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October 27, 2012

Match-up watch: Michigan

NU Run Offense vs. Michigan Run Defense
Same story, different week - Rex Burkhead's status is unknown with a knee injury (though he appears to be doubtful), so Ameer Abdullah will be asked to fill in, something he's done very capably this year. He surpassed 100 yards for the third time this season last week at Northwestern.

The Michigan run defense hasn't proven to be anything special so far. They rank seventh in the conference, giving up an average of 143 yards per game, though they are coming off a strong performance against Michigan State in which they held Le'Veon Bell to 68 yards on 26 carries. Jake Ryan is the man to watch in this match-up as he leads the Wolverines in tackles (52) and tackles for loss (8.5).

If Burkhead can't go, will this be the week NU tries to utilize Braylon Heard and Imani Cross more? Both backs are averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry, but have a combined 61 attempts on the season, most of which came in mop-up duty early in the year. If Burkhead is on the shelf, the Huskers will likely need a solid contribution from one of those two.


NU Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense
Taylor Martinez is coming off one of the best passing games of his career against Northwestern and it's hard to imagine any quarterback looking more poised than he did on NU's two fourth-quarter drives. While Kenny Bell continued his season-long brilliance, Quincy Enunwa asserted himself, shaking off an injury to dominate the fourth quarter, and Taariq Allen likely earned himself some more snaps with a fantastic touchdown catch on a fade route.

But that group will be facing the Big Ten's most stout passing defense, a unit that is allowing 142.3 yards per game. Opponents have completed just 56.3 percent of their passes and have four touchdowns against six interceptions. The Wolverines got to Martinez last year, forcing him into a miserable 9-for-23 passing day.

As are most quarterbacks, Martinez is at his best when he's comfortable. Michigan doesn't sport a great pass rush and has just nine sacks on the season. Despite several penalties, the Nebraska offensive line was near perfect in the fourth quarter against Northwestern. As Jeremiah Sirles said this week, keep Martinez clean and he'll come through.


Michgian Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Once again, Nebraska will try to solve what has been its bane for the past couple of seasons - the mobile quarterback. The Huskers did a great job against Kain Colter last week, but he spent less than half of that game at quarterback and isn't the athlete Denard Robinson is. Robinson is more similar to Braxton Miller, who shredded Nebraska two games ago.

How does NU counter? Secondary coach Terry Joseph referred to this as a "speed week", hinting that the Huskers may use more nickel and dime packages to keep more athleticism on the field. Nebraska players still have nightmares of Robinson running through the defense last year, so the motivation is there to shut him down.

Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has gotten off to a miserable start this year, which takes an element away from the Michigan running game. But after a strong sophomore campaign, he appears ready to break out at any time. Even if he doesn't, Robinson's big-play ability and history of success against Nebraska are major worries for NU.


Michigan Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
This is a complete boom-or-bust area for Michigan. Robinson is a player who seems to succeed most when he's throwing deep, and the statistics reflect that. Four of Michigan's top five receivers are averaging more than 16 yards per catch. Robinson is only completing 53.5 percent of his passes, but when he connects, he makes it count.

He is, however, one of the most turnover-prone players in the nation. He has thrown 35 interceptions since the start of the 2010 season, including nine this year. The problem is that NU hasn't been able to capitalize when they get their hands on wayward throws. The Huskers have dropped their share of picks this year and have only three interceptions, all of which came against overmatched Arkansas State and Idaho State.

This match-up could easily swing either way depending on whether Nebraska can take advantage of Robinson's mistakes. It hasn't proven that it will be able to, and the pass rush will likely be slowed by Michigan's strong offensive line, which has given up just five sacks all season. Keep an eye on UM wideout Devin Gardner - he has four touchdowns on just 15 receptions.


Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Unfortunately, Michigan wins this match-up almost by default. The Huskers' special teams nearly cost them the game last week, muffing two punts and committing a penalty that nullified a Northwestern turnover. The blocking on kickoffs has been "horrible" (special teams coach Ross Els' words, not mine) and will undergo changes this week. And while Brett Maher's mistakes have decreased, he still looks nothing like the player he was last year.

Neither of Michigan's return units strike much fear into the opposition, nor does punter Will Hagerup, who has twice as many touchbacks as punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Brendan Gibbons is 10 for 12 on field goals this year and hit the game-winner against Michigan State last week, but has connected on just one field goal longer than 40 yards.

While neither special teams unit is awe-inspiring, Michigan's is less likely to make a crippling mistake.


Nebraska Will Win If:

It maintains its emotions much better than it has in previous big games. The Huskers have a history of letting close games slip into blowouts (see Wisconsin and Michigan 2011 and Ohio State 2012) and needed a massive comeback earlier this year against Wisconsin because they came out of the tunnel too amped. If they can channel their emotions and focus the crowd's energy, it will give them a boost.

Michigan Will Win If:

Robinson avoids the killer turnovers, hits a couple long passes and carves up Nebraska's defense with his legs. Keep in mind - Michigan is 0-2 when Robinson throws multiple interceptions this year and 5-0 when he doesn't.


Unfortunately, it is Nebraska's inability to come through in big games. For whatever reason, the Huskers seem to struggle when the lights shine brightest, and this game could very well decide who wins the Legends Division and goes to the Big Ten title game. Until NU proves it can overcome a big-time opponent, it is hard to give them the edge.

Prediction: Michigan 34, Nebraska 30

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