It’s understandable to dismiss Scott Frost’s 0-2 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
After a thunderstorm led to cancelling the Akron game on opening weekend, Big Red lost their next two contests to former Big 12 rival Colorado and Sun Belt favorite Troy. The number de jour in Lincoln? This is the first 0-2 start for Nebraska since 1957. Even the reviled Mike Reilly fared better.
Fortunately for Frost, there is an extenuating circumstance. He lost freshman starting quarterback Adrian Martinez — fresh off his 304 total yards and three touchdowns — late against the Buffaloes, a team seemingly in control of their destiny in the Pac 12 South.
Forced to play walk-on quarterback Andrew Bunch, Frost’s offense faltered in the fourth quarter, and then sputtered completely the next week against the Trojans.
With Martinez fully practicing in pads, and a much improved defense, the Cornhuskers enter Ann Arbor with enough pieces to push the ranked Wolverines.
MOTO (Master of the Obvious)
Nebraska (0-2) at No. 19 Michigan (2-1), noon
Radio: Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)
Line: -17 (Bovada)
Series History: Michigan and Nebraska are tied at 4-4-1 overall. Nebraska has won the last two games, including a 17-13 victory in Ann Arbor in 2013. Bo Pelini’s defense sacked Devin Gardner seven times, and held Michigan to negative yards rushing.
Michigan’s last win was a 45-17 rude introduction to the Big Ten in 2011.
Time for autumn!
Michigan offense vs Nebraska defense
THE PASSING GAME
The winner of this battle will be the one who takes more advantage over the other’s weakness.
Michigan, despite some improved protection against Southern Methodist, still allows two sacks a game. Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, ranks No. 2 nationally with 10 sacks, seven of which came against Colorado.
The two danger men on the edge are redshirt senior Freedom Akinmoladun (2.5 sacks) and redshirt junior Khalil Davis (three sacks). Davis is a squat 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, but is able to twist inside on stunts, while the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Akinmoladun is a more conventionally-sized strong-side end.
Davis, at 2:49, rips past a tackle to pulverize Colorado’s Steven Montez.
Senior rush linebacker Luke Gifford also has 2.5 sacks, so far.
Returning the No. 102 S&P defense, the Huskers are trying to compensate with aggressive blitzes and stunts. The flip side of that is that Montez amassed 351 yards and three touchdowns in Colorado’s 33-28 victory.
Shea Patterson needs to follow Montez’s formula for success. The Buffalo quarterback utilized a series of short passes to slot receivers to act as extended running plays, and punished the secondary over the top when they cheated upfield.
The secondary plays passive coverage, only snagging one interception over the first two games. While featuring two senior safeties in Antonio Reed and UCF transfer Tre Neal, cornerbacks Lamar Jackson — not that one — and Dicaprio Bootle are seeing their first extended action.
Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones have taken advantage of soft cushions to eat up easy yards, while slot receivers Grant Perry and Oliver Martin both do well to work back to Patterson when he buys time with his feet. As Colorado showed, when you get Nebraska on their heels with short passes, you can eventually beat them over the top.
With burgeoning targets for Patterson, and a Nebraska pass rush that emphasizes strength over agility — which frankly works better for Michigan’s guard-shaped tackles — the Wolverines should continue their development in the passing game.
THE RUN GAME
After struggling to less than two yards a carry against Notre Dame, Michigan found room against two over-matched defenses. Against Nebraska, this growth will be tested.
The Cornhuskers, after ranking No. 116 in S&P run defense last year, rank No. 20 in average allowed at 93 yards a game. Alongside Davis and Akinmoladun are two hefty tackles in 315-pound senior captain Mick Stoltenberg and 290-pound sophomore Ben Stille. They rotate in defensive coordinator Erik Chinnander’s 3-4 scheme.
They stifled Colorado, a team that eclipsed 250 yards in its two other games, to just 44 yards on 35 totes. While Troy managed 143 yards at just over four yards a pop, this is a much improved defensive front, and definitely one Michigan can’t simply push around with size.
The aforementioned Gifford is the main play-maker with 14 total tackles and five for loss, including the sacks. The other two leading tacklers are inside linebackers Mohamed Barry (15) and Tyrin Ferguson (14, three TFL’s).
Michigan’s struggles last week were partially due to Karan Higdon’s last-minute injury, and partially to SMU loading the box on every play. The first issue has been answered by coach Jay Harbaugh.
Jay Harbaugh expects Karan Higdon and Chris Evans to be available for Nebraska.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 19, 2018
Evans hesitated a little too much last Saturday and failed to push piles the same way Higdon does. If Michigan can force Nebraska to spread its defenders out of the box, there will be room.
However, the standing rule from yours truly is to not believe Michigan runs well against a good defense until proven otherwise. A good performance here would do well to turn that narrative 180 degrees.
Michigan defense vs Nebraska offense
THE PASSING GAME
Adrian Martinez is reportedly practicing with a brace on his right leg, so expect to see him on the Big House turf.
As seen in the video at the top, this freshman is special. Gaining 304 yards and accounting for three scores in your first game in Frost’s spread scheme? It’s a debut reminiscent of Denard Robinson against Connecticut in 2010.
The two big questions: How will the injury affect his mobility, and how composed can he be under constant harassment from a Don Brown defense?
On the flip side, Michigan has two dynamite receivers to cover in Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman. Morgan leads the team with 139 yards, and amassed nearly a thousand in 2017. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he’s a prototypical target that will draw a ton of attention from Lavert Hill and/or David Long.
Spielman, meanwhile, looks to match up against nickels and safeties. Here’s what he can do.
Damn. JD Spielman looking like Tyreek Hill. (on the field) pic.twitter.com/m58WWYPlKq— Andy Carlson (No Relation to the Jabroni Kicker) (@AndyCarlsonShow) September 8, 2018
Here’s a Michigan safety failing to stay with SMU’s James Proche.
If Martinez’s injury forces him to stay in the pocket, a healthy dosage of Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Devin Bush should limit his opportunities to punish with his arm. If he can gain yards with his legs, the pass rush may compensate by staying in their rush lanes, which can limit aggressiveness.
While Brown likely wants his safeties to cover slots man-to-man, he may not be able to afford that strategy. This could lead to Hill sliding down and Brandon Watson playing more on the boundary.
All of these hypotheticals cease if Bunch is the quarterback. He’s an unathletic walk-on that crippled the offense late against Colorado and entirely against Troy. Michigan can tee off on him.
Advantage: Michigan, due to less questions to answer
THE RUN GAME
Martinez’s absence against Troy was very noticeable just by looking at the box score.
Against Colorado, he led the Cornhuskers to 329 rushing yards, as running backs Greg Bell and Devine Ozigbo thrived with open lanes created by defenders paying more attention to quarterback keepers. Without their speedster quarterback, they gained a decent 187 yards against Troy.
Bell and Maurice Washington both have over 100 yards this season, while Ozigbo is a bigger back that’s totaled just 85 in many short-yardage situations.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines have allowed 121 yards a game, good for No. 37 nationally. Each team has crossed the century mark, while no one has averaged more than 3.5 yards a carry.
The question here, again, surrounds the health of Martinez. If he is fully ready, Michigan will be facing yet another running quarterback. While Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush and SMU’s Willie Brown didn’t exactly kill Michigan — the former had just 59 yards on 19 carries, while the latter tallied 48 on eight — they both converted third-and-longs with their feet.
Don Brown toyed with 3-3-5 packages against SMU, sometimes putting Gary at the nose. This replicates the tinkering he did in preparation for Ohio State in both 2016 and 2017. When he stayed with a base of four down linemen — Gary, Bryan Mone, Carlo Kemp and Winovich — SMU found very little room.
This may be the way to go in a game that’s deceptively dangerous. Leave the experimenting for blowouts. With the base defense, Michigan should be able to limit the damage on the ground, but not completely shut it down. Also, better to stay standard when you’re without Khaleke Hudson for a half (targeting).
Remember, Scott Frost schemed his way to 275 yards against the 2016 defense, and that was with Year 1 Central Florida. Unfortunately, as the other-worldly expectations for this defense have reverted to pretty damn good, damage control is the path ahead this Saturday.
ISN’T THAT SPECIAL?
Kicker Barrett Pickering is 2-for-4 on the year. Quinn Nordin is 2-for-3, but has perhaps the biggest leg in college football.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn averages 42 yards a boot, while Michigan’s Will Hart is starting to bloom to the tune of 50.1 yards a kick.
Spielman returns, but hasn’t done anything spectacular, so far. Obviously, Ambry Thomas and Donovan Peoples-Jones both have the potential to take kicks to the house.
As said multiple times, the margin of victory depends on the health of Martinez. If fully healthy, Michigan will have its hands full containing him and his weapons. If not, this game is over before the whistle blows.
No matter what, a Nebraska quarterback is entering the Big House for the first time, and more importantly, facing Don Brown’s mad schemes. Michigan will force mistakes.
After slow starts in two of the first three games, Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton shouldn’t wait to unleash Patterson early. Doing so opens up the running game, and punishing Nebraska’s aggressiveness with quick passes and screens should slow down the pass rush.
After that, attack deep on a mediocre secondary.
Michigan will score enough to win, as the defense has less question marks than the Blackshirts.
MICHIGAN 38, NEBRASKA 21