The battle to win the Big Ten Legends Division is still one of the most clouded races in college football. However, there could be some clarity after this weekend’s games. Michigan is the Legends Division’s only unbeaten team in conference play so far, recording wins over Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State. Nebraska and Iowa are tied for second with a 2-1 mark, while Northwestern checks in fourth at 2-2.
With Michigan State off to a 1-3 start, the Wolverines and Cornhuskers appear to be the class of the division. And the winner of Saturday’s game should take a huge step forward in claiming the division title. Michigan has a very manageable schedule the rest of the season, as it should be favored to win every game except the season finale against Ohio State. Nebraska’s schedule features a few more landmines, especially with a road trip to Michigan State and a home game against Penn State.
These two teams have met seven times, with Michigan owning a slight 4-2-1 edge over the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s only win since 1962 came in the 2005 Alamo Bowl. This last year’s matchup will only be the second between these two teams as Big Ten foes.
Storylines to watch in Michigan vs. Nebraska
Will Rex Burkhead play?
High expectations surrounded Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead coming into this season, but the senior suffered a knee injury against Southern Miss and has been limited to 47 rushing attempts in 2012. Burkhead aggravated his knee injury in last week’s win at Northwestern and is questionable to play against Michigan. With Burkhead likely out or less than 100 percent, the Cornhuskers will turn to a talented trio of young running backs in Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross to pickup the slack. Abdullah led the team with 101 yards against the Wildcats last week and is expected to start this Saturday. Heard and Cross should see an increased role, especially as both bring more size and punch to the rushing attack. As usual, quarterback Taylor Martinez will figure into the ground game, and he rushed for 65 yards on 18 attempts last week. Even though Burkhead will be missed, Nebraska should be able to run the ball against Michigan’s defense. The Wolverines rank 49th nationally against the run but held Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell under 70 yards last Saturday. After struggling to stop Alabama and Air Force, Michigan has tightened its rush defense, but Nebraska will be a huge test for this unit.
Containing Denard Robinson
In last season’s matchup, Robinson accounted for 263 overall yards and four touchdowns. Nebraska can’t afford to let Robinson have his way again this season, and there’s a lot of pressure on coach Bo Pelini and coordinator John Papuchis to find the right answers this week, especially after the defense has allowed 11 rushing touchdowns in the last three games. Nebraska’s defense managed to hold Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to just 35 rushing yards last week and a similar effort is needed against Robinson if the Cornhuskers want to knock off the Wolverines.
Winning the turnover battle
Holding onto the ball has been a big problem for both teams this season. Michigan is ninth in the Big Ten in turnover margin and has lost 14 turnovers. Nebraska is last in the conference, losing 18 turnovers in 2012. Most of the Wolverines’ turnover problems came in the non-conference portion of their schedule, while the Cornhuskers have forced only two fumbles in Big Ten play. Turnovers are always a key part of any game but with both teams struggling in this department, generating points on a short field would be a huge advantage on Saturday night.
Can Michigan establish its ground game against Nebraska’s rush defense?
Take out Denard Robinson’s 900 yards and Michigan is a very average rushing offense. Fitzgerald Toussaint has just 283 yards and four touchdowns on 81 attempts, with Thomas Rawls ranked third on the team with 174 yards. Robinson will have opportunities to make plays with his legs against the Cornhuskers, but the Wolverines also need Toussaint or Rawls to step up. Nebraska’s rush defense ranks 90th nationally and has allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of the last two games. Michigan’s offensive line has improved significantly from the season opener, which is a bad sign for the Cornhuskers’ struggling front seven. The Wolverines won’t need 100 yards from Toussaint, but this offense needs to take some of the pressure off of Robinson’s shoulders.
Taylor Martinez vs. Michigan’s secondary
Statistically, the Wolverines have been very good against the pass this year. Michigan ranks fourth nationally in pass defense and has allowed only four passing scores. However, this secondary has not faced a legitimate passing attack since the season opener against Alabama. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez struggled in last season’s meeting between these two teams but is a much-improved passer. The junior has thrown for 15 touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception at home this season. Considering the progress Martinez has made this season, he should easily outperform last season’s abysmal showing in Ann Arbor. Nebraska also has one of the deepest groups of receivers in the Big Ten, which should allow Martinez and coordinator Tim Beck opportunities to see if Michigan’s secondary is as good as the stats indicate.
This matchup is relatively even, but a slight edge goes to Michigan. Taylor Martinez and his receivers will test the Wolverines’ secondary, but Nebraska’s defense will struggle to stop Denard Robinson. Expect Michigan’s defense to make one play late in the game that seals the victory for the Wolverines.
Final Prediction: Michigan 31-27
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