The biggest game of the year. What's it going to take for Nebraska to emerge victorious against Michigan? Here are a few keys to victory.
The 2012 season comes down to this Saturday. Oh, four games will still remain, three of which could be deemed proverbial "toss-ups", and even if Nebraska wins we need to caution our optimism. The light of a B1G Championship is either extinguished by Saturday night or burns even brighter with opportunity. Nebraska can't win the West Division by beating Michigan, but they sure as hell can lose it. What's at stake in this game?
- Winner earns the tie-breaker scenario between the two teams and controls its own destiny;
- With a loss Nebraska would be three games behind Michigan with four to play;
- The Nebraska program gets a much needed jolt of momentum, perhaps even spring-boarding it to the oft discussed "next level".......IF they can successfully win out. And at this time, the "next level" for Nebraska is simply a conference championship. We can talk the "next level" as Rose Bowl Champions and National Champions at a much later date;
- A win against a big-named, ranked opponent, in a nationally televised night game with many prominent recruits in attendance.
What's it going to take to win? Here are a few keys for Nebraska to earn the victory:
- Tie up Shoelace: Denard Robinson can change the complexion of a game in an instant. He can frustrate a defense, as we saw last year in Ann Arbor, by converting crucial third downs. Make him pay for every run. Remember the "old days" when teams "felt" that they played Nebraska for damn near a week after the game, meaning the Blackshirts would hit them hard every play? Yeah, make him feel it and avoid giving up the homerun play. We've seen three elite defenses successfully bottle him up this year (Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan St.), so it is possible.
- One Dimensional: Somehow, someway, the Blackshirts need to make Michigan as one-dimensional as possible. Make Denard Robinson beat you down the field with his arm, and if he does, tip your cap to him and move on to the next game. I think our secondary matches up favorably with their wide receivers, so let Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Josh Mitchell, Andrew Green, Ciante Evans and crew challenge them off the line as they did against Wisconsin and Northwestern. Also, in order to make them one-dimensional on offense, the Blackshirts have to stuff their running backs, in particular Fitzgerald Toussaint.
- Special Special-Teams Play: For the past few years I've almost taken for granted Nebraska would have the edge in this phase of the game. Well, considering what we've seen so far this year and what happened last year with our special teams' miscues in Ann Arbor, that isn't the case. But it could be. When you have Ameer Abdullah and Brett Maher, you have a chance for some big, momentum-changing plays. Maher will have an opportunity to flip field position throughout the game, and it will be important to back Michigan up. Make them play deep in their own territory with 85,000 screaming cornheads bearing down on them.
- Offensive Efficiency: This is somewhat of an all-encompassing offensive key. Gain positive yards on first down. Utilize the run game to set up the pass. Avoid killer penalties; this isn't a defense you want to start 1st and 15 or 1st and 20 on. And maybe one of the most important offensive keys, keep Taylor Martinez upright in the pocket. As we've seen this year, when he has ample time to read through his progressions, one of Nebraska's stud receivers, tight ends, or running backs will be open, and he will deliver a strike. Finally, win third downs. I hypothesize a 50% or better third down conversion rate should be sufficient for a victory.
- Win the turnover battle: As I've mentioned, this key is staying here every week until Nebraska accomplishes it. Nebraska can (barely) beat a solid Northwestern team with a minus three turnover ratio, but that same ratio will get them crushed by Michigan. The Blackshirts need to force a couple turnovers. I haven't a clue why Nebraska has been so porous the past couple years at forcing turnovers, but that trend needs to end Saturday. Michigan's defense is too good to expect constant and consistent 80 yard drives. Nebraska's offense will need to operate with a short field at some point. Conversely, if Nebraska coughs up the ball and gives Shoelace a short field, kiss the chance of a 2012 B1G Championship good-bye.