Friday, October 26, 2012

Preview: Nebraska 2012

#22 Michigan vs. Nebraska
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb
Kickoff 8:00 pm EST
Forecast: Low-50s, 0% chance of rain 

Nebraska Last Week
Through 55 minutes and 50 seconds last week, Nebraska had amassed a total of 387 total yards of offense against Northwestern, but managed only 16 points, thanks in large part to two lost fumbles. In its last two full drives, Nebraska racked up 156 yards, almost all on the arm of Taylor Martinez (11/13 for 143 yards and 2 TDs). For the game, Martinez threw for 342 yards on 39 attempts (8.8 YPA) and three touchdowns. On the ground, Martinez added 65 yards on 18 carries.

Defensively, Nebraska mostly shut down Northwestern's rushing attack. Venric Mark was able to rack up 116 yards on 18 carries, but he was the only one and largely because of an 80-yard run on a blown play by the Nebraska middle linebacker Will Compton (the team's leading tackler). Northwestern's offense isn't what it has been the last few years, but holding them to only 301 yards is still an accomplishment.

Offense vs. Nebraska

Since Michigan's offensive output generally comes down to how well Denard will fare in the passing game, Nebraska presents a unique problem: the Cornhuskers rank eighth in the nation in sacks with 21 total (3.14 per game). The charge is led by senior weakside defensive end terror Eric Martin (pictured). Martin has 5.5 sacks and 8 TFLs already this season. He also has 7 QB hits, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Shutting down Martin will be critical to winning this game, so expect Devin Funchess or another tight end to line up next to Schofield all game, forcing Martin to rush against Taylor Lewan. Martin isn't the only pass rusher, though. There are four different players on the Nebraska roster with at least two sacks this year and 13 with at least a half of a sack. For a quarterback who is prone to backfoot throws when he gets pressure, this kind of pass-rush spells doom for Michigan.

Nebraska is able to generate that kind of production because they play a lot of man coverage, both in its base formation and blitz coverage (though they don't blitz much). The 80-yard touchdown run that Nebraska allowed against Northwestern was the direct result of Will Compton being pulled to the flat trying to cover running back leaking out of the backfield. If anything could be gleaned from last week's matchup, it's that Nebraska is susceptible to counters and misdirection because of their aggressive man defense.

Despite all of the man coverage, Nebraska is an impressive 18th in pass efficiency defense. Michigan's receivers are going to struggle to get off the line against the Cornhusker cornerbacks. Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste both play strong man coverage, and Michigan's wide receivers have had trouble with physical corners. Safeties Daimion Stafford and PJ Smith are also decent in coverage but are more of a factor in the run game, ranking second and third in tackles. Victimizing Nebraska's safeties and linebackers with play action is something Northwestern did often last week. Al Borges probably won't want to do this.

Those safeties have to be aggressive against the run because defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler is a wiry 6'6" 290 lbs. That's one of the reasons that Nebraska is 90th in rushing defense this year. The other reason: if you make it past the defensive line, as long as you've spread the field, there's a good chance you're not going to see another defender until the safeties come into play. Making the proper reads in the option game and getting some blockers to the second level will be crucial for Michigan to spring big plays.

The best part about playing against Nebraska this year as opposed to 2011: no Lavonte David, the team's unquestioned leader and best defensive player last year. David stopped quite a few Denard runs last year from being 80-yarders with shoestring tackles. Despite generally solid linebacker play, if Michigan can get Denard or Toussaint in space against these linebackers, that's a win for the Wolverines.

Defense vs. Nebraska

You know Taylor Martinez, but you might not know 2012 Taylor Martinez. Though he's still not an elite passer, he's been significantly better this season, completing 67% of his passes for 8.7 YPA and a 15 TD/4 INT rate. Those are some scary numbers. However, his stats are significantly worse against teams with respectable defenses (UCLA, Wisconsin, Ohio State; 49/85, 57.6%, 574 yards, 6.75 YPA, 3 TD/4 INT).

It will be interesting to see what Michigan can do against Martinez. When he has time in the pocket, Martinez can make all of the throws, but Nebraska ranks 76th in sacks allowed. The problem is, Michigan can't generate a pass rush without blitzing. Greg Mattison finding ways to confuse Martinez without giving up too much in the run game may be the most important task he has all season.

Nebraska's rushing attack is still elite, averaging 279 yards per game (good for 6th in the country). Rex Burkhead is coming back from a leg injury that kept him out of a lot of the Northwestern game. Last year, Burkhead was the hot commodity coming into Nebraska's game against Michigan, but managed only 36 yards on 10 carries. Martinez wasn't much better on the ground or through the air, but the latter of which we've already addressed.

I'm frankly not worried about Nebraska's rushing attack (famous last words, I know). I have implicit faith in Mattison's ability to scheme for and prepare his players for any offensive attack that can't simply overpower Michigan with talent (see: Alabama). Mattison knows how these spread attacks work because a) he was Urban Meyer's defensive coordinator at Florida and b) he goes against Denard Robinson in practice every week.

The key to winning this side of the ball will be the defensive line. Quinton Washington and Will Campbell are basically constants, and Craig Roh has been a good-to-great strongside defensive end. Jibreel Black and Frank Clark at the weakside defensive end will have to stay disciplined against the option and stick to whatever gameplan Mattison has designed (play the QB or the RB). If it's Black at WDE, his lack of speed may be an issue, but if Clark can step into the role, that should help nullify Nebraska speed.

If the defensive line can hold up, Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan, and Jake Ryan against running backs in space will decide how this game goes for Nebraska offensively. Though Martinez has a lot of straight-line speed and a little bit of shake to him, none of Nebraska's running backs are threatening in the open field.

How does Michigan win? Getting pressure on Taylor Martinez will be crucial. If they can force Martinez to complete closer to 50%-55% of his passes, Mattison can start loading up against the run. Jake Ryan will be responsible for a lot of this pass rush as he has been all season long. He will have to stay disciplined keeping outside leverage and make sure to wrap up in the backfield. JT Floyd and Raymon Taylor are going to have their hands full with Nebraska's taller wide receivers, which is another reason pass rush will be critical.

Offensively, Michigan needs to get Denard to the second level. Nebraska's linebackers are aggressive downhill and just watched Michigan run head first into MSU's linebackers for 60 minutes. If Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum can get to the second level and block Nebraska's linebackers, Denard will be able to pick up big chunks of yards. In the passing game, Denard and Borges need to find an effective way to attack man-to-man coverage down the field.

How does Nebraska win? Keep doing what they've been doing. If Martinez is completing 67% of his passes in this game, Michigan is sunk. The Nebraska coaching staff varies their run game as well as almost anyone in the country. Keeping Michigan's defensive line on its heels with multiple option looks will further slow down the Wolverines' already inept pass rush. They will, however, need to find a way to get big plays from non-Martinez ball carriers.

Defensively, Nebraska needs to keep generating the pass rush they've gotten all season. Though Denard has cut down his terrible, backfoot throws since the Notre Dame game, the kind of pressure Nebraska generates could see a return to that inconsistency. If the linebackers can stop Denard and Toussaint from breaking long plays, a physical secondary will be able to stop Michigan's passing game.

Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 41.031%

Final Prediction. Offensively, expect Al Borges to utilize the counter draw that Michigan has shown a few times this year and last, as well as the throwback screen, both of which will punish Nebraska's linebackers for overpursuing. Denard and Toussaint both break 30+ yard runs as Nebraska linebackers get caught out of position. However, Denard throws two interceptions, both of which are meaningful and not end-of-half heaves.

Martinez will complete more deep, downfield throws in this game than Michigan has allowed all season, but none of them go for touchdowns; they're heaves to wide receivers who can out-leap and out-muscle Michigan's corners. However, Michigan holds Nebraska to near 150 yards rushing. It's boom-or-bust for Nebraska's offense. Michigan finally gets a good kick/punt return. Nebraska rallies late but Michigan clutches to the win. Michigan 27 - Nebraska 24


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