Michigan vs. Nebraska
3:30pm, ABC | Ann Arbor MI
Enemy Blog: Corn Nation
Michigan started its November run with a thud, walking into a buzz saw in East Lansing and limping out a full three games out of the Big Ten title game picture and the recipient of a fifth loss at the hands of a Mark Dantonio coached Michigan State team.
The story was the same in that game as it has been in all of those other losses. Michigan got beat in the trenches. The Wolverines have been weak up front one one side of the ball or the other since Rich Rodriguez was running the program. No surprise that Michigan State made short work of the Michgan offense.
For all the discontent swirling around Michigan circles, there are still four games left and the Wolverines have a good chance in three of them. The first of those happens this weekend against a Nebraska team that has plenty of issues itself.
When Michigan has the ball
It can't get any worse, right?
No, probably not. Michigan just faced the best defense it will see all season (Ohio State is very good, but not that) and completely collapsed against it. Thankfully, the Husker defense isn't well equipped to beat Michigan up in the ways that the Spartans did.
The Wolverines might even be able to put together some yards on the ground — or at least keep from moving backwards all day. Nebraska is allowing 182 yards rushing per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Only three Big Ten teams hold opponents to a worse per play rushing average.
The strange thing about Nebraska's defense is how hot and cold it has been against the run. Five teams have broken the 200 yard mark, including such luminaries as Wyoming and South Dakota State. And then there were games against Southern Miss and Purdue, where those teams combined couldn't post over 100 yards. Desipte the issues stopping opposing teams on the ground, Nebraska has been solid at getting into the backfield, standing fourth in the conference with 6.75 tackles for loss per game on average.
Michigan should be able to have some success on the ground, you know, relative success, because this line is still an unholy mess and that stuff doesn't change over the course of a week. Michigan still has Devin Gardner and he is an effective weapon when used in various spread option sets. This Nebraska defense gave up 19 rushes for 61 yards to Brett Hundley and 8 for 92 to Wyoming's quarterback. Gardner will have a chance to run.
Passing the ball is a little tougher sledding as Nebraska gives up the fourth least yards per game in the conference, however, that is at yards per attempt average that ties Purdue for ninth (7.2 ypa). Nebraska also has 22 sacks on the year year with five players chipping in two apiece and two having put up 3.5.
Nebraska doesn't present a fearsome defense. The Huskers are eighth in the conference in yards per play given up. The one area that Nebraska seems to be by far the best at is in third-down conversions, in which the Huskers are second in the conference at 28%. This is perhaps the biggest doom-factor against a Michigan team that enjoys ratcheting up the level of difficulty on third-down by setting up ridiculously long conversion attempts.
The Wolverines should be able to put together some success on the ground just by virtue of Devin Gardner being that good. If Michigan sticks with what works — a solid dose of inverted veer and other option plays designed to use Gardner as a runner and a decoy to open lanes for Fitz Toussaint — Michigan should be able to put up over 100 yards on Nebraska. If that doesn't happen we can all turn our panic dials to 11.
Devin Gardner should be able to find open passes down the field. He has been good at avoiding turnovers and finding receivers when given time. He won't always have time, as the offensive line isn't good enough to provide that, but this defense isn't good enough to do what Michigan State did unless the offense plays bad enough to set that up. This isn't out of the question.
When Nebraska has the ball
Despite Nebraska's offensive success the last couple years against most of the Big Ten, Michigan has fared well against the Huskers. Two years ago the Huskers gained just 260 yards and had three turnovers as Michigan ran Big Red off the field. Last year Michigan's offense crumbled and Michigan's defense still held on despite Michigan's offense doing absolutely nothing in the second half with Denard Robinson injured and Russell Bellomy running the show.
Taylor Martinez looks to be sidelined for this weekend's game. He has been off and on all year due to injuries, and in his stead Nebraska will trot out a combination of Tommy Armstrong Jr or Ron Kellogg III. Kellogg has hit on nearly 70% of his passes this year, but Armstrong has gotten more snaps. Neither is a big run threat, but Armstrong does average almost eight carries for 30 yards in his limited time this season.
Thankfully for both quarterbacks, Nebraska has a talented group of position players on which to rely. In the backfield Nebraska is led by Ameer Abdullah, who has already gone over 1100 yards on the season with six touchdowns and a yards/carry average of over seven per rush. He will be a handful for Michigan's heretofore stout run defense. Imani Cross will also get carries as more of the short yardage back. He has 9 touchdowns on the year already and is averaging over five yards/carry.
This will be a tough test for Michigan's run defense. The Wolverines are still 11th in the nation in yards/carry allowed at 3.2 per rush. Michigan won't be able to hold Nebraska under 100 yards on the game, but the Wolverines should shoot to keep the Huskers below four yards/carry.
The Huskers will also have options in the passing game. The big threats are Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell. Enunwa leads the team in receiving yards right now with 467 and over 13 yards per reception. Bell has 341 yards and 11 yards per reception. Both are dangerous down field threats that can beat Michigan's sometimes-good-but-not-always coverage. Abdullah is also a threat out of the backfield.
Nebraska will look to do most of its damage on the ground in this game. The Huskers have three games in which they have went for over 300 on the ground and another two in which they rushed for over 200. In the three games that Nebraska has rushed for less than 200 yards the Huskers are 1-2 with that win coming on a hail mary against Northwestern last week. Stop. The. Run. That's the game.
Nebraska will look to pass the ball as a change of pace, but the Huskers have only gone over 300 yards once this season and 200 yards two other times. I the last two games Tommy Armstrong had a Gardner-ian six interceptions. If Michigan stops the run it makes young Armstrong a more centralized part of Nebraska's offense. That could work out in Michigan's favor.
If history is any indication here, I like this matchup. Michigan is playing the kind of defense it needs to keep games within reach, and Nebraska's offense has been effectively bottled up by Michigan in the last two years. I'm not saying there is a blueprint to stopping this offense, but if there was, Mattison would have a copy.
Keys to the game:
- Keep the cap on the run game: Nebraska has 20 runs of 20+ yards this season (10th nationally). Michigan has allowed three. Keep the big run plays down and Nebraska's offense has to grind to get over 200 yards.
- Strongarm Armstrong: Michigan needs to force the freshman into mistakes.
- THE BALL GOES THAT WAY: Move forward on offense. Kthxbye.
- This no turnover thing is nice: Let's keep not giving the ball away, mmkay?
Alternate Programming: Your college football weekend should start on Saturday, when we get two of the best games of the weekend as Oklahoma-Baylor kicks off at 7:30 and Oregon-Stanford kicks at 9:00. On Saturday I have a feeling Auburn-Tennessee could get interesting at noon. Not much going on in the middle slot, which should allow you to focus all your energy on UM-NU. The night slate is once again strong with Bama-LSU at a high but not quite unstoppable-hype-train level of awesome. VT-Miami, UCLA-Arizona, Notre Dame-Pitt, and Houston-UCF all happen around that time and should present a number of interesting matchups and games.
Inanimate Object Threat Level - 8: Ameer Abdullah is going to break through the line for at least one 20+ yard run and I'm going to throw my half-full beer can at the wall or something. Book it. Hopefully I only waste one beer on something like that.
Final Thoughts: The general consensus is that this is an absolute must-win for Michigan, and while I think that is right (because duh, every game is), I also think that most of the fan base is overreacting to a fairly predictable loss to an elite defense in a tough road environment.
This game comes back to Ann Arbor, faces a team Michigan has had defensive success against the last two years, and a team that is going to be relying on a young quarterback to possibly carry the team if the run game falters. Do you want to know when I first felt confident about Michigan's chances in this one? When Wyoming up up 600 yards on the Huskers in week one. That was a sign that Michigan was in a good position. Michigan may not be 600 yards good on offense, but the talent is there at the skill positions to put up points if the offensive line plays even serviceable. Against a front seven that is decidedly a step down from last week's foe, Michigan should once again look like the talented but inconsistent unit that it has been all year, which means putting up a lot of points on the board but leaving a lot on the field. If the defense can keep the top on Nebraska's run game like years past, that uneven offensive effort should still be enough.
Michigan 31 - Nebraska 21