Raise your hand if you thought Nebraska and Michigan, both 6-2, could play a game with less national interest than this one has.
Anyone? It’s hard to believe that two programs with more than 1700 wins combined between them could generate so little buzz, but that’s the Big Ten this year. Not enough teams started the season ranked highly enough or has done anything during the season to make a couple of losses acceptable on a national scale and that’s not totally unfair. Just not what most Michigan or Nebraska fans would’ve expected back in 2011 when the promise of a yearly blue bloods series seemed tough to beat.
As will be the case with Nebraska as long as it keeps winning, this is the biggest game of the season for the Huskers until the next one. For Michigan, which is effectively three games behind Michigan State in the division race, it’s about momentum and a better bowl bid.
Oh, and recording the 20th straight home win under Brady Hoke. On with the preview.
At the end of 2011, everything looked rosy for Hoke. He took Michigan from a 7-6 team in the year prior to his arrival to a Sugar Bowl win in year one and then capped it with one of the best recruiting classes in the country. The future looked bright. Then 2012 rolled around.
As you can see in the graph above, the Wolverines were nearly 1.5 wins below their expected total last season. Bad luck or true underachievement? How about a tough schedule? None of the Wolverines 2012 losses — Alabama (neutral site), at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, at Ohio State and South Carolina (Outback Bowl) — were bad losses and Michigan played pretty well in three of them.
But 2013 has been a different story. After a seemingly big win over Notre Dame in week two, Michigan struggled to narrow wins over Akron and UConn before losing in overtime to a thin Penn State squad and then getting man-handled last week by Michigan State. There’s still not a lot of shame there — minus the close wins, maybe — and, based on expected wins, Michigan is actually about a half game ahead here. That said, it’ll be interesting to watch how the rest of this year plays out because, depending on how you feel about this week’s game, the Wolverines could lose each of their remaining four. They won’t, but this last month offers some challenges and what if Michigan ends up, say, 8-4 again? What’s the perception then?
Depending on how highly you value the run game, this is not a favorable match-up for the Huskers.
For the first time this season, Nebraska will face a run defense that is statistically stronger than its own rushing offense. When you throw in the fact that the Huskers will be without a pair of starters on the offensive line and playing two quarterbacks, neither of which is Taylor Martinez, that on paper advantage becomes even larger. Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, can do a lot of special and amazing things. Continuing his streak of five consecutive games with more than 100-yards against this Wolverines defense could be the most spectacular thing yet.
The Huskers get a little bit back flipping the run game around. Nebraska’s run defense is merely average, but that’s better than what they’ll face this Saturday. Michigan is averaging just 3.23 yards per carry and stopping that relatively meager run game is probably the key to the Huskers’ success. Do that and Nebraska, which is quite good at getting off the field on third down, can dial up some pressure in hopes of slowing down the Wolverines’ passing game.
That part of the equation, however, is easier said than done. Michigan has subsisted on big plays in the passing game and is currently averaging 9.7 yards per attempt, good for seventh in the country. Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (898 yards) is the threat everyone points to, but he presents less of a match-up problem for the Huskers than tight end Devin Funchess (19.21 yards per catch) does. Nebraska can stick Ciante Evans or Stanley Jean-Baptiste on Gallon and at least feel relatively comfortable in that match-up, but who has Funchess? The idea of a linebacker trying to cover him is a dangerous one.
On the other side, Nebraska offers little with its own passing game. The Huskers’ 6.4 yards per attempt ranks 90th nationally and could become a bigger factor in this game than it has been at any point so far this season given Michigan’s ability to stop the run. That likely means two things: 1) The Huskers could really use Kenny Bell and Jake Long in this game. Both are expected to play but who knows how close to 100 percent healthy they’ll be. 2) Don’t be surprised if Ron Kellogg III gets the most extensive playing time of his career. Bo Pelini is sticking with Tommy Armstrong as the starter in this game, but this will be the toughest environment and defense of his young career. If the Huskers need to throw the ball extensively, Kellogg is probably the guy.
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
Nebraska’s defense, while potentially getting better, still isn’t good enough to exist without the benefit of turnovers. After recording 10 takeaways in non-conference play, the Huskers’ defense has managed just five since and lost the turnover battle in each of the past three games. That won’t do on the road. The Huskers’ young defense needs swing plays because if a team asks Nebraska to just straight up stop it for four quarters that’s still a struggle. Michigan has been the inverse this year. In non-conference play the Wolverines had twice as many giveaways (12) as they’ve had in Big Ten play. If Nebraska can somehow get back to its early season ball-hawking ways, and return the Wolverines to their early season generosity with the football, that could be enough to swing what should be a close game.
WHEN TO WORRY
Like the Wyoming game to open the season, the Wolverines’ run game looks so diminished that any sign of success on the ground is cause for concern. Michigan is, of course, way more talented both up front and in the backfield than Wyoming, which averaged 7.3 yards per carry against the Huskers in this year’s game. Is Nebraska’s defense better now than it was then? Probably, but we’ll find out. If Michigan’s run game is working, watch out. Remember, the Wolverines are averaging 9.7 yards per attempt — that’s 33.98 percent better than the national average — in the passing game and they’ve done it without much of a running threat at all.
Michigan has yet to lose at home under Hoke. The average margin of victory in those games is 22.95 points.
This will be Nebraska’s 134th game against a team currently in the 800 win club. The Huskers all-time record against those six schools — Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Texas — is 56-72-5.
It’s the winged helmet. It’s maize and blue. Enough said in that regard, but if you want to talk about the needless nonsense that is Michigan’s piping-heavy road uniform I’ll be happy to do that. Just not here because Nebraska’s not scheduled to see those things until next decade at the earliest.