Next week Michigan will kick off its November gauntlet against Michigan State, in which Michigan will face four of the top teams in the Legends division and cap the season off against Ohio State. It is a tough stretch in which we will learn a lot about just how good this team is. Since it is a bye week, I'm going to spend the next few days introducing those four opponents after MSU (which will get previewed extensively next week). First up...
Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-1, 2-0) - November 9th
Season to date
Bodybag games: Won vs. Southern Miss 56-13; Won vs. South Dakota State 59-20; Won at Purdue 44-7
Close Call: Won vs. Wyoming 37-34 - The first sign that Nebraska's defense would continue to struggle this year came early as Wyoming put up 600 yards. Wyoming scored touchdowns on three of its final five drives and Nebraska's offense laid an egg in the fourth quarter — two turnovers and a three-and-out. Wyoming did whatever it wanted in this one, averaging 7.3 yards/rush and 8.7 yards/pass.
Best Win: vs. Illinois 39-19 - The Illini came into the game looking rather impressive — at least considering preseason expectations — but Nebraska controlled things from the outset, going up 17-0 early in the second quarter. The Husker offense ran all over Illinois to the tune of 50 attempts at 6.7 yards/rush.
Loss: vs. UCLA 41-21 - Nebraska looked to be off to a hot start against the Bruins, and the Huskers ran off three touchdowns on the first five drives. Two of those touchdowns came on short fields (26 and 28 yards) courtesy of UCLA mistakes. Once those dried up, the Bruins annihilated Nebraska. The third quarter was a huge swing. UCLA scored four touchdowns on four drives totalling 203 yards. Nebraska's five drives netted two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and a fumble.
If Taylor Martinez is healthy, he is certainly high up on the list of Nebraska offensive weapons. The senior quarterback has had an interesting career, but this year he looked as impressive as he ever had, throwing for more than 500 yards and nine touchdowns (to just one interception) in the first three games before going down with an injured toe. He is back at practice and if healthy he provides Nebraska with a great dual threat option around which to build the offense.
Even if Martinez isn't healthy, Nebraska has Ameer Abdullah in the backfield. He already has 813 yards and six touchdowns in six games this year and is rushing for an unreal 7.2 yards/rush. Last year against Michigan he went over 100 yards. Kenny Bell and Quncy Enunwa are the top receiving options with 24 and 25 catches thus far this season respectively.
On defense, JUCO transfer Randy Gregory has been the most disruptive player this year, leading the team with 6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and ranking fourth in total tackles. He also has seven QB hurries and a forced fumble.
Outlook vs. Michigan
Offensively, Nebraska is a better team with Taylor Martinez healthy, and with two weeks before the game vs. Michigan one would expect him to be at or near top form when Michigan meets the Huskers. While Michigan's rough day against Indiana is worrisome, it is also helpful to consider that Nebraska's offense has yet to have much success against a Greg Mattison defense. Last year the D kept Michigan in the game long past the point when it reasonably should have been expected to continue doing so. The year before Michigan dominated Nebraska, holding the Huskers to 260 yards of offense and forcing three turnovers. Nebraska also skews toward the run and doesn't play the same breakneck pace as Indiana. The Huskers can score, but Michigan has shown an ability to bottle up the Nebraska offense as well as anyone in the Big Ten.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan is looking at a team that gave up 600 yards to Wyoming and 28 points in one quarter to UCLA. Nebraska is giving up over five yards per carry and 7.4 yards per pass attempt. This is not a fearsome defense, although the same could be said about Akron, UConn, and to a certain extent, Penn State.
The UCLA game may be the best example of what Michigan can or can't accomplish against Nebraska dependent on how Michigan handles the game. UCLA struggled early, setting up Nebraska for two easy score — sound familiar Wolverine fans? — but once the Bruins got mistakes under control it was a rather easy march to the end zone. Michigan's offense isn't that consistent, and the rushing offense won't be able to approximate what UCLA can do, but it is a dangerous unit capable of exploiting mediocre defenses as long as it isn't falling in on itself.
Nebraska has two more games in which to convince me that the team is more threatening than it looks right now given the defensive woes and an offense that Michigan has traditionally had luck stopping. I'm not holding my breath.