Michigan Honing In On Stopping Nebraska's Triple Option, QB Run Game
Second-year Michigan quarterback Dan Villari sits third string on the depth chart and has taken just 16 snaps this season, all when the Wolverines have had games wrapped up. But he has a big role this week — even if the general public won't get to see him in the game at Nebraska Saturday night — emulating Nebraska junior signal-caller Adrian Martinez in practice as part of the scout team.
It's a more important job than usual, because of how unique Martinez and the Nebraska offense are. The Huskers have used 48 option run plays on the season (the sixth-most in the sport) — including zone reads and triple option — according to Sports Info Solutions, for 382 yards (eight yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
"He’s a good runner," sophomore safety Daxton Hill said of Villari. "He can run and pitch the ball. He’s a good comparison [to Martinez].
"It’s really important that the scout does exactly what the offense is going to do, because that’s obviously what we’re going to see."
The Huskers use Martinez's mobility to their advantage, getting him out on the edge and stressing a defense. Redshirt freshman cornerback DJ Turner said the most important thing is "just getting the quarterback to the ground," stating the obvious, but the Wolverines know that accomplishing that is much more complicated.
"Making sure I have good leverage and good eyes, because you never know where the ball could be," Hill said when asked what the keys are to stopping Martinez and the Huskers' attack. "He could pitch it. It may seem like he can’t pitch it, then he pitches it. Or he could take off, as well.
"This quarterback can definitely run. He may be the best quarterback we’ve played so far, too, so we want to make sure we have good eyes, good leverage and are holding our assignments."
"Rush lanes, that’s a big emphasis," said second-year freshman outside linebacker Jaylen Harrell. "Also just doing your job, reading your keys, not getting too greedy. If you’ve got the quarterback, take the quarterback. Just be a sound, disciplined defense."
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald would agree that studying the Huskers' attack on film and repping it in practice is much different, and much easier, than seeing the real thing on display in the game.
"They ran a split flow option play that they'd shown that we had practiced, but they ran it a little bit differently," Fitzgerald said Saturday after his team lost in Lincoln, 56-7. "We've got to get that corrected as coaches, and that's on us."
Not counting sacks, Martinez has rushed for 518 yards on 63 attempts (8.2 yards per carry) with nine touchdowns, according to PFF. He's dangerous on called passing plays, too, when nothing is there down the field. Martinez has tucked it and ran 21 times for 341 yards and two scores.
In addition, Martinez has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,463 yards and six scores with two interceptions, showing he's clearly more than just a runner.
Communication will be key for the Maize and Blue, as well. They went up against Rutgers senior signal-caller Noah Vedral, who ran quarterback draws and read options, two weeks back. The Scarlet Knights found success with their option runs, churning out 196 rushing yards against a Michigan defense that was playing without redshirt junior linebacker and captain Josh Ross for the majority of the contest.
With Ross out, communication suffered, but there were lessons to take away from the game and matching up with Vedral. And with Ross returning for a road tilt at Wisconsin last week — where the defense doesn't face as much crowd noice — the Wolverines were much better in that area, preparing them for yet another away test against a Husker team that is hitting its stride.
"We were able to communicate," Hill said of the 38-17 win in Madison. "Even though it was an away game, we didn’t get shook or anything. We made sure we played our A game and really just focused on ourselves. The crowd’s going to be against us, and as you can tell, we used it as an advantage for us. I think it played out well."
The Wolverines and Huskers will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday night in Lincoln.
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