michigan to have success on first down rushing the football. That opens up the flood gates as to what the Wolverines will be able to do offensively. Shut the run down early, make them go to the air to move the ball and you have a chance to make some plays.


But it starts with Hart or if he doesn't go, Kevin Grady. Stop them and you have limited Michigan , while giving you a variety of ways in which to give the defense the advantage.


Key player(s) of the game: Le Kevin Smith and Titus Adams – In a game like this, neither Smith or Adams needs to be three-gap guys, getting a lot of pressure up the field. Early on, their main job is to bottle up the inside of the line, forcing any type of running game to the outside.


Michigan is typically huge on the offensive line, so it's going to be a matter of both strength and technique for the Husker D-line to have success. Adams especially is very good at getting up field. He shoots the gaps well and is almost impossible for a running back or even full back to block. But his aggressiveness could be used against him if Michigan can get a feel for what Nebraska is doing on the interior. Adams has to be aggressive, but he'll have to use his vision as well, because the draws have proven to be effective against the Huskers at times.



Sound, not spectacular – The cornerbacks are going to be tested like they haven't been tested all year. Whether they are running zone coverage or man, Zack Bowman  and Cortney Grixby will have to be sound in what they do.


There's been a lot of criticism about their technique, never turning to face the ball, but it does give them a better chance of making a play on the receiver instead of the ball. What this unit can't do is have any breakdowns at the line. People have to know their assignments, because both Breaston and Avant are players that can hurt you if you give them even an inch of room.


Nobody will need them to do anything out of the ordinary, because both cornerbacks have the athleticism to say with any receiver Michigan has. What is most important, though, is making sure that people are where they need to be and when an opportunity rises, they have to make the tackle at close to the point of the catch as possible.


The thing is, this group is going to get their catches and yards, especially if Nebraska runs a lot of zone coverage, which I anticipate they will. What they get after that, though, is key in Nebraska limiting just how much damage the Wolverine wideouts will do.


Watch the fades that are prone to causing this unit to draw pass interference calls and never lose where you are at on the field. A lot of their success will have as much to do with them being in the right place at the right time as it will with them making great individual plays.


Key player of the game: Cortney Grixby – With the obvious disparity in size, Grixby is going to get a lot of attention, either from Avant, Breaston or a number of the other receivers Michigan has.


He has the athleticism to stay with any of them, but Michigan receivers are very good at using their size to their advantage. At 6 foot, 1 inches tall, neither Breaston or Avant have a huge advantage over many they face, but they definitely will against the smallish Grixby. He's going to be a target early and often.


Grixby needs to use that to his advantage. In zone coverage, he has at least some opportunities to make plays on the ball and he'll hopefully have help over the top from the safeties. He can jump a mile and is as quick as they come. He'll need to use that to turn what seems an obvious disadvantage into an advantage for him.

Grixby will have a target on his back the
entire game.


Just stay special – We have seen all year just how important special teams are. Punter Sam Koch getting a blackshirt tells you just how important he is to the defense. All this unit has to do is what it has done all year and that is stay consistent, take advantage of opportunities and perhaps even make a play here and there.


It's no secret as to what you need out of special teams in order for them to be a huge impact on the game. You have to create good field position in the return game, lengthen the field as much as possible with the kicking game, and when it comes to field goal, consistency is the key.


Everyone is fundamentally sound enough in all of those areas, there doesn't need to be anymore emphasis on it than there already is. It wouldn't hurt Nebraska 's cause, though, if this team was equally opportunistic in creating momentum as well.


Blocked kicks, forced fumbles, no penalties – all are ways that this unit makes a huge impact on the game. If everything else above is executed well, though, it's icing on the cake. This group can make plays and stop plays, which is what you really need.


Just stay being special.


Key player of the game: Jordan Congdon – He's proven to be accurate and clutch. This game doesn't bode well for Nebraska in being able to sustain a lot of drives, so Congdon may end up having a big day as far as opportunities to put points on the board. If he's money on those attempts, that gives Nebraska not only a chance to stay in or even lead in this game, but to give Michigan a much longer field to deal with when they get the ball.


Overall: Football isn't brain surgery in regard to what it takes to win. You have to be fundamentally sound, plus you have to take advantage of opportunities.


When you are facing a better team, though, which I think Michigan clearly is, you have to add playmakers to the mix.


It won't be enough for Nebraska to just be sound in every area. While that works for some, it does so because other units are making plays. The playmakers have to come out of the woodwork in this game for Nebraska to have a chance. If they can do that, they could come out of the Alamo with what will easily be the biggest victory of the brief Callahan era.

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