Breakdown: Big Ten's best offense will meet best defense in 'championship week'

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 25, 2012

By now, it’s been repeated ad nauseum: this week is a “championship week.” Just like last week was. And just like next week will be. And the next one.

The media probably thinks Michigan coach Brady Hoke says it just to annoy them, joked fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer on Monday.

But here’s the thing: this week, for a change, is about as close to a championship game as it gets in the 2012 Big Ten. Save, of course, the actual Championship Game.

But even then, the survivor of a deep, if not elite, Legends division will play the winner of the anemic Leaders Division. That’s applying a very liberal definition of the word “winner.” The two most impressive teams in the conference so far — excluding bowl-ineligible Ohio State and Penn State — have been No. 20 Michigan (3-0 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) and Nebraska (2-1, 5-2). And it’s not even that close.

Nebraska boasts the highest-scoring offense in the conference, leading Indiana by a touchdown. Michigan trails Penn State and Michigan State by one point-per game defensively, yet that number is inflated significantly by the Alabama blowout. The Wolverines haven’t surrendered more than 13 points since the second week of the season.

Yes, something must give between an inconsistent Michigan offense and a porous Nebraska defense. But more than anything, Saturday’s game is a clash between a potent, run-first offense and a dominant, still-improving, defense.

It’s best in the conference against best in the conference. Saturday will determine which best is better.

Michigan pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Here’s the fickle beast that is the Michigan air attack. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson’s most explosive option is actually the backup quarterback. His most promising is a freshman tight end fighting wary defenses. And his most clutch calls himself “the white receiver.”

If none of this makes sense, that’s OK. The Michigan pass offense really doesn’t make much sense. Robinson has thrown nine interceptions in the first half through seven games. He hasn’t thrown any in the second half.

Lately, the Wolverines have been careful with the ball. They’ve also been extremely conservative, to the point of constriction.

With Nebraska, they’ll have a decision to make. The secondary is the strength of the Cornhuskers’ defense. A pedestrian defensive line has generated 21 sacks — led by defensive end Eric Martin’s 5.5 sacks — thanks in part to great coverage. The defense allows the third-least passing yards in the Big Ten. Michigan has the third-lowest offensive total in the Big Ten. That’s not good for a Michigan team that is trending toward the conservative as it is.

Yet if Nebraska scores as much as expected, the Wolverines will need to pass to win. They’d rather not do that.

Edge: Nebraska

Michigan rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

This is where Michigan will earn its keep. The Cornhuskers just aren’t terribly imposing up front on defense.

Nebraska gives the Wolverines a good chance to get redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint going, though it seems that way every week. Last year, Toussaint had 138 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan’s 45-17 rout of Nebraska. Still, look for a healthier-than-normal-dose of read-option and Robinson keepers. The fact that the secondary plays primarily man coverage should only help Robinson scrambles.

Linebacker Will Compton leads the defense with 53 tackles, but Compton is not a high-level, NFL-type talent. If Michigan can’t dominate here, that’s a bad sign.

Edge: Michigan

Nebraska pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Taylor Martinez has improved rather drastically as a passer. He completes more than 66 percent of his passes and averages 212 yards per game through the air with 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions.

Like Michigan, Nebraska won’t try to win with its passing game, but its air attack is effective. Receiver Kenny Bell is the biggest threat, with 20 receptions for 463 yards and four touchdowns.

The Michigan secondary weathered its first test against Michigan State last week, though Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell did overthrow a few deep opportunities. And sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor left the game with an injury. Hoke’s injury updates usually don’t mean much, but he did say Taylor should be ready against Nebraska, for what it’s worth. The next option is likely junior cornerback Courtney Avery, who has been a solid option at nickel back but has struggled in limited opportunities on the edge.

Edge: Push

Nebraska rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

This, in a sense, is the game. Can Michigan’s front seven stop Nebraska’s power on the ground?

Nebraska and Michigan feature similar rushing attacks. Both use mobile quarterbacks (Martinez has 338 yards and five touchdowns on the ground) and plenty of read options and jet sweeps. Nebraska runs more two-back and unbalanced sets and also favors the speed and triple options.

This is not a traditional power running game, especially with brawny running back Rex Burkhead questionable with an injury. Instead, Nebraska will go with Ameer Abdullah, a speedy replacement who has gained 514 yards and seven touchdowns this year.

This matchup could be problematic for the Wolverines, who have dominated more conventional rushing attacks but struggled against Air Force’s trickery.

Still, the Michigan defense has improved at an alarming pace, and took Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell out of the game last week. Don’t bet against it.

Edge: Michigan

Special teams

Brunette girls and the like have dominated discussion about Michigan’s special teams, and deservedly so. The Wolverines won last week without a touchdown, thanks to a clutch kick by redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons and a 48-yard field goal by sophomore Matt Wile.

Together, they’ve silenced concerns that Michigan’s kicking game was inconsistent or couldn’t be trusted from far out. Aside from these two, junior Will Hagerup’s punting has been mostly strong, freshman Dennis Norfleet is an explosive option at kick return, and redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon still calls fair catch too often on punts. Then there’s the whole matter of Robinson possibly returning kicks, but Hoke has had too much fun being coy about this to consider it a real possibility.

Nebraska has surrendered a kick and punt return touchdowns this year. Abdullah, also a dangerous return man, has a punt-return touchdown of his own. He’s also a dangerous kick returner.

Place kicker Brett Maher is 8-for-13 this year, and four of those misses have come from outside of 40 yards. He also booted a 54-yarder earlier this season. Maher also punts.

After last week’s performance, the nod has to go to Michigan here.

Edge: Michigan


Sea of Red. Night game. Freezing temperatures.

The Cornhusker’s have got the intagibles.

Edge: Nebraska

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 24, Nebraska 20