So, here we are. Nebraska dives head first into Big Ten play this Saturday against No. 2-ranked Michigan (yes, I know they already opened the season at Minnesota).
For a Husker team that’s had plenty of struggles in head coach Matt Rhule’s first season, this will be a monumental task. Nebraska is 2-2 and coming off a pair of wins over lesser opponents. The Huskers have a quarterback controversy. They have shown glimpses but really haven’t established an identity as of yet.
Michigan, on the other hand, is more than established. The Wolverines have one of the country’s best defenses top to bottom and an offense that hasn’t had much problem moving the ball — although I wouldn’t call them a juggernaut by any means.
So, with this Husker team taking a major step up in competition, what are some things to know going into this week of practice?
Who Will Start at QB for Nebraska?
After two games, Nebraska still hasn’t established its quarterback situation. To start the season, it looked like Jeff Sims was Rhule’s guy. Then after a rash of turnovers and an ankle injury, Heinrich Haarberg got his shot. Now, he hasn’t played so well that he’s absolutely taken the job and made it his, but I tend to think he gives this team the best chance to win.
Let’s compare them, shall we? I’ll lay out their stats without saying who is who and you can see for yourself.
QB1 - 24-for-47 passing (51.1%) for 278 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 1 fumble lost. 272 yards rushing (6.5 avg) with two touchdowns.
QB2 - 20-for-34 passing (58.8%) for 220 yards, 1 touchdown, 4 interceptions, 2 fumbles lost. 156 yards rushing (5.2 avg) with one touchdown.
If you hadn’t guessed it, QB1 is Haarberg and QB2 is Sims. They look extremely similar statistically with Haarberg posing the bigger threat as a runner with his size and speed, and Sims being just a bit more efficient through the air.
The BIG difference here has been the turnovers — Sims has turned the ball over six times in less than two games. In just over two games, Haarberg has only coughed the ball up once on a fumble when he was hit during a throw, and that was more a result of a whiff by Bryce Benhart than anything.
The big knock on each of these guys is this: Far too many plays go by wasted due to incompletions when Haarberg is in the game, and Sims just can’t stop turning it over.
Will Sims be healthy? Who will start?
I imagine we’ll find out Saturday.
Michigan and Nebraska Both Boast Top Defenses
...but Michigan’s is better
You’ve probably heard — Nebraska now has the top rush defense in the country, giving up just 46 yards a game on the ground. The Huskers also have gotten after the quarterback about as much as anybody with 3.5 sacks per game — good enough for No. 11 in the country.
However, against the pass, Nebraska hasn’t always fared so well. Big Red is No. 101 in the country, giving up 252 yards a game.
As good as Nebraska’s been at times defensively, the Wolverines have been better, consistently. Michigan has the 12th-best rush defense and is No. 7 in passing defense, giving up just 151 a game. In total defense, Michigan has the third-best unit, giving up just 231 yards a game of total offense. They also have the top scoring defense in the country.
Led by a trio of solid linebackers in Junior Colson, Michael Barrett and former Husker Ernest Hausmann, the Wolverines attack the ball and get in the opponents backfield. They haven’t racked up the sacks, but they’re still Top-30 in the country in tackles for loss. That means they have blown up a lot of run plays — something that Nebraska’s subpar offensive line will have a hard time dealing with. If Louisiana Tech can get in and hold Nebraska to as many short gains on run plays as they did, the Wolverines could be feasting in the Husker backfield.
Wolverine QB J.J. McCarthy Is Good
On offense, this Wolverine team isn’t torching the scoreboard but they’re certainly humming. Compared to the rest of the country, they’re middle of the pack — but they’ve been extremely efficient.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy has completed nearly 80 percent of his passes for 915 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions. Nebraska has shown flashes defensively against the pass, but the fact is that three interceptions on the season just isn’t cutting it. Nebraska is No. 119 in the country in turnover margin — a byproduct of having a quarterback who is a turnover machine and a defense that struggles forcing turnovers.
J.J. McCarthy TOUCHDOWN pass to Roman Wilson for 33 yds!— James T. Yoder (@JamesYoder) September 17, 2023
Michigan leads Bowling Green 14-6 with 4 min left in 2Q
With the type of accuracy McCarthy has displayed, it could be a long day for Nebraska’s defensive unit.
Nebraska Has RTDB!
After four games, Nebraska has the No. 6 rushing offense in the country, averaging almost 234 yards per game. Last week against Louisiana Tech, Nebraska leaned on the legs of Haarberg and running back Anthony Grant. Haarberg went for 155 yards on the ground with a 72-yard touchdown — not to mention the 75-yard touchdown that was called back due to holding. Grant ran for 135 yards and a score on 22 carries.
Really, the only blueprint this team has to winning this game includes an incredible performance from its offensive line, its quarterback and its running backs.