Here are some numbers Nebraska hopes to avoid on Saturday: 11, 68, 30, 80, 94, 90, 61, 64, 70, 71, 34, 77, 78 and 64.
Those are rushing totals for teams that have faced off against Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense the last three seasons. They’re all from Power 5 teams, including Florida, South Carolina and Colorado alongside a bunch of Big Ten teams. Not just the bad ones either, though there are lot of those examples in that group, but 2016 Wisconsin and Penn State, too. Those two teams played for a Big Ten title that year.
I don’t like per-game statistics or rushing totals that don’t remove sacks from the equation, but even I can look at numbers like that and know Brown knows a thing or two about stopping the run. But there’s one number from his Michigan tenure that jumps out by comparison –– 275.
That was UCF’s rushing total against Michigan in Scott Frost’s second game as the Knights’ head coach, still the most a maize-and-blue Brown defense has allowed. Now, that game got out of hand early so make whatever mental garbage-time deduction feels reasonable to you, but I wouldn’t discard UCF’s success totally. That offense was just a baby then, much like Nebraska’s now, and it found a way to have some success against a very good Michigan defense. A national championship-quality defense.
Rushing success is going to be incredibly important and brutally hard this time, too, as Nebraska (0-2) tries to get one in the wins column at No. 19 Michigan (2-1). Without an effective running game it’s hard to stay out of passing downs, and passing downs bring blitzes, something Frost is very much expecting to see on Saturday, no matter who is playing quarterback.
“They’re going to be coming over the walls on blitzes,” he said Thursday.
Slowing that down or avoiding it all together with a good ground game will be key against the Wolverines, but I’m not sure it will be the most important number on Saturday. I expect Nebraska to find a way to move the ball relatively well –– which against Michigan still may not fit the classical definition of “well” –– particularly if quarterback Adrian Martinez is healthy and a full go.
And if that happens the biggest number on Saturday, in my mind, is going to be what the Huskers do when they’ve done most of the hard work against a tough defense and put themselves in a position to score.
It hasn’t been pretty for Nebraska so far in 2018. Per SB Nation’s stat profiles, the Huskers are averaging 4.0 points per scoring opportunity (any drive including a first down inside the opponents’ 40-yard line). That ranks 103rd nationally. Why go all the way back to the 40 instead of the traditional “red zone” everyone’s used to? Because the red zone is too forgiving. A team should score, at least a field goal, once it’s inside the 20. But first-and-10 at the 38? An offense still has to do something there and Nebraska will need to be better than it has been to this point.
Against Colorado the Huskers had three empty trips out of seven total inside the 40: Greg Bell’s fumble on the opening drive, Barret Pickering’s missed field goal in the second half and then the final drive of the game when a field goal wasn’t option. Nebraska scored 28 points from those scoring opportunities.
There was just one empty trip against Troy –– another missed field goal –– but this game was better at identifying how field goals are really a loss for an offense. Particularly on a drive that starts at the 8-yard line. If just one of the Huskers’ third-quarter drives against Troy that ended in a field goal had instead resulted in a touchdown, you’ve got a much different fourth quarter. Overall Nebraska has six touchdowns on 12 scoring opportunities.
It’s been a struggle for Nebraska defensively, too, as nine-of-11 scoring opportunities have resulted in points so far this season. More importantly, that’s six touchdowns and three field goals (and two missed field goals, which is luck of the draw and not a stop). A Husker defense that has been good overall needs to force more field-goal attempts in its own territory. Takeaways would be even better.
The good news? A Michigan defense that is top-30 nationally in most categories is only relatively average at limiting damage in its own territory. The Wolverines have given up 4.36 points per scoring opportunity this season to rank 68th. Minus the Western Michigan game, where Michigan only allowed one scoring opportunity and a field goal at that, teams scored touchdowns on seven-of-10 trips against the Wolverines.
That’s 20-percentage points worse than Nebraska’s touchdown rate on offense so far. Frequency, of course, matters here, too. While I expect the Huskers to move the ball with some success on Saturday, that real key is going to be how it finishes those drives that put Nebraska in range.
So far in 2018 it hasn’t been good enough for Nebraska. If it’s to spring an upset as a double-digit dog, it will have to be better in Ann Arbor.