Breakdown: Run games the key for both teams

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The Michigan defense ranks fifth in the nation, allowing under 16 points per game. Buy this photo

By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 18, 2011

The stakes are high coming into the Michigan football team’s matchup with Nebraska. With Michigan State likely to run win the Legends Division and the Big Ten likely to get only one team into a BCS bowl game, Saturday’s game appears to be an Outback Bowl play-in game. Few games have higher implications.

Michigan pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The most interesting thing in the pass game may be that Denard could throw an interception to Dennard. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson leads the Wolverines through the air, while Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is a leader in the Cornhuskers’ secondary. After an injury kept Dennard out early, he’s fully recovered, breaking up five passes in the last three games.

Robinson’s throwing seems to have declined in recent weeks as he’s completing less than 50 percent his passes in the past two weeks. The Nebraska pass defense has remained steady throughout the season, coming in at 21st in the nation.

Edge: Nebraska

Michigan rush offense vs. Nebraska rush offense

Simply put: Fitzgerald Toussaint is running past some fools. After Toussaint had a bit of a letdown against Iowa, rushing for only 58 yards, he exploded for a career high 192 yards against Illinois. Toussaint has found his groove and, despite injuries, the offensive line has as well. After spending most of the season looking for a power running game, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has finally found it and he couldn’t be happier.

The Cornhuskers run defense has been average all season, giving up less than the 100 yards on the ground, only once against FCS Chattanooga. Lately they’ve been hampered by a season-ending pectoral injury to standout defensive lineman Jared Crick. With Toussaint breaking out and giving Robinson more space, he could be due for a big game against Nebraska.

Edge: Michigan

Nebraska pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez combines with Robinson to create a quarterback matchup between a duo of second-half of the duo of former national phenomenons who can’t throw the ball well. Only, Martinez got chewed out by his coach and almost quit the team. This year, he’s not exactly back in the doghouse, but he’s not exactly back in Nebraska coach Bo Pelini’s good graces either.

With just average numbers passing (58 percent completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions) Martinez has arguably been a bigger rushing threat than he is through the air as he will come close to 1,000 yard mark on the ground for the second straight season.

While stopping Nebraska’s ground game may be a little harder, they appear suited to withstand the passing attack. Redshirt junior J.T. Floyd had his coming out party last week, largely shutting down Illinois wide receiver and the Big Ten’s leading receiver A.J. Jenkins. He capped the performance with an interception that lead to a touchdown that sealed the game.

With Floyd’s help, the Wolverines defense held the Fighting Illini to 177 yards pass, and pushed the unit’s pass defense into the top-20 in the country.

Edge: Michigan

Nebraska rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

With Toussaint’s emergence at running back, the two teams appear to be mirror images of each other. Nebraska has its own lead back in Rex Burkhead who has already eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season. Toussaint doesn’t have 1,000 yards in his career. Burkhead provides the physical aspect at 210 pounds to contrast Martinez’s more flashy style.

Stopping Burkhead will largely come from penetration up front, not allowing Burkhead to get momentum going. The defensive line put in its best performance of the season last week against Illinois. The Wolverines had seven tackles for loss against the Fighting Illini. And Illinois had just 37 yards on 33 carries, largely due to their minus-14 rushing yards in the first half.

But Burkhead and the Nebraska rushing attack is a different animal, one that’s second in the Big Ten. It will be the biggest test the Wolverines face this year and one they’ll have trouble passing.

Edge: Nebraska

Special teams

Brett Maher does double-duty for the Cornhuskers. His only missed field goals have come from over 50 yards. He’s averaged 45.4 yards punting. Both marks upstage Michigan’s specialists. Redshirt sophomore Brendan Gibbons has missed just two field goals last season, but both have come from inside 50 yards. Sophomore punter Will Hagerup has struggled this season, averaging just 35.8 yards a punt.

In the return game, redshirt sophomore Jeremy Gallon showed flashes of brilliance last week, just missing breaking a punt return for a touchdown on multiple occasions. But it didn’t happen, so Nebraska is the only team with a kick or punt return touchdown in the game.

Edge: Nebraska

Intangibles

The Cornhuskers are playing their first game in Michigan Stadium as a member of the Big Ten. Before the game Michigan is honoring the military and Lloyd Carr. Both teams are likely out of the conference title picture unless Michigan State chokes royally. The Outback Bowl is in sight. None of the above are particularly motivating.

Edge: Push

Final Score: Nebraska 27, Michigan 21.