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Breaking down the key matchups for Nebraska-Michigan

September 22, 2018

Nebraska rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Michigan’s run defense has always had a risk/reward style that running quarterbacks can occasionally exploit. The Wolverines load the line of scrimmage and come from a variety of directions with many stunts. Its front — anchored by Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich — is especially good this season, and Nebraska’s run offense is transitioning to a spread attack. UCF dropped 275 rushing yards when it went to Michigan in 2016, so NU can do it. Adrian Martinez’s presence would help immensely, and Nebraska’s offensive line has to be on point. A big play or two from Maurice Washington or Greg Bell would help, and perhaps the Huskers bust out a new play or ballcarrier that Michigan hasn’t really seen on film.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Martinez and Andrew Bunch are in the beginning stages of learning Scott Frost’s passing offense, and Michigan’s pass defense is as good as any in college football. UM was top-five nationally the last three seasons in yards allowed per game and opponent completion percentage thanks to a fierce pass rush and smart coverage scheme that creates small windows. The scheme works. Nebraska’s quarterbacks are young. The Huskers’ best chance is for receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman to beat man coverage when they see it, or for Nebraska to sneak a few big throws to its tight ends. UM doesn’t traditionally intercept a lot of passes, but whichever quarterback starts has to be smart with the ball.

Michigan rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Jim Harbaugh has resisted the urge to transform his pro-style, pound-the-rock offense into something more dynamic. His hidebound desire to run the ball down NU’s throat will play into the Huskers’ hands. Nebraska knows how to stop the run, and Erik Chinander’s scheme clogs up the middle of the field and forces runs to the edge. Michigan’s backs — Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and Tru Wilson — are sturdy but not burners. Watch how much Michigan involves Shea Patterson in the run game. He’s not exactly a dual-threat quarterback, but he has enough mobility to keep a defense honest. Plus, Nebraska gave up a 57-yard quarterback run last week.

Michigan pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Michigan has only thrown 24 passes per game, but it makes them count, completing 70.8 percent. Patterson throws a pretty, accurate ball, and his receiving corps — led by wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end Zach Gentry — is among the most talented in the Big Ten. Can UM’s so-so offensive line protect Patterson better than it did against Notre Dame? That’s a big question. If Nebraska’s front seven gets home on the pass rush, UM’s matchups with NU’s secondary may be moot. But the Wolverines like to run to set up the pass, which can slow down a blitz.

Special teams

Nebraska has had two terrible weeks on special teams, and Troy’s 58-yard punt return touchdown was arguably the difference in the Trojans’ win. Michigan’s Ambry Thomas already has a kickoff return touchdown this season, and punter Will Hart is averaging 50.13 yards per punt. NU will have to prove its worth in the third phase before it gets the edge again.

Intangibles

The Big House, at least in the last two trips Nebraska made there, isn’t the loudest Big Ten venue, but it’s an intimidating stage with few places to hide when things don’t go well. Neither Martinez nor Bunch have played in a road game like this, and although the noon kickoff locally might cool off the crowd, it doesn’t give NU the upper-hand. It’s a relatively young team on the road for the first time in a hostile venue. Good luck.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s offensive line vs. Michigan’s front seven

Nebraska has to get a run game going to have a chance, and the offensive line better have some punch and pep. Moving Michigan’s talented front seven is job one. The better the Huskers do that, the more they can control the ball and keep Michigan’s slow-paced offense off the field.

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