Breakdown: Michigan vs. Nebraska

Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 6:38pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are looking to go 3-0 at Michigan Stadium this weekend.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are looking to go 3-0 at Michigan Stadium this weekend. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

Michigan opens up Big Ten play with a matchup against Nebraska that seemed far more intriguing a few weeks ago. The Cornhuskers (0-2) came from 14 points down in their season opener against Colorado to take a 28-20 lead, then handed the game right back after true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez left the game with a leg injury.

The next week, without Martinez, Nebraska fell to Troy — an embarassing loss on its face, but a slightly less embarassing defeat given the Trojans’ understated quality.

Still, the Wolverines (2-1) come into this game an 18-point favorite for a reason. Nebraska is on its first six-game losing streak since 1957, as the Scott Frost era has begun with a turbulent start. For the Cornhuskers, this game is a chance to right the ship (coaches have referenced “Rocky” in the run-up to this one). For Michigan, it’s the opening of a Big Ten season filled with pressure to perform. The Daily breaks down Saturday’s matchup:

Michigan’s pass offense vs. Nebraska’s defense

If Nebraska is going to win, it seems like two things need to go right. One of those requires the Cornhuskers’ defensive line taking advantage of Michigan’s inconsistent pass protection. Nebraska has 10 sacks in two games this season, the second-highest per-game total of any team in the country. Though the Cornhuskers have plenty of questions, their front seven will pose a test for a unit that hasn’t been tested since the debacle at Notre Dame. If Nebraska can get junior quarterback Shea Patterson and co. into obvious passing downs, there’s reason to believe they’ll have some success.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Patterson has opened the season as well as any Michigan quarterback in quite some time, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 589 yards and six touchdowns. Patterson said this week he has “never been this comfortable in a system.” All of a sudden, external pleas have come to unleash the offense — to open up Patterson’s skillset and allow more than the present 22 pass attempts per game.

Nebraska isn’t SMU or Western Michigan; this is a legitimate test to see whether strides have been made in the passing game since Sep. 1, or whether the recent run of success has been a mirage.

Advantage: Michigan

Michigan’s run offense vs. Nebraska’s defense

Michigan could have Brett Favre in his prime at quarterback and it wouldn’t run a full-on air raid attack. While the passing game has been the talk of the town, the Wolverines — who run the same percentage of running plays as they do passing plays — will continue to rely on balance.

This week, that comes with the caveat of health. Junior running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are both recovering from injuries. Both have practiced this week. When asked whether they would play Saturday, Jay Harbaugh responded “that’s what we expect.” Against a formidable Big Ten foe, at a position of relatively scant depth, that’s an important development, if it holds true.

Nebraska has allowed a respectable 278 yards on the ground in two weeks. But Troy and Colorado didn’t possess the duo that Higdon and Evans can become when healthy.

Advantage: Michigan

Nebraska’s pass offense vs. Michigan’s defense

It looks like Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez will play, as he was upgraded from “questionable” to “probable” on Thursday. 

It may seem inconsequential to some whether the true freshman Martinez starts or if the nod goes to walk-on sophomore Andrew Bunch. 

But in an offense that relies heavily on its quarterback’s skillset, Martinez has the tools to be special. In his start this year against Colorado, he posted 187 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-20 pass attempts, in addition to 15 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He was the offense. And when he left the game with a leg injury, the Cornhuskers held a 28-27 lead. He left, they lost, then lost against the next week to Troy with Martinez watching on.

Martinez will give Michigan a test in discipline similar to the one it faced against Brandon Wimbush in the opener. Wimbush kept the Wolverines’ defense honest with the threat of quarterback runs and ability to escape the pocket. On the run, Wimbush was able to effectively find his open receivers early in the game, enough to put up 21 points in the blink of an eye.

Martinez may not have the weapons around him nor the experience to do that on this stage. But he has the skill.

Still, if Michigan’s defense can avoid the over-aggression that plagued it early against Notre Dame, you have to like its chances against a true freshman quarterback in a new system at Michigan Stadium. 

(An aside: Martinez is going to be a problem in the Big Ten for the next few years. He’s brimming with talent, and he’s in the right place at the right time.)

Advantage: Michigan

Nebraska’s run offense vs. Michigan’s defense

Some of this is covered in the section above, but Nebraska’s run attack is multi-pronged. There are lots of moving parts, motioning, options and more. Martinez orchestrates it all — he will probably end the game with the most carries, too — but he’s certainly not alone in the backfield.

After being ejected for targeting in the third quarter last week, junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson will have to sit for the first half. Defending Martinez and all those moving parts will be where Michigan misses Hudson most. In all likelihood, senior Jordan Glasgow will slot into the VIPER spot in Hudson’s absence.

There are three Cornhuskers with at least 20 carries on the year. Greg Bell and Maurice Washington both average over 5.5 yards per carry. Devine Ozigbo, who’s been less effective early this season, will also figure into the equation.

This is an offense predicated on space and decision-making. The space they have been able to find, offering promising glimpes of what the Scott Frost offense could become in the years to come. The deicision-making has lagged behind, and it has led to some expected mistakes this season. The Cornhuskers have averaged two more turnovers per game than their opponents this season, which is tied for 126th of 129, nationally. For now, the mistakes are going to be enough to hold this offense back; the roster depth is also not up to nearly where it needs to be in the aftermath of the Mike Riley era.

All that being said, this is almost certainly not the caliber of offense Michigan will see when it plays Frost and Nebraska down the line. For now, Michigan’s (generally) stout run defense holds the advantage.

Advantage: Michigan

Special Teams

Michigan’s special teams remain a surprising team strength. Sophomore kick returner Ambry Thomas is still a threat to take any kickoff to the endzone. Junior punter Will Hart ranks sixth in the nation in yards per punt, averaging 50.1 yards per punt. 

Both kickers are certifiably iffy in this one. Quinn Nordin has made two of his three field goal attempts this season, Nebraska kicker Barret Pickering has made just two of four, none over 40 yards.

Frankly, if this game comes down to special teams, things have gone astray for Michigan.

Advantage: Michigan

Intangibles

How about this for an intangible: Many Michigan fans are convinced Scott Frost robbed them of an undisputed national championship in 1997. His Nebraska team was ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind Michigan. Both teams won their bowl games — the Cornhuskers did so a bit more convincingly against Peyton Manning’s Tennessee team. After the game, Frost (a quarterback for Nebraska at the time) suddenly turned into a politician.

“You know, if all the pollsters honestly think, after watching the Rose Bowl and watching the Orange Bowl, that Michigan could beat Nebraska, go ahead and vote Michigan, by all means,” he said. “Let me say this. Let me say this. But I don’t think there’s anybody out there that with a clear conscience can say that Nebraska and especially that (coach) Tom Osborne, that great man, doesn’t deserve a national championship for this. At least a share.”

And so, a share it was. Michigan topped the AP Poll, Nebraska claimed the coaches poll. And forever, Frost lives in Michigan infamy.

But the history with Frost and Michigan didn’t end there. In 2016, he told reporters he was proud that his team had “outhit” the Wolverines — this coming after a 51-14 drubbing. He’s thrown subtle jabs at Harbaugh’s antics. Nebraska’s prodigal son, Frost has even been crowned the next Harbaugh.

Come gametime, it all might mean nothing (for what it’s worth, chatter this weak has remained cordial). But let’s just say if it’s not close, don’t expect Michigan to ease off the pedal until the clock hits 0:00.

Edge: Nebraska, I guess?

Prediction: This is one of those games that probably shouldn’t be close, but just might be anyway. Nebraska comes in with nothing to lose and everything to gain. For Michigan, it’s vice versa. Those games are inherently dangerous.

But it just seems highly unlikely a 0-2 team starting a freshman quarterback with iffy health wins this game on the road. 

Michigan 34, Nebraska 17