Michigan and Nebraska are two of college football’s winningest programs and are set to meet on Saturday for the Big Ten opener for both teams. While the records and overall place in the 2018 college football season hierarchy are different for both programs, there is one big similarity. Both Nebraska and Michigan are led by former quarterbacks hoping to turn their alma mater into a national power once again. This matchup won’t answer every question facing these two programs, but a 1-0 start in Big Ten play would be a positive step forward.
Nebraska is off to an 0-2 start under new coach Scott Frost, but there’s no reason for panic in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers’ opener against Akron was canceled due to weather and they lost in a 33-28 thriller versus Colorado in Week 2. Nebraska fell victim to an upset-minded Troy team in Week 3, losing 24-19 in Lincoln. Frost’s team has showed improvement in some areas, but an injury to quarterback Adrian Martinez hindered the offense late against Colorado and again versus Troy with the true freshman sidelined. Also, Nebraska has a minus-four turnover margin through two contests.
Michigan opened the 2018 season looking to get back on track after a rebuilding year last fall. The Wolverines slipped to 8-5 and ended the season on a down note with a loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. However, offseason hopes of improvement on offense fizzled in the opener against Notre Dame, as Michigan fell 24-17 in South Bend. While the Wolverines are still figuring out the right mix on offense, there have been signs of progress over the last two weeks. Michigan pounded Western Michigan 49-3 in Week 2 and defeated SMU 45-20 last Saturday.
The all-time series between Nebraska and Michigan is tied at 4-4-1. These two teams have played three times in Big Ten conference action, with the Cornhuskers owning a 2-1 edge in those contests.
Nebraska at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at Noon ET
TV Channel: FOX Sports 1
Spread: Michigan -17
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
How Saturday’s matchup plays out is going to hinge heavily on this position for both teams.
Nebraska starter Adrian Martinez is still recovering from the knee injury suffered against Colorado in Week 2 and could be a game-time decision for this week’s game at Michigan. Prior to the injury against Colorado, Martinez flashed the dual-threat talent Frost wants out of his quarterback. The true freshman completed 15 of 20 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown and added 117 yards and two scores on the ground. If Martinez can’t go, Andrew Bunch will get the nod. In last week’s loss to Troy, Bunch completed 19 of 27 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for five yards on 10 carries. However, Bunch also tossed two interceptions.
After just three games this year, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has nearly equaled the touchdown total from Wolverine signal-callers in 2017. Last season, Michigan quarterbacks combined for just nine touchdowns. Through three contests, Patterson is completing 70.8 percent of his passes for 589 yards and six touchdowns. The junior seems to be getting more comfortable in Harbaugh’s offense with each snap and has only two interceptions through his first 65 attempts. Michigan’s offensive line remains a concern, but if Patterson has time, he’s capable of hitting all of the throws in this offense. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the junior is developing a nice rapport with Donovan Peoples-Jones (14 catches) at receiver.
The biggest mystery surrounding this game is the status of Martinez. Will the true freshman start on Saturday? And if he does, how much will Martinez run after dealing with the knee injury for two weeks? On the other sideline, Patterson has been making strides over the last couple of contests. Will the junior take another big step forward in Week 4 versus the Cornhuskers?
2. Nebraska’s Defensive Line Against Michigan’s Offensive Line
As mentioned in the previous section, Michigan’s offensive line remains the biggest concern for Harbaugh. This unit struggled in the opener against Notre Dame, and the jury is out on whether or not this group can consistently protect Patterson and open up holes in the ground game against some of the Big Ten’s better defenses. However, Saturday’s matchup against Nebraska should be a good litmus test for this unit.
Nebraska’s defensive front has been active under new coordinator Erik Chinander. After managing 44 tackles for a loss in 12 contests in 2017, the Cornhuskers have racked up 19 tackles for a loss through two games in ’18. Linebackers Luke Gifford (five) and Tyrin Ferguson (three) lead the way in tackles for a loss, while Gifford and Freedom Akinmoladun are tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks.
Regardless of Martinez’s status, Nebraska is going to need a big performance from its defense. The Cornhuskers have to create some havoc around the line of scrimmage, put pressure on Patterson and force a couple of takeaways to hand short fields to the offense.
How far has Michigan’s offensive line progressed? We should find out Saturday against Nebraska’s active front.
3. Ground Game
Scott Frost and Jim Harbaugh are former quarterbacks, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the offensive gameplan is geared heavy on the pass. Instead, both teams want to establish the run and win the battle up front. Nebraska leads the Big Ten by averaging 51 rush attempts, while Michigan averages 36 carries a game (compared to 24 passes).
The outlook for the Wolverines’ ground attack is not only clouded by the up-and-down play in the trenches so far, but the running back stable is dealing with injuries to Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. Higdon leads the team with 228 yards and two touchdowns but did not play against SMU last week. Evans rushed for 85 yards on 18 carries against the Mustangs but left due to injury. Tru Wilson and O’Maury Samuels are penciled in as the top options behind Evans and Higdon if needed. However, all signs point to both players being able to go on Saturday. Assuming Evans and Higdon are at full strength, they will face a good test against Nebraska’s front. The Cornhuskers are only allowing 2.7 yards a carry and 93.5 yards a game.
On the other sideline, Nebraska’s ground attack faces a tough assignment against Michigan’s defense. The Wolverines’ front seven ranks among the best in college football, headlined by linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, along with linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson (out first half due to targeting versus SMU). Michigan’s defense is allowing just 121.7 yards a game and 3.1 yards per rush. Can Nebraska find running lanes against this front seven? Much of the Cornhuskers’ ground game will hinge on whether or not Martinez can go under center. But even if Martinez is sidelined, the one-two punch of Greg Bell (168 yards) and Maurice Washington (126) will test the Michigan front seven.
Both Michigan and Nebraska are trending in the right direction. However, one team (Michigan) is much closer to the top of the Big Ten right now. The Week 1 loss to Notre Dame was a setback for the Wolverines, but Harbaugh has this offense on track, and Patterson continues to build confidence. Michigan’s offensive line could have its issues once again, but Patterson’s mobility can alleviate some of those concerns against an active Nebraska front. The Cornhuskers are better than their 0-2 record would suggest but winning in Ann Arbor with or without Martinez is going to be a tough assignment. If Martinez plays, Nebraska is likely to keep this game much closer than our projected score. However, Michigan is better on defense and an improving offense will prove to be too much for the Cornhuskers.