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Friend vs Foe: Nebraska

November 7th, 2013 by Josh DeMille


For this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe, please welcome Jon Johnston, Aaron, Mister Mike, and Husker Mike of the Nebraska SB Nation site Corn Nation. They have kindly answered some questions about what we can expect from Tommy Armstrong instead of Taylor Martinez, the comments made by Ameer Abdullah regarding Michigan’s “nasty” and “ruthless” fans, their thoughts on Bo Pelini’s job security, and more. They also provide their predictions. You can follow them on Twitter at @CornNation.

1. With Taylor Martinez out once again, can you explain the main differences between he and Tommy Armstrong? What can Armstrong do that Martinez couldn’t? In what areas are he not as good?

Aaron: Well, right now Tommy can run a lot better than Taylor. Martinez’s injury limits his mobility. To be honest, Armstrong struggles in the same areas that Taylor does. The main area of concern is throwing the ball downfield. He’s thrown six interceptions in his last two games (Purdue and Northwestern). But he can run. He has a lot of quick moves if his line can open up some holes for him.

Mister Mike: One word describes where Armstrong is different than Martinez: option. Armstrong is much better at running the lead and speed options than Martinez has been, and probably would ever be. He still has a lot of trouble making his reads in the passing game, but that’s some of what you get with a RS Freshman QB. I think that he’s made more accurate throws downfield and on time than Martinez did at this point in this career, but right now I’d say Martinez is the better passer, simply due to his experience.

Husker Mike: The option really is the only thing that Tommy Armstrong does better than Taylor Martinez. Martinez is a better runner (or at least he was against Minnesota) and is infinitely better in reading the defense. Which he should be as a senior, as compared to a redshirt freshman. Armstrong has a stronger arm, which could be a difference maker in 2015 or 2016, should Armstrong be able to beat out Johnny Stanton next season. If Armstrong finds himself flustered against the Michigan defense, senior Ron Kellogg will be there, splitting time. Kellogg is not a threat to run at all, but he knows the offense.

Tommy Armstrong's strength is running the option (Huskers.com)

2. Ameer Abdullah made some headlines by saying that Michigan’s fans are nasty and ruthless. From a Nebraska fan perspective, what do you make of this? Do you agree? Or did he mix up his Michigan schools?

Aaron: Not sure where he gets that from, but he did make the trip to Ann Arbor two years ago. “There’s always one in every family,” and every fanbase has a few bad eggs. Maybe he’s had to put up with a few of them.

Mister Mike: Meh. I don’t make much of it. Maybe just some BB material for the Wolvies and their fans.

Husker Mike:  As a fan of UNO hockey, I’m well aware of Michigan fans from the days of the CCHA and the cesspool that is Yost. Ameer Abdullah went easy on Weasel fans.

3. On a scale of 1-10, how safe is Bo Pelini’s job right now? How does the Nebraska fan base feel about him at this point, and with four tough games remaining how much room is there for that to change between now and the end of the season?

Aaron: Depends on who you ask. There’s a section of the fan base that wanted him out years ago and there a section that will be behind him forever. I think the general feel of Bo across Nebraska is that the program is kind of stuck in neutral. Some people fear that letting Bo go will cause the program to spiral downward (who do you replace him with?), but they also realize that we probably aren’t going to be elite with Bo at the helm.

Mister Mike: Agree with Aaron. Our fanbase is very divided over the issue, and fear is a big part of that. But right now, that’s the kind of staff we have. Pelini is a very polarizing figure and has done nothing to assuage that impression of him. On a scale of 1-10, I would say a 3 or a 4. There are undoubtedly some that would disagree with me, but quite frankly I think that’s an accurate statement.

The only way Pelini changes things is if he wins the B1G and goes to a BCS bowl. Again, there are people that would probably say that’s unfair, due to injuries, etc, but conversely it is his sixth year and if he wants to remain the coach at Nebraska, he has to show definite signs that his program is still moving forward. Winning the B1G and getting to a BCS bowl would go a long way towards accomplishing that.

4. For those that didn’t watch the game, what happened against Minnesota? Was it the right move to play Martinez, who clearly wasn’t 100 percent?

Aaron: Minnesota played well. We lost our anchor on the offensive line the previous game (Purdue) and I think Minnesota exploited it. On offense, they took notes from the Big Ten Championship game last year and ran some plays that Wisconsin had success with. Tight ends have killed our defense this year and Minnesota used them very effectively. They managed the game clock and were able to put points on the board.

Mister Mike: How much time do you got? Seriously. It was the 2012 B1G Championship all over again, except the score wasn’t as lop-sided. They used pre-snap shifts and motion to great effect and our team and staff had no answers for it. Except for Pelini’s go to answer: “we just have to execute better and make plays.” Limebeck found a weakness in our defense (our front seven) and exploited it over and over again.

We got flat handled on both sides of the ball. That’s bottom line.  There’s also been some controversy over how Martinez was handled by Bo leading up to this game, but personally, I think he should’ve been riding the pine.

Husker fans are divided on Bo Pelini

Husker Mike: Any questions about whether Martinez in the Minnesota game were answered against Northwestern when the backups threw four interceptions. Nebraska made a bunch of mistakes against Minnesota. Defense was a mess, as Mister Mike points out. The offensive game plan was a mess, holding Abdullah under 20 carries. Martinez’s rust was pretty low on the list of Nebraska’s issues in Minneapolis.

Jon Johnston: Nebraska lost to Minnesota because they looked at the Gophers the same way the fan base did… “ho hum, this is a walk in the park” and weren’t prepared or focused to play that game. Hell, our coaches weren’t even ready to coach. Congrats to Minnesota, who didn’t have those problems, and in fact, went down 10-0, acted like nothing was wrong, came back and won.

5. In what area(s) do you see Nebraska having an advantage this weekend? What about area(s) where Michigan has an advantage?

Aaron: Not sure, honestly. I don’t believe that either team is really that strong in any phase this year. I think I speak for both teams with this next comment. Depending on  which defense/offense/special team shows up, the game could go in many different directions. As I watch Michigan under Hoke, they remind me a lot of Nebraska under Pelini. A quick spark early on (Sugar Bowl), but starting to trend sideways. As an outsider, I view the Wolverines as a good program that runs things the right way and prepares kids for the future, but I don’t see them becoming an elite football program any time soon. Like Nebraska, they just don’t strike fear into me the way a really good team should.

Mister Mike: An advantage? Did you laugh as you typed that? Right now, this is a horrible match-up for Nebraska. You have a team in Michigan that runs a lot of power…a lot of heavier sets and they run it right at you. Add to that a mobile QB, a couple of all-stars at TE and WR, and a running back in Touissant who we better not forget about, and I think it’s going to be a long day for the Huskers. Some people may say that Borges is trying to fit square pegs into round holes on offense, but he’s honestly not going to have to get very cute this weekend. Your OL should be able to protect Gardner long enough for him to make his reads and complete passes. Oh…two words for you…”jet motion.” Remember them well, Grasshopper.

Husker Mike:  Actually, if Nebraska can get some receivers healthy, I think Michigan could be a decent matchup against Nebraska. Michigan is fairly inept running the ball (11th worst yards per carry average in the Big Ten), and only involves two receivers in their passing game. That doesn’t mean that Nebraska will win, though. Both teams have found ways to lose and look putrid doing it. It comes down to which team wants it more and outplays the other because both teams have underperformed this season. The key is what happens when Nebraska pressures Gardner. Mobile quarterbacks can burn Nebraska, and so if the Huskers can’t get to Gardner, it’ll be a big Michigan victory.

6. What’s your prediction and why?

Aaron: Nebraska’s defense is getting better, but they are also being asked to do more because of the injuries we’ve had on offense. You know about Taylor Martinez, but we also have a converted linebacker getting a lot of passing targets on offense, and we’ve seen a lot of our starters on the offensive line go down in recent weeks. In my opinion, all Michigan has to do this weekend is to play conservatively and try to bust up Nebraska’s offensive line to create opportunities. If Michigan can keep their turnovers down, they really shouldn’t have a problem beating Nebraska. If they get too aggressive, well, that’s when the Wolverines seem to make mistakes. They lead the league in turnovers. I see a low scoring game with Michigan coming out on top. Something like UM 24, UNL 10.

Mister Mike: Hoke is undefeated at home in AA and I really don’t see that changing this weekend. We’ve had some injuries (of course, every team deals with injuries and some have key players out just like ours, but I digress…) to Martinez, a couple of starters on OL, Kenny Bell, etc, etc…so I just don’t think we’re going to have enough “oomph” to overcome what Michigan is going to throw at us. I think the Wolverines cover the spread handily and probably by double digits. I’m thinking something like a 31-17 or something similar.

Jon: Two Michigan predictions? Gahahhh!!! We need one homer, dadgummit. I say Nebraska stuffs the Wolverine run game, picks off at least two Gardner passes, and Ameer Abdullah runs for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Nebraska 31, Michigan 30

Well, last week went about as poorly as it could have and Michigan is all but eliminated from Big Ten title contention. In addition to needing to win out we’d need MSU to lose all three of their remaining conference games. But just because the main goal is unattainable doesn’t mean the season is lost. We still have games to play and can still get to a good bowl game. Next up on the schedule is an interesting Nebraska team who, much like us, hasn’t looked like the older versions of themselves. So what does Michigan need to do to keep their home win streak alive and beat the Huskers? Let’s dig in.

On Offense:

Despite throwing a late interception last week Devin Gardner played well, especially considering he was hit or hurried on just about every passing play. He made much better decisions than he has in the past and took the sack instead of throwing up prayers that most likely would have been interceptions. It’s easy to blame the quarterback and sometimes it is his fault, but Gardner has made progress and he just needs to keep doing so, which is basically my point: Gardner needs to keep building off his progress and get a little better each game. Thankfully Nebraska’s defense is not the Blackshirts of old.

If Gardner can remain calm under duress (even though it won’t be anything like it was last week) and make good decisions Michigan should win this game. By good decisions I mean not forcing it or getting happy feet. Heck, even taking a sack instead of throwing up a bad pass is a good decision.

Kyle Bosch and Michigan's young offensive line look to rebound from a rough performance (MGoBlue.com)

Usually I talk about not turning the ball over, but I’m not even going to say he needs to not turn it over because apparently that’s too much to ask. Besides, I don’t think Nebraska is good enough to shut the door on Michigan even if Gardner does turn it over a couple times.

The offensive line has been much maligned, and for good reason. I hesitate to say the line needs to play better because they start two freshmen – one true and one redshirt – but the line needs to play better. On the outside looking in I see ‘deer in the headlights’ moments far too often. This may be an inaccurate assessment but it’s what I see. In all honesty, I don’t expect much out of this line but I do think if they can just play with a little more confidence they’ll be fine. If they can go out and just play, not think just play Michigan will be in good shape to win.

While it would be nice to see Fitz break 100 yards again I’m not so sure that will happen. What I do think, and this ties into last week’s piece about running more shotgun and pistol formations, is that we need to go back to the read-option, period. We’d all love to see new versions of Anthony Thomas, or for you old school folks like myself Tyrone Wheatley, but we’re not there yet. So in the meantime let’s not have RichRod syndrome and try to put square pegs in round holes.

Go back to 2010 and look at Denard Robinson’s passing stats, 2,570 passing at 62.5 percent. Yes he had 11 picks to 18 touchdowns, but the point is that the threat of the run allowed him to pass the ball well because the defense came down into the box to stop the run. Gardner is no Denard but he can scoot, so stop mixing in the read option and just go to it completely. I guess the theme of this is: NO MORE UNDER CENTER offense. If Al Borges can put aside his ego and just let these kids do what they do best, and it ain’t power football as much as we’d all like, then Michigan will win the game.

On Defense:

Well for starters Raymon Taylor needs to at least put a hand on someone and not let them run down the field 40 yards for a touchdown. Okay, that’s out of my system let’s move on.

Nebraska likes to run the ball, to the tune of 261 yards per game. Ameer Abdullah does most of the damage as he is already over 1,100 yards so far. Michigan needs to not only stop the run but be aware of the play action pass. I think I may have said this before but it deserves to be said again. Michigan has been susceptible to the big play all year. Part of that is the lack of a pass rush but the secondary deserves some of the blame too.

Hopefully they won’t see too many deep passes but the corners and safeties need to be careful about coming up to stop the run and leaving themselves vulnerable to the pass. If Michigan can prevent big passing plays while still keeping the run game in check (read: under 200 yards) then Michigan should win this one.

On Special Teams:

Again, win the field position game. This is something they did not do against State and it came back to bite them. Though it is not all the special teams’ fault. Norfleet is getting better with running north/south more and not dancing around so much and he needs to continue that. Short fields for us, long fields for them and we should be in good shape.