mid 40s, cloudy, 10% chance of rain, moderate wind
Why have one mascot when you can have two on a tandem bike? OH NO DAVE BRANDON HAD AN IDEA
Run Offense vs. Nebraska
Lavonte David likes the letter X
One week after Michigan turned in a poor outing against an Iowa run defense currently struggling to get its nose above average (thus causing all Michigan fans to PANIC about the previously-taken-for-granted running game), they kicked off the Illinois game by marching 80 yards in four plays against a top ten defense. By the end of the game they'd put up the best numbers anyone had against the Illini:
How did this happen? Michigan went from a 50-50 split between the shotgun and under center to nearly 80-20. In the UFR yesterday I calculated a gap of almost 2 YPC between the two, with shotgun averaging 5.8 YPC and under center 3.9. The numbers above disagree slightly: remove the under center runs and you get a smoooooooth 6.0 YPC.
If it wasn't blindingly obvious before—no. It was blindingly obvious before and is now even more blindingly obvious. Michigan has two run games. They are Oregon from the shotgun and Akron from under center.
As for the opponent, you'd think a team that practices against Taylor Martinez and has an undersized lightning bolt of a weakside linebacker would have disproportionately good performances against mobile quarterbacks, but that is not the case:
Head coach Bo Pelini's defenses have thrived against pocket passers. Against dual-threat quarterbacks, the results aren't nearly as good. In both of Nebraska's losses this season, a run-pass threat at quarterback did much of the damage. So facing the most electric dual-threat player that college football has seen since Michael Vick (i.e. Denard Robinson) presents an enormous challenge.
Survey says: yeah, but it's not quite the blowout you'd think from the above. In seven games against BCS opponents Nebraska's faced two pro-style statues, two passing-oriented scrambly types, two out-and-out dual threats, and a crazy melange from Northwestern. Results ordered by total yards above or below season average:
*[YPA based on Miller's production, not Bauserman going 1 of 10. Using Bauserstats is ridiculous.]
Yards are a noisy stat but the overall picture painted is a team that has difficulty defending the pass when they are stretched or busy defending the run. Mobile quarterbacks have had mixed success when actually probing on the ground. Miller averaged 9.1 yards a carry; Persa and Colter combined for 4.2; MarQueis Gray had just 3.9.
The run games that seem to work best are the sort that pound between the tackles. OSU still does this with aplomb. Wisconsin is Wisconsin. Washington has the tough interior running of Chris Polk, and MSU is MSU. Penn State may not have done so hot but they are Penn State and the thing that leaps out from that chart above is how Nebraska is so not Illinois.
They weren't even when they had Jared Crick; now that he's laid up with an injury their defensive tackle rotation is like Michigan's… with less quality at the top and depth. This is from the immediate aftermath of Penn State:
The defensive line is beat up too. Of course All-American Jared Crick is out for the season and Thaddeus Randle has missed the last couple of games.
[Chase] Rome, who missed the game against Northwestern with a groin injury, was able to play enough to give Terrence Moore and Baker Steinkuhler a break every now and then.
“We don’t have a lot of depth right now,” Rome said. “At least I can contribute and give the other guys some rest when they needed it. I thought it was a good system with how it worked out, especially with it being my first time out since being injured.”
Moore and Steinkuhler aren't Crick, or anything approximating him. They've combined for just four TFLs. Will Heininger's managed that by himself.
The bulk of the tackling and playmaking comes from WLB lightning bolt Lavonte David—think Brandin Hawthorne except really good—and MLB Will Compton. There will be gaps in the line; getting hats on second level dudes will make the difference between a pretty good and a very good day.
Key Matchup: Michigan versus the dirty pictures the I-Form has of them. This is actually another matchup where it seems possible Michigan will have some success lining up and running straight at the Huskers, what with their undersized LBs and dodgy DT situation. That worked out to the tune of 3.6 yards per Fitz carry against Iowa. Don't take the cheese.
Pass Offense vs. Nebraska
Alfonzo Dennard and some guy who is not good
Michigan took one look at this matchup in the swirling winds of Memorial Stadium and decided to pass on passing, a decision that worked out just fine. They're not likely to do the same against a less intimidating Cornhusker defense. Nebraska enters the game 86th in sacks and 29th in pass efficiency defense. While the latter number isn't far off that put up by the Illini, the former is a huge step back from Whitney Mercilus and the blitz-mad Vic Koening. When Michigan drops to pass this will be closer to Iowa than Illinois.
Nebraska's YPA ceded can be found above; the place it seems Nebraska struggles is when they have to defend with an extra guy because the quarterback is a threat or they are playing Wisconsin. (Russell Wilson's four carries had little to do with the gameplan, but Wisconsin is Wisconsin.) Play action appears to be the death knell, what with 81-yard Kain-Colter-to-Jeremy-Ebert touchdowns popping up in box scores. I mean, holy terrible safety play, Batman.
This makes the lack of the damn I-Form even more imperative since Nebraska's weaknesses multiply like badgers once you force a safety into the box or make them defend both run and pass. They never want to do this. FFFF:
You know how Iowa does the whole cover 2 zone thing constantly? Nebraska is their cover 2 man counterpart, pretty much doing the same thing on every play and relying on their defensive talent to make plays. Unfortunately, the Huskers lost their All-American DT, Jared Crick, and now only have three healthy scholarship players on the interior of their D-line. Their corners are very good in coverage, but the safeties looked very susceptible to deep throws over the middle, especially off play-action, and the line just can't generate any pass rush.
Dollars to donuts this is because the Huskers have one asskicking cornerback and not much else in the secondary. Alphonzo Dennard has 20 tackles this year… and five PBUs. That is the statistical profile of a totally awesome cornerback. Michigan is going to avoid him like everyone else. This should hurt them less than most teams because they have a deep stable of eh receivers with no particular standout. I guess Hemingway might be less likely to catch a deep one, which, like… when is the last time that happened?
Husker safeties Damion Stafford and Austin Cassidy have racked up a lot of tackles but those big flashy YPA marks above are their doing. Stafford is a big hitter fresh out of JUCO; Cassidy appears to be a former walk-on who emerged as a starter halfway through last year. Last year's Michigan offense would be good for some Worst Waldo plays against this pair—finding some in this year's offense is up to Borges.
There's only one guy Michigan has to watch for in pass protection: end Cameron Meredith. He's got five sacks. No other Husker has more than two.
Key Matchup: Denard (and possible lingering hand issues) versus the usual array of WTF throws and decisions. He's been better in the Big Ten season and should have time to survey. I think he'll be okay as long as the hand is.
Run Defense vs. Nebraska
Sometimes Nebraska uses the wildcat… but when?
Illinois brought a rep for using a lot of option. They left having deployed it once, and not well:
Nebraska will not do the same thing. After the disastrous Callahan years they have restored sanity to college football by reverting to an option-based system featuring a terrifyingly fast quarterback who throws like a duck. Yea, and all was right in the world again.
Nebraska's option is of the spread, modern variety but it's still option. They do all the spread 'n' shred stuff you've seen Michigan run the last few years but their blocking is more heavily focused on POWER than Rodriguez; unlike Michigan their POWER is actually fairly POWERFUL instead of AMY GRANT HIT WITH A TRANQUILIZER DART. They'll run triple option. They'll run the inverted veer and use the back to the outside a a pitch guy. They'll run in your face with POWER from the pistol. They have a diverse and scary run offense that is totally going to option off some of Michigan's baby-faced youth on the edges.
Probably, anyway. Despite all the blingy option plays, Taylor Martinez's season has taken a decidedly Denard-like path:
He hasn't rushed for more than 60 yards since the Ohio State game and his yards per carry has dropped to 3.85 from 6.68 YPC in September. Nebraska fans will take that trade. Martinez is learning how to throw. He won't forget how to run. The threat of his speed is enough on its own.
Michigan fans will be violently split on that trade, because they are violently split on all things. If Martinez averages 3.85 YPC on Michigan I thi nk Michigan wins, though. That's because Martinez is a relative home-run hitter. Tailback Rex Burkhead is a gritty tough son of a gun Eckstein, a cerebral bellcow who really takes to coaching and finds his way on the field through his smarts and subtle racism. [ed: This was unclear. Just making a joke about how white RBs are described, not implying that Burkhead is a racist. Fun with ambiguity! Not fun.]
Burkhead is a grinder. His long against real competition this year is 22 yards and he specializes in pounding out 100 yards on 25 carries with a YPC under 5: 121 on 25 carries against PSU, 69(!) on 22 against Northwestern, 130 on 35 against MSU, 119 on 26 against OSU, 96 on 18 against Wisconsin. He managed to edge over 5 YPC against Minnesota and Wisconsin; the former was Minnesota and the latter was a blowout. It's hard to see Nebraska getting anything past Michigan's safeties given the trends in both seasons.
Speaking of those safeties: I expect Michigan to go with a lot of man and three-deep that allows Kovacs to shoot up into the box where he can be the tiny space linebacker that made him a three-time Heisman winner in an alternate universe where open-field tackling is the most coveted thing in a football player. It's either that or hoping Michigan's cornerbacks can be tough on the edge. Not betting on that. The over/under on Kovacs tackles is set at 8.5.
Key Matchup: Youth on the edge funneling to Kovacs. This did not so much happen against Northwestern. It did against Illinois—once. Nebraska will be a stiff, confusing test for the freshmen in the lineup.
Pass Defense vs. Nebraska
throws like a duck; catches like a duck
One look at Taylor Martinez flapping the ball out to his receivers and you think "Nick Sheridan with legs," and for big hunks of his career that has been true. Unfortunately those hunks have not come recently:
Since [Wisconsin], Martinez is 77-for-122 passing (64.2%) for 865 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a passer rating of 142.18 which, if it was his season total, would place him third in the Big Ten ahead of Michigan State's Kirk Cousins. That's not factoring in drops, which have become a growing problem of late.
WR Kenny Bell said there were "at least four" in the Penn State game. The Minnesota game had at least three that I can remember in the third quarter alone. No matter, the trend is clear. Martinez, as a passer, is playing as good as he's ever played.
There are games with Minnesota and Northwestern in there. As someone who's seen his team's erratic quarterbacks play Minnesota and Northwestern and emerge averaging 10.6 YPA with five TDs and three INTs… eh… maybe it's best not to consider Minnesota and Northwestern. Survey says:
Given the opponents, Martinez is actually backsliding a bit when it comes to YPA. But the thing that jumps off the page is the lack of interceptions. Michigan's had more multi-INT quarters than Martinez has had games.
The key here will be responding to paly action. Martinez has gotten significantly over 20 attempts in two games. In one he was bad, in the other he was playing Northwestern. In all other games Nebraska makes up for the lack of skill at QB by going mostly with play action. (Yes, it is frustrating to watch Nebraska roll the pocket on an option fake and then drop back without getting their QB killed.) Putting Nebraska in situations where they can't effectively do that will end drives. Doing that will probably require defending it when they can.
There's no point focusing on any one Nebraska receiver. They're immensely diverse. Seven players have at least thirteen catches on the year; all save Burkhead have a YPA over ten. Kenny Bell is nominally the top WR with 23 catches for 306 yards. This seems like a situation where having seven receivers means you have none: as mentioned above, drops have been a big problem for the 'Huskers. Michigan may get bailed out a couple times.
I'd expect something similar to the first four games above: few attempts, decent success with those attempts. If Martinez starts pushing into the 30s it will be bad news for UNL.
Key Matchup: Demens and Morgan versus play action drops. The bulk of Nebraska's damage comes in big gaping holes between the linebackers and safeties. I don't think this will go well, but it only has to go well enough.
Massive Nebraska advantage. The Cornhuskers are great on kickoff returns—freshman Ameer Abdullah has a touchdown and a few other impressive returns this year—decent on punts, good at punting, and have hit 16 of 19 field goals this year. FEI's introduced special teams rankings; they're fifth. Michigan is 80th.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
Folks on the edge against the option aren't actually there.
Michigan lines up under center.
Martinez is slinging darts.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Nebraska gets stuck in an obvious passing down. Michigan's okie package gets pressure without providing tons of scrambling lanes when it sends four.
Molk and company can pound the shaky interior of the Nebraska DL.
Kovacs appears to have cloned himself.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for Is This The Best Team They've Played? Seriously, +1 for Option Paranoia After Northwestern Game, –1 for But Mattison Heals All, –1 for Their QB Throws Like A Duck, +1 for Our QB Throwing Like A Duck Would be An Improvement, –1 for Boy We Figured Out What To Do Last Game, +1 for Maybe, –1 for Run Defense Weakness In Opponent At Home.)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for NYD Lockdown, +1 for I Like Nine And Half Wins And I Cannot Lie, –1 for It's Pretty Much About Next Week, –1 for Keeping The Possibility Of A Sparty No Open Is A Silver Lining To A Loss, +1 for ALAMO REVENGE, +1 for 1997 JUSTICE.)
Loss will cause me to... place way too much importance on beating a 6-5 team next weekend.
Win will cause me to... place way too much importance on beating a 6-5 team next weekend.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Oh, hell. I just know the defense is going to have a comedown. I just… I look at the opposing offense and think "okay, they'll get some yards but are they going to bust anything long?" I've been predicting this will happen in the option game all week but now that I've look at the numbers, they just don't have it. Burkhead tops out at 20 yards and Martinez hasn't had anything, really, since the Ohio State game.
And if Nebraska isn't busting it long, if they're grinding it down the field, how long can they manage that before Michigan's third and short defense rises up and boots them off the field?
On the other side of the ball, as long as Borges makes the obvious conclusion from last week—shotgun forever—Michigan will move the ball. They'll even get some opportunities downfield when the safeties freak out on play action, which they'll have to if Nebraska is intent on running man in a nickel package against Michigan. If they do that it's like crediting Michigan for running the bubble when they don't, and then you could see some fireworks.
This looks like a win, but two things worry. Turnovers, obviously, and then what figures to be a massive hidden yards advantage for the Cornhuskers. It's really easy to see this game show up in "Life on the Margins" after Michigan outgains Nebraska by 150 yards and still loses.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Michigan finally hits a Worst Waldo play.
Burkhead averages 4.0 YPC on a zillion carries.
Denard has a day that mildly surprises to the positive.
Not sure what to think about this game. I like our offense getting some running yards on these guys but the option attack they have worries the shit out of me. I hope Jake can lay some wood on TMart when he gets outside.
Super pumped for this game...hmm what to drink during the game????
I'll be surprised if we're playing a 6-5 team. PSU has an awful historical record in Columbus. I believe the most points they've ever scored there is 14 - and that was when they had an intact coaching staff and weren't making national headlines for the wrong reasons. I expect OSU to bounce back and turn in an impressive performance.
One thing that's gotten totally lost in the considerable shuffle of the BigTen season this year is that we're going into the week before Thanksgiving eyeing up someone besides the damn Buckeyes. Just seems kinda weird, although I doubt it's that big of a deal other than with the players' families and, well, Coach Carr, who made it his mission to get the kids home to eat turkey each year.
Personally, I'm sure it won't be all that different next week, and it'll probably even get me out of hanging Christmas lights over the garage... but in year's past we'd be biting our nails this week in anticipation of The Game.
Imagine what you'd think ten years ago if someone were to come up and say that we'd push back The Ohio State Game beyond Thanksgiving and be playing Nebraska in a key division showdown to prevent Sparty's bid to the conference championship in Indianapolis.
...to one with none, I explain it like this - remember how we all used to hate Rasheed Wallace until he became a Piston? Yeah, it's kind of like that. (Not that I'm rooting for you to get your own bug-eyed inflatable pan-dimensional being as a mascot, as we'd like to keep that market cornered for ourselves.)
Maybe, but the hatred for Willy the Wolverine has lingered for 25 years. I'm guessing that a cross-species, great plains version of Brokeback Mtn. wouldn't play too well in M Stadium. Not looking to be mean here. Enjoy the game tomorrow.
Praise be unto the Mattison. May his swag reign for a hundred seasons.
If they are that thin on D, we need to run the hurry up more
than we have previously. We need some RR-religion on upping those offensive snaps this game to wear them down. It would nice if I thought we could simply grind them down with the running game, just not quite there yet.
Half right. The "not good" guy (Dejon Gomes) isn't on the team any more because he got drafted by the Redskins. Not that currently sitting the bench for the Redskins does anything to prove one's Not-Goodness. However, this:
"Dollars to donuts this is because the Huskers have one asskicking cornerback and not much else in the secondary."
That's 100% dead on. Dennard is a beast and everyone else is some combination of young and meh. Couple this with our suddenly understaffed D-line, and the linebackers are our defensive strength by default, which did not look to be the case entering the season. Result: a much poorer and more inconsistent defense than we posted last year.
Very good write-up, Brian - the previews always sound pretty good when I read them, so I was interested to read the one about a team I actually know well.
there are approximately only 1500 players on nfl rosters. Using an average of 20 seniors/year on approximately 120 Division 1 football teams, there are about 3400 people eligible for the draft every year. Factor in that on nfl rosters you have guys who are rookies up to guys who are 10-12 vets, so if you're good enough to make an nfl roster you probably weren't half bad in college.
I'm going to be real interested in seeing how much red is in the stands tomorrow. Nebraska travels VERY well and this being their first visit to Ann Arbor in forever plus the Big Ten race being on the line bodes for a lot of Cornhusker fans looking for tickets.
I was there two years ago when OSU turned the Big House into Columbus North for the day. I am really hoping that our fans tell Nebraska faithful to enjoy Ashley's fine beer selection and their nice big screen TVs and don't sell off their tickets to them.
Section three - row 28 will be representing Blue tomorrow. That much I can promise you.
Ugh that was a terrible game despite it being the closest OSU/UM game in the past 4 years. Without Molk, our offense was terribly futile and by the 3rd quarter everyone in the stadium started chanting the "O-H-I-O" thing and by that point I was so fed up that I just left. Terrible terrible day.