This past week, the No. 20 Michigan football team’s defense has been presented with a very unusual challenge while preparing to compete against No. 17 Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers (5-1 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) rank second in the Big Ten in total scoring — but it’s the way in which they score that makes them so unique.
“I think this one will pose a real challenge to our defense because they’re like three offenses in one,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Nebraska features a dual-threat quarterback in sophomore Taylor Martinez, a power running back in senior Rex Burkhead, and an offensive playbook full of nooks and crannies the Wolverines have never seen before.
“They will run the power, they’ll run the lead play, they’ll run the toss, toss-(isolation), and then they’ll get into some of the option read stuff,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Put those all together, and that adds up to a stiff task for Mattison and the Michigan defense come Saturday.
“They’re a power attack,” Mattison said. “(Burkhead) is a really good downhill runner. They go from that to being able to be an option attack with (Martinez). It makes the defense have to be sound in all phases.”
Possibly the most difficult task for the Wolverines (4-2, 8-2) will be stopping the option — Michigan’s ability to contain the outside has been an area of concern, though it has improved over the last several games.
Mattison noted that the focus on gap integrity and containing the edge heading into Saturday will be “huge.”
“Whenever you have an option team, responsibility and doing your job is critical,” he said. “You have to be really disciplined playing a game like this.”
While the Wolverines have improved in defending the outside, the Cornhuskers have improved running the option, too — Martinez said they spend a set period of time every day to solely practice the play.
Burkhead said Martinez has been “tremendous” at running the option and has continued to improve throughout the season. Martinez credited his improvement to experience.
“Every time we do an option, I get better and better at it,” Martinez said. “Every game I’ll keep getting better.”
But Michigan can’t get too caught up in focusing on defending against the option. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck seems to always have something new up his sleeve.
“He’s like the witch doctor,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini of Beck. “You don’t know what he’s going to do.”
On top of running several different offensive schemes, Beck likes to keep a very up-tempo offense, often trying to catch the opposing defense off guard.
“That’s a concern,” Mattison said. “Any time a team tempos you, you have to find out how mature your defense is. You have to be a very disciplined defense, and you have to be a tough-minded defense to know that you’re going to get the call at the spur of the moment.”
But the Wolverines have the personnel to successfully combat Nebraska’s up-tempo offense. Seniors Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin mentioned this week that they’ve become comfortable calling audibles at the line when they deem fit, and Mattison has full confidence in them to do so.
“You can’t load up and play the power because you may be getting optioned,” Mattison said. “You can’t go in there with an idea of being a finesse or assignment totally or you’re going to get the power run right at you. This is going to be a big test.”
It’s a test that Martin and Van Bergen say they’re ready for — the two senior leaders have already had success in calling plays at the line this year. Against Illinois last week, Van Bergen called an audible at the line that resulted in a sack for the 288-pound defensive end.
Michigan also features one of the best run defenses in the Big Ten. The Wolverines enter Saturday’s contest ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 15.5 points per game, and first in red zone defense, stopping opponents from scoring two-thirds of the time.
And recently, Van Bergen went so far as to say that Michigan has the best defensive line not only in the Big Ten, but also in the country.
When asked about Van Bergen’s comment, Hoke was straightforward.
“We have two games left to see that, right?” he said.
“I know one thing — if you’re gonna talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”