This Saturday, the No. 2 Michigan football team is heading on the road for the first time this season, taking on Nebraska.
Coming off of a four game homestand in which they outscored their opponents 127-23, the Wolverines have looked strong so far and seem to be rolling. Junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy leads the country in completion percentage, senior running back Blake Corum has punched in eight touchdowns and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is back.
But even with dominoes falling into place for the Wolverines, the 2-2 Cornhuskers still present a unique challenge that is certain to be a test. Luckily for you, however, The Michigan Daily is here to provide a cheat sheet and break down what to watch for this Saturday as Michigan heads out to Lincoln.
Does Michigan stick to the run game?
Last Saturday, as his son Jim took the podium following the Wolverines’ victory over Rutgers, Jack Harbaugh yelled out “grinding meat!” in reference to Michigan’s play style.
And Jack’s comments rang true. As the Wolverines returned to Big Ten play, so did their four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of play. Michigan ran the ball nearly twice as many times as it threw, and it did so efficiently. But that’s certain to be a whole lot harder to do against Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers embrace the challenge of “grinding meat” style playcalling and through four games are the top run defense in the country. Having allowed the fewest rushing yards in the country (185) and the fewest yards per carry (1.83), Nebraska relishes grinding rushes into the dirt and forcing inefficient plays.
“(They’re) big and strong up front,” Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said Wednesday. “Experienced guys that have played a lot of football. … They’re really really stout against the run.”
This is likely to be the biggest test yet for Michigan running backs Corum and junior Donovan Edwards. Through four games, the duo has been on and off, struggling with efficiency at points. They’ve been picking up steam recently, but how the duo fares against Nebraska will be telling.
But also, whether the Wolverines even see the need to stick to the run game is up in the air. With McCarthy, there’s no need to play into Nebraska’s hand, so expect Michigan’s pass and run play calling to be more equal than it has been the past two weeks.
Can Michigan stop Heinrich Haarberg on the ground?
Last weekend against Louisiana Tech, Cornhuskers quarterback Heinrich Haarberg accomplished a somewhat strange feat for a quarterback — he rushed for 157 yards while throwing for just 107.
And that wasn’t an anomaly.
Thus far this season, serving just two games as Nebraska’s starter, Haarberg has passed for 278 yards while rushing for 272. Nebraska coach Matt Rhule hasn’t confirmed that Haarberg will remain the starter, but if he is, you can be certain that he will be the cornerstone of both the rushing and passing attack for the Cornhuskers.
So far, the Wolverines have handled mobile quarterbacks well. Last weekend against the Scarlet Knights, quarterback Gavin Wimsatt was mostly neutralized in the run game. But Haarberg presents a unique challenge. He passes and runs in nearly equal proportion and has explosive speed. How Michigan responds to the threat that he poses will define their defensive performance.
Are there any first road game jitters?
Two years ago, in a night game in Lincoln, the Wolverines had their first real scare of the 2021 season.
In front of a sellout crowd and with a light show glaring, Michigan narrowly bested the Cornhuskers. And to this day, the Wolverines remember the atmosphere well.
“It was electric,” graduate defensive back Mike Sainristil said Tuesday. “The student section was pretty much filled when we got there like straight off the bus. They were loud the entire time. … And it’s just one of those environments that you go into like ‘Man, I’ve never seen this before.’ ”
This year’s contest isn’t a night game, but the Memorial Stadium atmosphere is still certain to be intense — especially for the freshmen who have never experienced a road game before.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know what to expect,” freshman wide receiver Semaj Morgan said. “But my teammates and coaches said it’s really loud over there.”
All week, Michigan has practiced with music and pumped in crowd noise intended to train the offense for the atmosphere. But even with a lineup of veterans and simulated noise, whether a hostile environment rattles the Wolverines is certainly something to watch for.
All in all, Michigan rightfully comes into this weekend’s contest as a heavy favorite. Nebraska hasn’t beaten the Wolverines since 2013, and sitting at 2-2 — that doesn’t appear likely to change.
But regardless, they play a uniquely Big Ten style of football. How Michigan responds to the Cornhuskers grinding run defense and hostile road environment, and whether it can neutralize Haarberg will determine whether they keep their win streak alive, or Nebraska claims its biggest victory in years.