Game of the Week: Michigan hosts Nebraska with bowl grade at stake
Michigan and Nebraska trail Michigan State, but could be BCS at-large teams
Game between evenly matched squads will likely come down to turnovers
Michigan must slow Nebraska's run game; Nebraska must contain QB Robinson
Michigan State holds a one-game lead in the Big Ten Legends Division and has the inside track to the Big Ten championship game. Michigan and Nebraska, the two teams chasing the Spartans, hook up on Saturday, with the winner keeping the heat on MSU. No. 17 Nebraska owns the head-to-head tie-breaker over Michigan State, while No. 20 Michigan would need two Spartans losses and two wins of its own to win the Legends.
There should be plenty of drama as Nebraska makes its first visit to Michigan Stadium since 1962 and the Wolverines try to continue their impressive turnaround under first-year coach Brady Hoke. Both teams boast similar styles, statistics and play-making quarterbacks who are prone to game-changing mistakes. Bowl destinations, at the very least, will be on the line as Nebraska plays its final road game in its initial Big Ten tour.
1. Can Michigan's improved defense stuff the Nebraska running attack? Michigan's defense has improved considerably since last season, going from 108th in the nation in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) to seventh (16.1). New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison became emotional discussing his unit in the aftermath of Michigan's 31-14 win over Illinois last week, understanding that his players went through plenty of ridicule just 12 months ago. This week, Michigan faces a difficult rushing attack led by Rex Burkhead and quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose progress running option plays has been noticeable. Nebraska has rushed for 28 touchdowns this season, including two against a stingy Penn State defense last week. Michigan allowed an average of 172 yards rushing in its only two losses this year (Michigan State, Iowa). If Michigan can stuff the Huskers' rushing attack, it will win the game.
2. Tying up Shoelace: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini knows the stress Denard 'Shoelace' Robinson can put on a defense, and the Michigan quarterback with track speed will be the focus for Pelini's defense. The two teams to beat Nebraska this season -- Wisconsin and Northwestern -- both feature dual-threat quarterbacks who made big plays against the Huskers. In addition to Robinson, however, Michigan has an emerging threat in running back Fitz Toussaint. The sophomore has averaged 21 carries and 140 yards the last three weeks, which is more than double his workload early in the season. The presence of Toussaint and backup quarterback Devin Gardner, who sometimes plays with Robinson in the backfield, lessens the load of the injury-prone Robinson. With shutdown corner Alfonzo Dennard anchoring the pass defense, Nebraska should be able to limit Michigan's passing game. Its overall success, however, will be based on preventing big plays on the ground.
3. The Big Red bounce-back factor: Nebraska's mental toughness will certainly be tested this week. Last week's game against Penn State ended a draining week as the Jerry Sandusky scandal continued to unfold. Pelini said after the game he didn't think it should have been played, showing just how much soul-searching he went through leading up to Nebraska's 17-14 win. Add to that a second straight road game, a second straight 100,000-seat stadium, a second straight physical opponent and a growing list of nagging injuries, and the Huskers will certainly have an opportunity to live up to their coach's evaluation of them this week. "I've said it and believe that our team has a lot of character and want-to. I give them a lot of credit."
Michigan enters the game as a three-point favorite. Michigan is 5-1 against the spread at home this season after a disastrous three-year home record in Big Ten play of 1-10-1 ATS. Nebraska is 3-6-1 this season. Under Pelini, the Huskers are 6-3 as underdogs and 15-7-1 away from home.
Michigan has scored a touchdown on just two of its last 18 plays inside their opponents' five-yard line.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Earlier this season, he evaluated Nebraska's Jared Crick and Alfonzo Dennard.
DE-OLB Craig Roh, Michigan: Roh is a natural pass-rusher who consistently makes plays in the opponent's backfield. He's built more like a basketball power forward and possesses the athleticism to line up at multiple positions. The junior has an unpolished game yet offers a tremendous amount of potential. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska: His 6-foot-1, 223-pound frame does not meet the eyeball test when thinking of NFL linebackers, but David's play tells a different story. The senior is a fearless defender who throws his body around the field to stop opponents. He also plays a smart brand of football and effectively defends the run and pass. Chasing down Robinson on Saturday will be a new adventure for David yet also an opportunity to show NFL scouts another dimension to his game. Grade: Third-round prospect.
DT Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines have recently placed defensive tackles into the NFL who failed to live up to expectations (Gabe Watson and Alan Branch). Martin is ready to stop this trend. The senior is ultra-competitive and plays hard through the whistle. Though not the greatest athlete, Martin gets the most from his talents and would be a terrific addition for a conventional defense in the NFL. Grade: Third-round prospect.
T Marcel Jones, Nebraska: Jones looked dominant early in his career and had NFL scouts salivating before he was slowed with a back injury in 2010. He's on the mend this season and the reviews have been positive. Jones is a sleeper of sorts possessing the size, skill and athleticism to start in the NFL if he stays healthy and continues to improve. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
With two teams this similar, turnovers will likely decide the game. Robinson has turned the ball over six times in the last three games, but on the season Michigan stands 51st nationally in turnover margin and Nebraska 52nd, which is in line with many other statistics between the evenly matched teams. The homefield advantage, plus the banged-up nature of the Huskers, gives Michigan a slight edge, but don't be surprised if this one heads to overtime. MICHIGAN 23, NEBRASKA 20