Alright folks, less than 36 hours till we cut mustard in Memorial Stadium Saturday night. Your 5-2 Nebraska Cornhuskers take on the 5-2 Michigan Wolverines with the winner having a vice tight lock on the division, while the non-winner can start making plans for Florida to play a SEC team in either Jacksonville or Orlando.
We know you wanna know about those Wolverines from Ann Arbor, and for that we enlisted Zach Travis, one of the head men of Maize n Brew, the SBNation Michigan community. You may have heard Jake Sorensen talk to Zach in this week's Husker CornCast on Wednesday evening also.
In this Q and A episode, we talked about Denard (of course), the disappearance of Fitz Toussant, how this team has matured since the Alabama loss, and how last week's all day affair against Michigan State may affect them Saturday night in Lincoln.
1. Well, seems like the Wolverines have done well to get past the opening weekend slip up against Alabama in Arlington. What happened on that evening, and how has Michigan grown up to this week?
Michigan faced a great team that was primed to exploit its weaknesses. Alabama's rushing offense is led by one of the best offensive lines in the country, and Michigan's defensive line had a lot of growing up to do early in the year. The game got ugly early because the line got pushed around quite a bit. On the other side of the ball, Alabama's defense is the perfect unit to stop Michigan's offense: a big fast front seven that plays smart and contains the ground game, and an athletic secondary that makes life hard on a quarterback trying to deal with a lot of third-and-longs.
Thankfully, that was game one and Michigan's defensive line used that game as a learning experience and is playing much better now. The offense hasn't much progressed from that game, but it is still kind of where most of us expected coming into the year.
2. This defense is no joke, however it seems that it hasn’t gotten a real good test since the Bama game. Is there a legitimate worry about Nebraska’s offense and what it can do?
Michigan's defense certainly hasn't seen an offense as good as Nebraska's since early in the season, so there are questions as to just how good the defense will be able to do against what is a pretty well rounded offense. I think the one thing Michigan has going for it is that the defense has done a remarkable job containing plays by playing really fundamentally sound football. The defensive line is doing a good job holding the point of attack and mucking up running lanes, which has let the linebackers flow to the ball and stop plays for small gains. Michigan is tied for first in plays over 20 yards allowed and tied for 7th in plays over 30 yards. As long as Michigan is playing smart defense, it will make Nebraska work to finish drives, which leads to more room to force turnovers and third-down stops. Nebraska will move the ball, but if Michigan can keep big plays down, things shouldn't get out of hand.
3. To the outsider, Denard Robinson has seemed to be a streaky passer this year while taking his rushing game to another height. How is the confidence level with him as he heads to his only trip to Lincoln?
I think Robinson's confidence is about where is has always been. Confidence is never his problem. He has a ridiculously short memory when it comes to interceptions, and if he thinks he has a throw he will try it. The biggest difference as of late has been that Michigan has been able to find enough success on the ground to use Robinson's passing as a supplement rather than an integral part of the offense. If Robinson has time to throw he is normally mistake free. I don't know if Nebraska has the rush defense to slow Michigan's ground game, which should allow the Wolverines to approach a 70/30 split when it comes to run vs. pass. This plays into Robinson's strengths.
4. While Denard has rushed for almost a thousand yards already, Fitz Toussant hasn’t done much this year so far. This due to the outside distractions, or is it because it’s Robinson’s world right now?
Toussaint's struggles have been partly in his own head and partly external factors. He had a turbulent off season and missed the first game of the season, so early on you could tell there was some problems getting back into rhythm. However, he isn't running as decisively and picking his spots as well as he did a year ago. The offensive line has also had some problems this year (though it has improved as the year has went on) that didn't set Fitz up for success. I look for this to either be the game where he finally awakens, or the game where he gets marginalized in favor of another back.
5. Last week’s game versus Michigan State was a 15 round slugfest. This week, with the vice-lock lead on the division up for grabs, any worry that the Wolverines exerted too much last week?
One thing you notice when you listen to these players talk is that the number one goal in everyone around the program's mind is a Big Ten title. Last week was an important step toward that and this week's game is an even bigger game in that it could all but lock things up for Michigan. I don't think there will be a letdown. Brady Hoke keeps his players too dialed in to let that happen.
6. Besides Denard and Fitz, who else on offense and whom on defense do we need to keep an eye on Saturday night?
On offense keep an eye on Devin Funchess. He is a true freshman tight end that has shown a remarkable ability to make big plays in the passing game, and against Nebraska's big secondary, a player like him will be very important. Defensively look no farther than SLB Jake Ryan. Ryan has been an absolute monster this season. He can rush the passer, hold the edge in the run game, and make plays on the outside in space. He has been Michigan's best defensive player over the first half of the season, and as a RS Soph he is only getting better. I think he will have a big game and is the one player on the roster I trust to make Taylor Martinez sweat in the backfield.
7. Alright, Blue vs. Red, Wolverines vs. Huskers... tell us how you see the game playing out, and a score prediction if you will.
I'm really not too sure on this one. Unlike the last few opponents, I haven't had a chance to watch much of Nebraska. I think the Michigan offense will be able to move the ball primarily on the ground which plays into Michigan's strengths. Defensively, I think Michigan will give up some points, but I look for Nebraska to have to work through a lot of longer drives to do so which could lead to a few extra stops and a couple turnovers that in the end should help Michigan sneak this one out. Final score, Michigan 30 - Nebraska 27.