When the Michigan football team began watching film of Nebraska’s offense earlier this week, one thing in particular caught its eye.
“They do the triple option, that’s the one thing we really don’t see as much,” junior safety Dax Hill said on Tuesday. “That’s one thing we’re kinda paying more attention to.”
Nebraska’s offense, like Michigan’s, is predicated on running the football; the Cornhuskers rank second in the Big Ten with 237.5 rushing yards per game and notched a whopping 427 yards on the ground in last week’s game against Northwestern. But, as Hill alluded to, they do so in a more complex fashion, executing zone reads and the fabled triple option.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska’s dual-threat quarterback, is the engine behind the unorthodox rushing machine. He leads the team with 412 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
“One cut and go, he can take it 90 yards to the house,” sophomore edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said of Martinez on Tuesday. “We just have to be disciplined in our assignments and everything. The key is to just lock in and do our job, do our piece of the 11 and we’ll just be fine.”
The triple option saddles the Wolverines’ defenders with an additional burden. They will have to keep their head on a swivel come Saturday, ready to defend multiple options on a single rush. Hill stressed the importance of having “good eyes” and “good leverage” during their downfield assignments.
“He can pitch it, it may seem like he can’t pitch it and then he pitches it and he can take off as well,” Hill said of Martinez. “He can definitely run. He may be the best quarterback we’ve seen so far this season.”
Michigan is certainly cognizant of the threat that Martinez poses. It remains to be seen what schemes defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald deploys in an effort to limit his productivity. He may opt to wield fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross as a quarterback spy, ensuring Martinez doesn’t stray too far beyond the line of scrimmage. Or, he could delegate a shared responsibility amongst the defensive ends to contain him and the secondary to make open field tackles when called upon.
“On defense, it’s about running, getting 11 hats to the ball and tackling well,” linebackers coach George Helow said. “When you get some of those plays, you’ve got to tackle well on the perimeter. So it’s not only how you finish tackling, it’s the entry angles that you can take to the ball.”
Added junior cornerback D.J. Turner: “That’s the main thing, getting the quarterback to the ground.”
To grow more familiar with that style of play, sophomore quarterback Dan Villari has spent the week emulating Martinez on the scout team, using his patented mobility.
And, although the triple option is unique, the Wolverines have faced an option-style offense already this season. Two weeks ago, Rutgers and quarterback Noah Vedral gave the Michigan defense fits on the ground with pitches and outside runs. But 152 of the Scarlet Knights’ 196 rushing yards came in the second half, as fifth-year middle linebacker Josh Ross watched from the sideline with an injury.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh referred to Nebraska’s attack as “that and then some” in comparison to Rutgers.
“They’re playing their best football,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a big, big challenge.”