By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Consider Saturday’s matchup between Nebraska and Michigan an elimination game. With both teams sporting a 4-2 record in conference play, the loser will be two games behind Michigan State (5-1) in the Legends Division. Considering the Spartans’ schedule (Indiana and Northwestern), a loss in the final two games seems unlikely.
This will be the first meeting between these two teams since 2005 and the first as Big Ten foes. Michigan owns a slight 3-2-1 edge in the series, but Nebraska won the last meeting, 32-28 in the Alamo Bowl.
Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten has had its share of ups and downs. The Cornhuskers soundly defeated Michigan State 24-3, but lost to Northwestern 28-25 one week later. Nebraska dealt Penn State’s Big Ten title hopes a significant blow with last week’s 17-14 victory in Happy Valley.
Michigan is 2-2 in its last four games, with losses against Michigan State and Iowa. However, this team has made significant progress under first-year coach Brady Hoke, and if the Wolverines can win out, earning an at-large spot in one of the BCS bowls is within reach.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Quarterback Denard Robinson has been dealing with bumps and bruises most of the year, including a wrist injury last week against Illinois. The junior may be less than 100 percent, but is expected to play on Saturday
Robinson is not having the monster statistical season he had in 2010, as he adapts to coordinator Al Borges’ offense. The junior is completing only 52.4 percent of his throws and has tossed 13 picks this season.
Thanks to the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, Robinson hasn’t been forced to carry the offense this year. Toussaint has emerged as Michigan's No. 1 back over the last few weeks, rushing for 170 yards against Purdue, 58 against Iowa and 192 against Illinois.
Getting the rushing game on track is going to be important to Michigan’s chances at victory. Nebraska’s front four has been dealing some key injuries, including the loss of All-American tackle Jared Crick in early October. The Cornhuskers rank 66th nationally against the run, allowing 161.3 yards per game. One of the key cogs in Nebraska’s rush defense is linebacker Lavonte David. The senior has been a tackling machine with 97 stops this season.
Although Nebraska has been tough against the run at times this season, Michigan’s best opportunity to win this game is to keep pounding away up front. Nebraska’s secondary has been stingy against the pass all year, ranking 21st nationally. Opposing quarterbacks are completing only 53.1 percent of their throws against the Cornhuskers.
When Robinson throws, expect Junior Hemingway to be his No. 1 target. Hemingway leads Michigan with 27 receptions and 520 receiving yards. There’s not a ton of depth in the receiving corps, especially considering Roy Roundtree has been quiet most of this season.
Expect Nebraska to load up in the box and force Robinson to throw. Also, the Cornhuskers have to keep Robinson contained in the pocket and not allow him to make plays with his legs. Dual-threat quarterbacks have provided headaches for the Nebraska defense, so this won’t be an easy matchup.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of the nation’s most dynamic players with the ball in his hand. The sophomore is averaging five yards a carry and has rushed for 768 yards and nine scores. Martinez still needs a lot of work as a passer, but has thrown only one interception in his last four games.
While Martinez is a dangerous playmaker, the Nebraska offense goes through running back Rex Burkhead. The junior has compiled 1,072 yards and 14 scores through 10 games.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison have brought dramatic improvement to the defense this season. The Wolverines were downright awful last season, ranking last in the Big Ten in pass, scoring and total defense. However, Michigan ranks seventh in the nation in scoring defense and is allowing only 322.2 yards a game.
The Wolverines are allowing 130.9 rushing yards per game, which will be tested by Nebraska’s offense. The one-two punch of Martinez and Burkhead will be a handful for Michigan to stop.
Similar to Nebraska’s defensive gameplan, expect the Wolverines to gang up on stopping the run and force Martinez to beat them through the air. The Cornhuskers’ no-huddle offense can take on a toll on the defense in the second half, which will be something to watch in this game.
When Martinez throws, he will have an assortment of talented, but young receiving options. Kenny Bell leads the team with 23 receptions for 307 yards, while Jamal Turner is averaging 16.2 yards per reception.
In a close game like what is expected on Saturday, winning the turnover battle is going to be critical. The Wolverines rank second in the Big Ten with 20 forced turnovers, while the Cornhuskers have turned it over 14 times.
Give Nebraska the edge in this department.
Kicker Brett Maher has been nearly automatic this season, connecting on 16 of 19 attempts. Maher also serves as the punter, averaging 45.4 yards per kick.
Ameer Abdullah is one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous return men, averaging 31 yards per kick return and 8.2 yards on 12 punt returns.
Field goals were an adventure at Michigan last season, but Brendan Gibbons has connected on 8 of 11 attempts this year.
Martavious Odoms is Michigan’s top kick returner, averaging 22.5 yards per return. Jeremy Gallon is averaging 11 yards per punt return this season.
This matchup is one of the toughest games to predict in Week 12. Both teams are even and almost a mirror image of each other.
Although it seems to be a longshot Nebraska or Michigan will end up with the Legends Division title, there’s still a chance to qualify for a spot in one of the BCS bowls.
With two nearly identical offenses, it could come down to which tandem performs better: Michigan’s Robinson and Toussaint or Nebraska’s Martinez and Burkead.
Expect a low-scoring game, but the Cornhuskers should find a way to pull out a close win in Ann Arbor.
Nebraska 24, Michigan 20