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Three key matchups: Nebraska at Michigan

Breaking down the key matchups ahead of the Wolverines’ game against the Huskers.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines cruised to a 52-17 victory on the road over Rutgers last weekend to improve to 9-0 on the season and climb to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

The Wolverines welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-6) to the Big House this Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) as Michigan hits the final stretch of the season before the showdown with Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 26.

Here are three matchups to watch heading into Saturday.

Michigan run offense vs. Nebraska run defense

The Huskers have not been efficient in stopping the run this season, ranking 108th in the nation against opposing teams’ rushing attacks while giving up about 183 yards per game on just over 4.5 yards per carry.

Michigan running back Blake Corum found the end zone twice against the Scarlet Knights last weekend for touchdowns No. 15 and 16 on the season; he ran the ball 20 times for 109 yards. On paper, this will be yet another game for Corum to boost his Heisman campaign and get loose for another big performance.

Michigan’s opponents, especially recently, have played with relatively heavy numbers in the box to try to slow the Wolverines’ rushing attack and make J.J. McCarthy and the wide receivers beat them through the air.

If Nebraska wants any chance of slowing down Corum and Donovan Edwards, its defense will likely rely upon linebacker Luke Reimer to have a big game, as he leads the team in tackles with 67 on the season. Veteran edge rusher Garrett Nelson (4.5 sacks) is also a player to keep an eye on as well, making it even more important for the Wolverines to be efficient in the run game in the early downs to keep themselves out of 3rd-and-long situations.

Michigan passing offense vs. Nebraska passing defense

Since the Indiana game in Week 6, McCarthy hasn’t thrown for more than 167 yards. He hasn’t had to, as the Wolverines have been efficient on the ground and largely in control of all of the games they’ve played to date.

And while McCarthy has been efficient throwing the ball with a 71% completion percentage, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions, it would be nice to see the offense capitalize on more big plays down the field.

One of the more troubling moments from last week was McCarthy’s miss to Andrel Anthony in the first quarter that surely would have been a touchdown if the two connected. Instead, Rutgers blocked the ensuing punt and returned it for a score, making what would have been a 14-0 Michigan lead into a 7-7 game.

At this point in the season, the Wolverines have to start connecting on those types of plays and cannot afford to leave those opportunities out on the field. This Saturday may be a good time to connect on some of those plays, as the Huskers defense ranks 101st in the nation in passing yards allowed, giving up 258 passing yards per game on 11.17 yards per completion while quarterbacks are completing passes at a 63% clip.

Nebraska has gone through some re-tooling this year as well in its secondary, losing No. 1 cornerback from 2021 Cam Taylor-Britt to the NFL. Quinton Newsome is a promising player and was expected to fill that No. 1 cornerback role coming into the season. But overall, the play in the back end just hasn’t been consistent enough.

Newsome leads the team with eight passes defended and the defense has come up with seven interception this season, so McCarthy and the Michigan wideouts need to find a way to be efficient in this one.

Nebraska passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense

A clear strength of this Nebraska team is its aerial attack and the ability of quarterback Casey Thompson to push the ball downfield and the receivers’ ability to make plays. However, Thompson may not play in this game due to injury, so the Cornhuskers may have to rely on a backup to get the job done.

Receivers Trey Palmer and Marcus Washington are dangerous wideouts, as Palmer has 53 catches for 819 yards on the year with five scores. Washington has yet to find the end zone this season but is second on the team in yards with 367 on 24 catches. Tight end Travis Vokolek is also heavily involved in the passing game, as he is third on the team with 220 receiving yards to go along with two scores.

There has been a trend with Michigan’s secondary the past two weeks against MSU and Rutgers — in the first halves of those games, the defensive backs struggled and gave up some big plays. But to their credit, they have stepped up in each of the game’s final 30 minutes and have been lights out.

DJ Turner gave up a big play early against Rutgers, and Will Johnson failed to break down and make a tackle on a slant pattern late in the first half. Both led to big plays in the passing game for Rutgers and allowed it in part to stay in the game. If the secondary doesn’t play with technical discipline, Nebraska’s quarterback and receivers will make them pay. On the flip side, when Michigan is locked in on the back end, teams have had a hard time finding anything through the air.

Getting a lead and allowing the pass rush to get going would only help Michigan’s chances in this one.