The last time Michigan traveled to Lincoln, Neb., Ronald Reagan and Roy Rogers were just a few months old, the Mexican Revolution was kicking into gear, only eight percent of homes had a telephone, and the average U.S. salary was between $200 and $400 per year.
The year was 1911 and football was just starting to take hold in the west. Then-Michigan head coach, Fielding Yost, had been Nebraska’s coach in 1898 and beat his former team 31-0 in Ann Arbor in 1905. The 1911 Michigan squad took a train out west to Lincoln and received a warm welcome from Nebraska fans. The teams played to a 6-6 tie and the entire Michigan contingent – players, coaches, alumni, and students – were “treated royally” at the postgame banquet. Despite the tie, the fact that the big boys from the east took a trip out west put the ‘Huskers on the college football map.
Memorial Stadium - Lincoln, Neb.
Since then, the two have met four times, but never in Lincoln – twice in Ann Arbor, including last season, and twice in bowl games. While Michigan won’t get an invitation to the postgame banquet when it makes the trip west this time, the Cornhusker fans are known for their hospitality and will provide a great environment for the first night game between the Legends division foes.
Both teams enter with identical 5-2 overall records, but one of Nebraska’s losses was to conference foe Ohio State. Michigan is unblemished in league play thus far, which makes this a must-win game for both teams. A Michigan win would put the Wolverines in prime position to win the division and earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship game, while a win for Nebraska would even the records and make for a very interesting final four weeks of the season.
Nebraska played a very weak out of conference schedule of Southern Miss, UCLA, Arkansas State, and Idaho State, while Michigan was challenged by – and lost to – a pair BCS top-five teams, Alabama and Notre Dame. In conference play, however, Nebraska has faced three straight formidable foes in Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwester, while Michigan feasted on bottom feeders Purdue and Illinois before ending a four-year losing streak to Michigan State last Saturday.
Nebraska is traditionally strong at home, having won 18 of its last 20 in Memorial Stadium. But one of those losses was just a year ago to Northwestern, so the ‘Huskers aren’t completely invincible at home. Michigan is just 3-3 so far on the road in the Brady Hoke era. Can the Wolverines storm into Lincoln and pull off a primetime victory to sieze control of the Legends division? Or will Nebraska send Michigan home with its first conference loss of the season? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
When Nebraska has the ball
The Cornhuskers boast one of the most dynamic offenses in college football and the Big Ten’s top scoring offense. Averaging 41.6 points per game, Nebraska is tough to stop and hasn’t scored fewer than 29 points in a game all season. In fact, the Big Red has four games in it has scored 38 or more and scored 73 against Idaho State.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez leads the offense as a dangerous runner and an improved passer. While the Nebraska rush offense is sixth nationally, Martinez ranks second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game. He has completed 67 percent of his passes this season for 1,615 yards, 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions. That’s a far cry better than his 56.3 percent, 2,089 yard, 13 touchdown, eight interception season of a year ago. On the ground, he ranks third on the team with 403 yards and second with six touchdowns. He’s a home run threat – he has a 92-yard rushing touchdown – and one that defense have to be very aware of.
His backfield mates are Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead, although Burkhead is unlikely to play due to a knee injury that has already kept him out of two games this season and limited him last week. But Abdullah might be one of the best backs in the conference. He currently ranks eighth in rushing average, but he has shared the backfield with Burkhead. He is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, has scored seven touchdowns, and is both powerful and fast.
The receiving corps has probably been the biggest surprise this season. Five players have caught at least 13 passes and nine different players have caught a touchdown. Kenny Bell is the leader with 26 receptions for 540 yards and five touchdowns. Michigan held him to just one catch for eight yards last season, but so far this year he’s averaging 77.1 yards per game. The rugged Quincy Enunwa has 23 catches for 286 yards and one touchdown. He’s also a great blocker, but had the best game of his career last week at Northwestern, catching six passes for 110 yards.
The offensive line had to replace three starters coming into the season, but has paved the way for the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack. It does a lot of pulling and utilizes a zone blocking scheme to get Martinez and Abdullah to the edge. In pass protection, however, the ‘Huskers have given up 15 sacks, which is second-worst in the Big Ten.
Michigan’s defense has improved every week and only given up 49 points in its last five games. That’s just five more than Alabama’s vaunted defense has allowed over that same time. Linebacker Jake Ryan is quietly putting together a great season with better stats than even Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. He ranks 12th in the conference in tackles and second among conference linebackers with 3.5 sacks.
The rush defense held Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell to just 68 yards last week and hasn’t given up many yards since the first two games of the season against Alabama and Air Force.
Nebraska will certainly be the best offense the Wolverines have faced since Alabama, so it will take a very impressive performance to slow the ‘Huskers down.
When Michigan has the ball
While the offense has all the firepower, the Nebraska defense is no longer the Blackshirts of old. The ‘Huskers rank 71st nationally and third-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 27.7 points per game. Only two opponents – Arkansas State and Idaho State – have been held below 20 points and four have scored 27 points or more, while Ohio State racked up 63.
The rush defense has been the Achilles’ heel, allowing 187.9 yards per game on the ground. Ohio State rushed for 371 yards, getting two ball carriers over 140. The pass defense is much better, though opposing teams have had such success on the ground they haven’t needed to air it out too much.
Linebacker Will Compton is the leading tackler and also has three sacks. Weak-side defensive end Eric Martin leads the team with five sacks and eight tackles for loss. Safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford are solid in run support, ranking second and third on the team in tackles. Corners Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who moved into the starting lineup two weeks ago, and Ciante Evans play almost exclusively man coverage and have excelled at it. Jean-Baptiste is big and physical at 6’3″, 217.
A week ago, Northwestern thought it could air it out against Nebraska and failed miserably, especially when trying to do so while having the lead in the second half. Don’t expect Michigan to make the same mistake. With a potent rushing attack, Michigan will look very similar to how it looked against Purdue and Illinois. This Nebraska defense is better than those two, but nowhere near as stout as what Michigan faced last week from the Spartans.
Ohio State provided the blueprint for attacking the ‘Husker defense. Braxton Miller threw just 14 passes and the Buckeyes rushed the ball 48 times. Miller racked up 186 yards on 11.6 yards per carry. Nebraska has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks the past couple of years, so Denard Robinson and the Michigan running backs should have a field day. Nebraska held him to just 3.6 yards per carry a year ago, but Fitz Toussaint rushed for 138 yards. It’s safe to say that one or the other – if not both – will have a big game.
The other third
Kicker/punter Brett Maher has made 8-of-13 field goals with a long of 54 and averaged 41.8 yards per punt. He was first-team All-Big Ten as both a kicker and a punter last season and a preseason All-American this year.
Rushing Attempts: 22 – Denard will pass Tyrone Wheatley for 6th in career rushing attempts.
In the return game, Abdullah is averaging 20.8 yards per kick return and 16.5 yards per punt return. He has taken one punt to the house, so he’s dangerous.
However, Nebraska’s kick and punt coverage units haven’t been sharp this season, ranking 93rd nationally in kick coverage and 112th in punt coverage. That’s good news for Michigan with a freshman speedster, Dennis Norfleet, ready to break out. Last week, Robinson saw the field on a kick return, which ended up being a touchback, and Brady Hoke has played coy about using him again. It’s a pretty safe bet that he won’t actually return the ball, but he could serve as a decoy on a fake reverse that could be just what springs Norfleet.
Both teams feature athletic, multi-threat quarterbacks and proven running backs. Both teams will look to run the ball. But one team has a defense and the other doesn’t. Greg Mattison has shown an ability to take the opposing team’s number one threat out of the game and dial up timely blitzes to pressure the quarterback. He did so in last year’s meeting, completely disrupting the Cornhusker offense.
It will be tough for Mattison’s defense to hold Nebraska to the point levels of the past few opponents, but Michigan is certainly the best defense the ‘Huskers have faced this season.
While Nebraska will score some points, Michigan’s offense should be able to move the ball with relative ease. The offensive line will get enough push against an overmatched front seven and pave the way for a big day on the ground. The ‘Huskers have done a good job this season of matching up with opposing receivers, so look for another big day from tight end Devin Funchess as well when Denard does need to pass.
Last week, Michigan became the first program in college football to reach 900 total wins. That first trip to Lincoln 101 years ago wasn’t one of them, but Michigan had just 180 victories at that point. This Saturday, Wolverines will start their march towards the Millenium mark this time around and get one step closer to a Big Ten title.
Michigan 42 – Nebraska 24