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Key Matchups: Michigan vs. Nebraska

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Here are the matchups to watch for this Saturday night.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan cracked the top 10 after their blowout win against Wisconsin, landing at No. 9 in the AP Top 25. Up next, the Wolverines are heading to Lincoln to take on Nebraska.

The Huskers have been trying to stabilize their season after mistakes cost them their last two games against ranked opponents. In their games against Oklahoma and Michigan State, it was lackluster special team performances and penalties that combined to edge out the Huskers in both of these contests. Michigan enters the contest as the favorite by 3.5 points and Nebraska has gone nine games without beating a top 25 opponent in the Scott Frost era. But what do the numbers say? Let’s look at some key matchups.

Michigan will be the Huskers’ third matchup with a top 25 opponent this season. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez through the previous two contests against AP Top 25 opponents has put up 533 passing yards on 72.9 percent completions, racking up a single touchdown and two interceptions. However, against conference opponents, Martinez’s completion rate dwindles to 61.4, but yardage increases to 678 yards two touchdowns and one interception. He also proves to be an effective dual-threat, racking up 412 rushing yards on the season thus far and nine rushing touchdowns.

Conference play for Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara reflects a much different story. With a completion rate of 59.1 and 360 passing yards, McNamara has connected for two touchdowns on lower passing attempts. Between the two, Martinez has attempted 150 passes on the season so far while McNamara has only attempted 81.

When matched up with other Big Ten teams in their previous two contests, both defenses focused on nullifying the passing threat of their opponents, and both Michigan and Nebraska have veteran secondarys. Last Saturday against Wisconsin, Michigan held the Badgers to 11-of-23 passing for 167 yards, and forced an interception. When the Wolverines took on Rutgers the week before, the Scarlet Knights went 18-of-31 for 156 yards.

Nebraska’s secondary minorly slipped against Northwestern last Saturday as the Wildcats went to 25-of-40 passing for 256 yards. The Huskers’ secondary was complimented when they went up against the Michigan State Spartans the week before last. Nebraska had held the Spartans to 14-of-23 throwing with 183 yards and forcing one interception.

This game will come down to who controls the passing game. Nebraska has their dual-threat quarterback, and Michigan has not had to call on their quarterback for many pass attempts. McNamara has been efficient when he is called on, and a lot of that comes down to Michigan’s offensive line.

The group has been highly-praised by their teammates and coaching staff. They have been the difference-maker for the team — allowing the running backs to shine and keeping McNamara safe in the pocket. Michigan’s offensive line has only allowed one sack all season and that came in Week 1 against Western Michigan.

On the flip side, Michigan’s defense has forced 13 sacks on the season, six of those coming against Wisconsin. Nebraska’s defense has accrued 11 sacks on the season thus far, but have been less efficient at keeping Martinez from being sacked. The Spartans sacked Martinez seven times alone. Oklahoma and Illinois were both able to get to Martinez five times. With the edge attack that Michigan has, Nebraska is going to have to hope its recent changes to their starting offensive line will be enough.

The ground game is the final key here. Michigan holds a dynamite duo in Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, while Nebraska running back Rahmir Johnson is only outshined by Martinez. So far in 2021, Michigan has averaged 255 rushing yards a game to Nebraska’s 237.5. Both teams rely heavily on the ground game, as Nebraska has boasted a total of 1,425 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns to Michigan’s 1,275 rushing yards for 18 touchdowns.

The Wolverines have only allowed, on average, 285.8 yards per game. They are much more efficient at controlling the running game of their opposition, as their opponents only average 115.2 rushing yards per game. Their pass protection efficiency also sees to it their opponents average 170.6 passing yards per game. The Huskers reflect a different story, allowing their opponents an average of 322.7 yards per game on 200.5 passing yards per game and 122.2 average rushing yards per game.

Michigan’s rushing offensive identity has been the talk of the season so far. If Nebraska wants to put up a fight against another top 25 team, they’re going to have to play a clean game on both sides of the ball and actively shut down Michigan’s offense. Nebraska’s offensive line has fallen to multiple false start penalties against Michigan State and worked actively to remedy that when they took on Northwestern. If Michigan is effective in taking advantage of that, or if Nebraska slips to their woes of their season so far, Michigan will control the line rather easily and effectively.

This will be the main area of contention between the two programs and will boil down to the efficiency of the offensive line and running backs. Based on the numbers, Michigan holds the most efficient rusher in Corum with his 521 total rushing yards on 84 attempts. Nebraska hones in with the second in Martinez with his 80 attempts for 412 rushing yards.

Based on the numbers, this game will come down to the efficiency and effectiveness of either team’s offense. Michigan has the edge, but it would be in its best interest not to overlook Nebraska. The last time these two teams met was in 2018 in Ann Arbor that saw Michigan win 56-10. The Wolverines haven’t ever won in Memorial Stadium, though only nine total games have been played between these two teams. Michigan will be looking to extend its perfect season, so it’s going to take a lot to bring down a Wolverine team that is on fire and has something to prove.