Michigan's season is about to take an abrupt turn from one of strong defenses to strong offenses. Three of Michigan's next five opponents are ranked in the top half of the conference in total offense while averaging 30 points per game. The stiffest test comes now, as Michigan travels to Nebraska for what could be the defining game of the Legends division race.
Michigan at Nebraska
Lincoln, NE; 8:00pm, ESPN2
Enemy Blog: Corn Nation
The Big Ten was primed to have a very good year in 2012 in a lead up to an even stronger performance in 2013 as Ohio State once again became bowl eligible. The conference boasted a Bret Bielema led Wisconsin team that had won ten or more games in four of his six season as coach, including two straight Big Ten titles. Purdue had finally kicked the injury bug and looked to be a conference challenger. While that was it for the Leaders division -- at least when it came to doing anything but winning the trophy and going home -- the Legends division seemed even more impressive from top to bottom. Michigan State returned almost all of its defense from a year ago as well as a strong run game. The Nebraska offense looked to take another step forward, as did the ever-pesky Northwestern Wildcat offense. Iowa would field a young defense but had easily the best pro-style passer and most reliable receiving weapons in the league. Michigan....well, you all know about Michigan.
That lasted until about week two. Michigan followed up a blowout at the hands of Alabama with a underwhelming performance against Air Force, Nebraska lost in a shootout to UCLA, Purdue fell short against Notre Dame, Wisconsin got beat by Oregon State, and Iowa managed six points against Iowa State. Michigan State would go out the next week and put up three points in a lopsided loss to Notre Dame and Ohio State would squeak by Cal. By the time conference season started there were only three undefeated teams. One of them was Minnesota.
Now it is mid October and we are looking at a Big Ten conference race that could be all but academic barring a couple major collapses. Wisconsin has already taken a huge lead in the Leaders division simply by not imploding. Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana are a combined 0-9 in the conference. On the other side, Michigan State has now stepped out of the conference title race with a 1-3 record and Northwestern needs a good deal of luck with a 2-2 record and a loss to Nebraska. While Iowa was looking to surprise everyone, things have taken a quick turn after a blowout loss at home to Penn State.
So, the biggest bit of drama down the stretch could be put to bed this Saturday. If Michigan can topple Nebraska in Lincoln the Wolverines will have a 4-0 conference record and home games against the two plausible title challengers -- Iowa and Northwestern.
We're a long way from the end of the conference season, but if Nebraska can't defend its home turf on Saturday the Big Ten title race will quickly become an empty waiting room where Michigan and Wisconsin cast each other suspicious glances over a two year old copy of Field & Stream.
So much for that dramatic conference race between a bunch of exciting teams that we all expected in the off season.
When Michigan has the ball
I don't think I am going out on a limb here when I say this, but Nebraska just isn't any good at that whole "defense" thing. The fewest points the Huskers have given up to a BCS conference team is 27, and that was to a Wisconsin offense that isn't exactly setting the world on fire.
In fact, this year stands as the second year of regression that has seen Nebraska's once fearsome defense turn into something of a sieve. Two years before joining the Big Ten the Husker D was unequivocally a top ten defense in the nation ranking 9th overall in rush defense, 7th in total defense, and 1st in scoring defense (this was against high powered Big XII offenses as well, so these numbers are even more impressive). The year before coming over the Big Ten? Rush defense dropped to 63rd (153 ypg), but total defense was 11th and scoring defense 9th. One would think with those kind of stellar numbers that a switch from the wide open, pass happy Big XII to the meat and potatoes Big Ten would see the Huskers trend even higher. One would be wrong.
Last year's Husker D wasn't even a top-25 unit. The rush defense was decidedly average -- 68th nationally allowing 158 ypg -- while the total defense was 37th and scoring defense 42nd. The Huskers had strong outing against Iowa and Michigan State, allowing a combined 10 points to the two teams, but Michigan and Wisconsin combined for just over 90 points and even the anemic Minnesota and Penn State offenses put up 14 points a piece.
Of course, after losing three of its best individual players: Jared Crick (who spent a good dead of 2011 injured to begin with), Lavonte David and Alfonso Dennard to graduation, Nebraska has struggled even more on that side of the ball.
The problems for Nebraska start up front where the defense is struggling mightily to contain opponent run games. Right now the Huskers are giving up an average of 187 yards per game on the ground -- 90th in the country. Nebraska has twice given up over 300 yards in one game. The first was a close loss to UCLA where the Bruins ran for 344 yards at over six per carry. The second was in the complete defensive collapse against Ohio State when the Buckeyes racked up 371 (!) yards at 7.7 ypc. Both run offenses are top-25 units nationally, and similar to Michigan in that both have quarterbacks that can move and a deep stable of running backs.
Michigan will have to finally get some production out of its running backs. Things should be much easier going on the ground than against the Spartan defense (the last great defense Michigan will face all year), but Fitzgerald Toussaint, Thomas Rawls, and Vincent Smith will have to help out Robinson on the ground.
Robinson will have to improve on his numbers from a year ago when the Huskers limited him to just 96 yards on 4.5 ypc*. With the way that Braxton Miller was able to carve up this defense (194 yards on 13 ypc*) it looks like there will be more room to maneuver.
Up front Nebraska is led by DT Baker Steinkuhler and DEs Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin on the defensive line. All three have a few TFLs to their name (4.5, 3.5, and 5 respectively). The linebackers are led by returning starter Will Compton who is back after holding down the starting job a year ago, but without tackling machine Lavonte David back in the lineup to help carry the load, Compton can only do so much. As it is, he is the most productive member of Nebraska's defense, leading the team in tackles and coming in second in sacks and TFLs.
However, the Nebraska run defense looks to have some exploitable issues that a run-heavy team like Michigan should be able to take advantage of.
Further back we get to the enigma that is the Nebraska pass defense. The numbers raise a question: does a statistically strong pass defense exist in spite of or because of its weak rushing defense counterpart?
Nebraska has one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten, and the nation. The Huskers are 10th in the nation in pass yards allowed (169 ypg) and 18th in pass efficiency defense. This being opposite a bad run defense is a strike against the Huskers being a great pass defense team (if you can run with ease, why throw?).
However, one case to be made for this unit is that, on paper it is one of the deepest, most experienced units in the Big Ten. At safety, both Daimion Stafford and PJ Hill are back with ample experience, and are currently second and third on the team in tackles (not a good sign for a defense). The Huskers also boast a solid rotation of corners in Josh Mitchell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Mohammed Seisey, and Ciante Evans.
The fact is this unit is talented, but has feasted on some less than impressive pass offenses. All three Big Ten teams that Nebraska has played thus far rank in the triple digits nationally in pass offense. The one top-25ish unit the Huskers have played is UCLA, which put up 309 yards and four touchdowns through the air.
Michigan, not exactly known for its air it out pass game is more like the former than the latter.
*(QB rushing numbers have sacks removed)
Michigan will be able to move the ball and score points just by virtue of having Denard Robinson run the ball a dozen or more times. If one of the running backs can have a good game (and there is no reason why that shouldn't happen against this rush defense) then that should help Michigan focus on the ground game and stay away from too much passing.
While Denard Robinson was turnover free against the Spartans, a completion precentage of under 50 percent isn't going to cut it if the game turns into a shootout and Robinson is forced to throw more than 15 passes because the rushing offense is stalled.
At this point I'll take Michigan's proven production in the run game against Nebraska's proven inability to stop anyone at a reasonable rate.
When Nebraska has the ball
One thing is for sure, Michigan hasn't seen an offense quite like Nebraska's yet this season. The Huskers currently boast the best statistical offense in the Big Ten, leading in yards per game (512), rush yards per game (279), and points per game (41.5). The Nebraska offense is what the Purdue and Illinois offense dream they will be one day when they are asleep. Taylor Martinez has used the off season to improve his efficiency as a quarterback, and the Husker passing offense's improvement (up 50 yards per game from last year) has given Nebraska another dimension.
Martinez has already had a long career at the head of the Nebraska offense. Now in his third year as the starter, he won't ever wow you with his mechanics (seriously, that throwing motion is U-G-L-Y)...
...but the results haven't been terrible. Last year he was 67th in the nation in pass efficiency rating after posting a surprising 20th ranking as a freshman in Nebraska's final year in the Big XII (for the record, he collapsed spectacularly down the stretch that year).
This year Martinez has largely cut down on the mistakes of the past two years and is 15th in the nation in passer efficiency. while leading (!) the Big Ten in the stat. So far this season Martinez has done a good job combating the problem that has plagued him earlier in his career; he is limiting his interceptions while throwing more touchdowns. Last year Martinez threw eight interceptions compared to 13 touchdowns. This year he already has 15 touchdowns compared to just 4 interceptions.
However, Nebraska hasn't done a good job attacking defenses on long pass plays. While the Huskers are tied for 34th in pass plays over 20 yards that number falls to a tie for 61st in pass plays over 30 yards. If the Michigan State game showed one thing, it is that Michigan's corners will cede windows in which a good quarterback can beat them down the field. However, that being said, Michigan's defense has done a remarkable job limiting the big play this year. The Wolverines are currently tied for first with Texas Tech in plays of 20 or more yards allowed. So while Martinez has shown more ability to throw the ball this year, he hasn't shown the ability to make plays down the field, which is exactly where Michigan has been the best (caveat - the offenses Michigan has faced haven't exactly set the world on fire).
Nebraska's receivers have been sneaky good so far this year, led by Kenny Bell who is third in the conference in receiving yards with 540 and has five touchdowns. Quincy Enunwa is second on the team with 286 yards, and six other players have more than five receptions and 50 yards on the season, making this a pass offense that can spread the ball around.
However, if Nebraska's offense is dangerous in any one area, it is the ground game. Michigan has faced two teams with similarly productive rushing offenses: Alabama (20th in the nation, 219 ypg) and Air Force (2nd in the nation, 352 ypg). Michigan gave up a combined 500 yards on the ground to those two teams and limped away with a 1-1 record.
Thankfully for Michigan, those two results really aren't replicable when you consider just what weird circumstances each game presented. Alabama is a pro style rushing attack that plays behind arguably the best offensive line in college football. Air Force is a triple option team that has a bunch of 250lbs cut blocking specialists on its offensive line. Nebraska plays some of the option, but with more of a regular college offensive line.
The Huskers will most likely be without injured running back Rex Burkhead, but Ameer Abdullah is averaging 87 yards per game next to Martinez, who is no slouch himself with 57 per game. Backups Braylon Heard and Imani Cross are both dangerous as well.
This could well be Michigan's stiffest offensive test left until the trip to Columbus. Few teams in the conference are playing better offensively right now than the Huskers, and Michigan is going to have to quickly adapt to stopping an offense that doesn't spend large portions of the game stopping itself (ahem, like the last three games).
That being said, Michigan has done a remarkable job of slowing opposing offenses down and making them string together long drives to score. If any game is indicative of how this one could play out it could be last year's game. While Nebraska suffered from the turnover bug, Michigan also limited Nebraska to 138 yards on 4.4 ypc. While Nebraska looks to be better offensively, Greg Mattison knows how to attack this offense, and with the way the front seven has played, the key to the game could come down to Nebraska's rushers having to beat Michigan's linebackers in space. I like Michigan's odds if that happens.
In the passing game, the Huskers will find more success moving the ball than the last few teams, but I will believe that Taylor Martinez has the accuracy to drop fade routes into tight coverage 40 yards down the field when I see it. Unless Nebraska can rip off a number of big plays -- precedent says no -- then I think Michigan should be able to slow things up enough to keep the score in the high 20's. Still, this offense will put up points.
When someone is kicking
Michigan has added a deep threat in the event of longer field goals with the revelation of Matt Wile as a capable long range kicker. With the ever accurate Gibbons doing the short work, Hagerup booting everything to the moon (except that one shank) and Wile doing all the utility work, Michigan's kicking game is in good hands, even if punt coverage is lacking. If Jeremy Gallon can continue to show some moves as a punt returner and Dennis Norfleet can finally stop teasing us, this unit could provide a big momentum shift.
However, competition will be tough because of one man: Brett Maher. Maher had a bit of trouble converting kicks earlier in the season, but he has rounded into form making six of his last seven attempts. He has a big leg that he also uses when punting. Nebraska is struggling in net punting, but the number is very close to what Michigan is putting up. Abdullah and Bell handle punt and kick return duties respectively, and both are two of the better options in the conference.
This matchup is pretty even as both teams have reliable kickers and punt coverage that leaves something to be desired.
- Fitzgerald Toussaint vs. my desire not to give up on him - Last year it was Toussaint that did the most damage against Nebraska in the running game while Robinson was limited to a smaller output of around 3.5 ypc. Michigan needs him to finally wake up, and with the last dominant defense in the rearview mirror, now is the best time to do it.
- Al Borges vs. the idea of constraint plays - Michigan runs some things very well, but it also doesn't do enough to make other teams stay honest against the base plays. Against an offense that can score, Michigan can't afford to not get some big plays down the field.
- Michigan's secondary vs. inflated pass defense numbers - It is easy (relatively) to rack up stats against pass offenses that, you know, can't pass worth a damn. Doing so against a unit that is more productive is going to be the key to keeping this score in manageable range for the offense.
- Michigan's linebackers vs. plays on the edge - Michigan has been good at bottling up opponent run games, but Nebraska is going to test this defense sideline to sideline.
Alternate Programming - You can watch Indiana vs. Illinois as noon if you hate yourself. If you're more into torture, watch Iowa play justNorthwestern. The afternoon slot has a couple different options. If you like executions, Oregon-Colorado is for you. If you're into watching paint dry, flip over to MSU-Wisconsin. Real football your thing? UF-UGA or Texas Tech-Kansas State are choice options. Once the night games roll around be sure to flip to Oklahoma-Notre Dame at commercial breaks.
Inanimate Object Threat Level: 8 - On one hand this is a game agaisnt a very good offense at home in a highly charged night game atmopshere. On the other, this game is at 8pm and the odds are I will have a sufficient number of drinks in me to calm the nerves. Still, hide the remote for this one.
Man, I just don't know. Normally I feel confident picking out a few things that seem very likely, but in this one I just haven't watched enough of Nebraska to have a comfortable feel for the team, and I can too easily discount Michigan's last few games as against a totally different class of teams (in terms of offenses).
You could make the case that Nebraska rips off a couple big plays early and forces Michigan to pass to keep in the game -- never a good sign -- or you could convince me that Michigan's defense smothers most of Nebraska's run offense at the line of scrimmage and makes Taylor Martinez try to win the game down the field (something I'm still not convinced he can do if his run offense isn't working).
Ultimately I think both offenses find some success running the ball, but there are a lot of stalled drives that go 40-50 yards and end in that awkward no-mans-land between "why are you punting" and "why didn't you punt". How the teams approach these situations and who has the most luck on X-and-short will ultimately decide the game.
When it comes to this, I like Michigan's odds.
Michigan 30 - Nebraska 27