Nebraska and Michigan have quite a lot in common, and Saturday we will get to find out which team can keep it’s Big Ten title hopes alive. We will also find out if a new rivalry will be born of these two teams with so many similarities.
Ann Arbor will play host to the first in-conference matchup between Nebraska and Michigan. Nebraska can stay alive in the Legends Division with a win against Michigan, while the Wolverines would need both a win and an upset loss by Michigan State against Indiana to keep their conference title chances intact.
The beginning of a rivalry?
As far as similarities go, both teams enter this contest with 8-2 records overall and 4-2 Big Ten records. Both offenses are run by dual-threat quarterbacks – Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan’s Denard Robinson. Both teams boast robust rushing averages with Nebraska averaging 232 yards per game (13th in the nation) and Michigan averaging 235 yards per game (11th in the nation). Each team’s rushing attack is bolstered by their signal-caller, as Martinez has racked up 768 yards and 9 touchdowns for the Huskers, while Robinson has totaled 864 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Further, both quarterbacks have been erratic throwing the ball. Martinez is completing 57.7% of his passes, but has only 10 touchdown throws against 7 interceptions. Robinson, a constant home run threat, has thrown for 13 touchdowns, but has also thrown 13 interceptions and is only completing 52.4% of his passes.
Both defenses have had issues as well, although they both have improved in recent weeks. Nebraska is coming off a 17-14 win at Penn State in what was surely an emotional game even for the visitors as they were forced to deal with the distractions surrounding the Penn State program. Outside of a rough outing in a loss to Northwestern two weeks ago, Nebraska has been fairly effective defensively over the last 5 weeks.
Michigan is only allowing 15.5 points per game on the season (5th in the nation), although their weak schedule certainly has helped. Against Michigan State they were gashed by the Spartans running game for 213 yards, but over the past 3 weeks the Wolverines have gotten more aggressive with their blitzes and have contained the run much more effectively.
When the Huskers have struggled this year, it has largely been at the hands of mobile quarterbacks. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (who helped the Buckeyes build a 27-6 lead before exiting with an ankle injury), and Northwestern’s Kain Colter (in relief of injured starter Dan Persa) have all shown that Nebraska is vulnerable against a quarterback who can make defenders miss while running.
Robinson is a more talented runner than any of the aforementioned quarterbacks, so it is crucial for the Huskers to contain him. They must stack the box and force Robinson to throw. Michigan’s receivers haven’t shown an elite ability to create separation this year (leading receivers Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon have racked up their yardage largely on deep jump-balls and plays with busted coverage) so Nebraska will have to trust their corners to play in isolation. If Michigan can beat them with a sustained aerial attack, so be it. But the Huskers cannot let Robinson run wild.
Also of note is Rex Burkhead, Nebraska’s leading rusher. With 1072 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season, Burkhead is a powerful threat. Michigan sometimes struggles to defend power rushing offenses (see Michigan State and Edwin Baker), so if Nebraska can keep Burkhead moving the chains they can control the clock and keep Michigan from doing the same to them.
What Michigan must do to win
Michigan’s defense has made great strides since the beginning of the season under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. They will be tested Saturday, and they must be able to limit Burkhead. In games in which Burkhead reaches 100 yards rushing, Nebraska is 8-0. When he doesn’t, they are 0-2. It doesn’t take a genius to see where the focus must begin for Michigan.
But they must remain balanced on defense, as Martinez has the ability to rip off huge gains on the ground. Over-committing to stopping Burkhead could open up huge holes for a runner like Martinez.
Offensively, Robinson must play with discipline. He leads the Big Ten with those 13 interceptions, and coming off a sprained throwing wrist suffered against Illinois he must be particularly careful. While his ability to improvise is his biggest talent, it can lead to over-confidence and forced plays. Forced plays can lead to turnovers, and Michigan doesn’t have a large enough margin of error to do that Saturday.
Lastly, coach Brady Hoke seems to have settled on Fitzgerald Toussaint as his feature back, and he responded by rushing for 192 yards last week. He must be Michigan’s Rex Burkhead this week, and allow them to control the clock and move the chains on first and second down, eliminating third-and-long situations where Robinson is more likely to try something ill-advised.
Michigan is unbeaten at home, and I think they will continue that trend this Saturday. I see them being able to run the ball more effectively than Nebraska, and that will be the difference. The two teams are so similar and are strong in the same areas, so it really is as simple as who can run the ball with more effectiveness, and I see that being the Wolverines.
Final Score: Michigan 28, Nebraska 24
What do you think?
Nebraska-Michigan Game Info
- Nebraska-Michigan Date: Saturday, November 19
- Nebraska-Michigan Kickoff: 12:00 pm EST
- Nebraska-Michigan TV: ESPN
- Nebraska-Michigan Point Spread: Michigan -3.5
- Nebraska-Michigan Over/Under: 51
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Image Credits: michiganradio.org