November 24, 2014

101 years seems long enough, Huskers set to host Michigan

Making their first trip to Lincoln in more than a century, the 20th-ranked Michigan Wolverines come calling on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a pivotal Big Ten Conference matchup this Saturday night.

Michigan brings a three-game win streak into the contest, all against conference opponents, and its most recent victory was certainly its most harrowing as it topped rival Michigan State at home last Saturday in a 12-10 final. With the win, UM became the first school in NCAA history to amass 900 victories (900-312-36). The Wolverines are in a good position to reach the Big Ten Championship Game as their toughest games remaining are this week at Nebraska, and at Ohio State in the regular-season finale.

The Cornhuskers have won four of their last five games to reach the same 5-2 mark as Michigan, and they are coming off a 29-28 come-from-behind victory at Northwestern. Nebraska was manhandled at Ohio State two weeks earlier, saddling the team with its lone conference loss of the campaign. In addition to this encounter with the Wolverines, the Huskers must still play Michigan State and Penn State before closing out the regular season with winnable games against Minnesota and Iowa.

Michigan leads the all-time series with Nebraska, 4-2-1, and the Wolverines won last year’s clash in Ann Arbor, 45-17.

Brendan Gibbons booted three of the team’s four field goals, including the game-winner with less than 10 seconds left in regulation to push the Wolverines to their narrow win over Michigan State last Saturday night. QB Denard Robinson accounted for 259 yards of total offense, rushing for 96 and throwing for another 163, and Drew Dileo finished with four catches for 92 yards.

For the fifth consecutive game, the Michigan defense held its opponent to 13 points or less, the Spartans finishing with just 304 total yards. LB Desmond Morgan led the UM stand with a career-high 11 tackles, while Jake Ryan tallied 10 tackles, which included a sack and he forced a fumble as well.

Michigan is averaging just shy of 31 ppg this year while allowing a mere 16.4 ppg. With Robinson serving as both the team’s leading rusher (900 yards, six TDs) and passer (.535, 1,264 yards, nine TDs, nine interceptions), the Wolverines have a bona fide dual threat that opposing defenses must account for on every play. Fitz Toussaint is the next closest rusher with 283 yards and four scores, and Jeremy Gallon is the club’s leading receiver, although he has just 16 grabs for 309 yards and a TD. Devin Funchess has taken three of his 11 catches in for scores.

The Wolverines are permitting a scant 285.3 total ypg, with their effort against the run (143.0 ypg, six TDs) and pass (142.3 ypg, four TDs) being equally effective. The defensive unit has been credited with only nine sacks and 11 turnovers. Ryan continues to pace the Maize and Blue with his 52 tackles, which also include team-highs in both TFL (8.5) and sacks (3.5).

While last week’s win wasn’t pretty, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke knows that sometimes you’re going to have a game like that, particularly in the ultra- competitive Big Ten.

“I thought our guys did a tremendous job fighting as a football team. I think that in every facet of the game we kept punching away and executing pretty well. We did some things poorly, some things that we need to do a lot better job of, but our kids stuck together as a team.”

The Cornhuskers rallied from another double-digit deficit last Saturday to win at Northwestern by just a single point. Led by QB Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska offense hit its stride late in totaling 543 yards, compared to just 301 for the Wildcats. Three lost fumbles hurt the Huskers, as did eight penalties and just 3-of-14 success on third-down conversion attempts. Martinez went 27-of-39 for 342 yards and three TDs, hitting Quincy Enunwa six times for 110 yards, while Kenny Bell finished with six receptions for 77 yards and a score. RB Ameer Abdullah gained 101 yards on 19 carries, and Martinez added 65 yards and a TD on 18 totes.

The Nebraska defense, which allowed just 301 total yards to the Wildcats, got eight tackles each from safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford, but the Huskers did not force a turnover and only made three stops behind the line of scrimmage. CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste was credited with five PBU.

For the most part this season, Martinez has performed well as the junior signal-caller is completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 212.2 ypg with 12 TDs and only four interceptions. He is also counted on heavily in the run game, currently sitting third on the squad with 338 yards and five scores. Abdullah is first with 514 yards and seven TDs. As for the receivers, Bell has 20 grabs for 463 yards and four TDs. As a team, the Huskers are lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 43.7 ppg, behind more than 507 ypg, 292 of which come on the ground.

Turnovers have hurt Nebraska this year, as 10 lost fumbles and five picks have cut short too many drives, and set up the opposition with good field position a lot of the time. RB Rex Burkhead is listed as questionable for this clash with a knee injury.

On the other side of the ball, NU allows 27.7 ppg with the enemy churning out 367 ypg (189.2 ypg rushing, 177.8 ypg passing). Will Compton is still the Cornhuskers’ top tackler with his 53 stops, and his three sacks are second behind Eric Martin’s 5.5. As a team, Nebraska has 21 sacks, but only nine takeaways.

Martinez knows that cutting down on the turnovers is crucial for this team moving forward.

“[We need to] just not turn over the ball. We’re killing ourselves. We’re the ones that are stopping ourselves and if we don’t stop ourselves, no one in the country can beat us.”