Week 4 Preview: Michigan vs. Nebraska
When: 12:00 p.m. Saturday
Where: Michigan Stadium – Ann Arbor, MI
Line: Michigan -18
We are now going on four weeks into the season. Already, we are a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign and that makes the die-hard fan lament the fact that while it feels as if the season has just begun, it will also soon be over.
Week three brought SMU to Michigan in a match-up that on paper, seemed to be one that Michigan should win easily. They did, however, there were some uncomfortable moments due to a few big plays given up by the Michigan defense and an early interception thrown on offense.
In a semi-weird role reversal type of scenario, the offense was the highlight of this game as opposed to the previous few years where it seemed the defense was doing all it could to keep the Wolverines in games while the offense sputtered. This isn’t to say the defense was completely bad, it just wasn’t as stout as we are used to, especially in pass coverage. If there’s one thing we should be confident in it’s Don Brown’s ability to get his defense in order.
Even with the slip-ups and miscues, Michigan still escaped with a narrow 20 point win (favored by 35), which was not enough to quiet the fans who question everything from play calling to personnel decisions; from coach intensity to what coach is wearing. Coach Harbaugh was wearing what looked like a black Jumpman sweatshirt with a silver Jumpman logo, queue the “Oakland is still in play” jokes (those happened too). This game felt like one that Michigan knew it was going to win, and wanted to win by establishing its identity of run-first, early in the game. This, to the common fan, appears like an outdated offense when it doesn’t work, and some fans will call for more passing and more spreading of the field.
Harbaugh once said about play calling, “It’s a very convenient thing, right? It’s a very easy thing to do. The play worked and it’s ‘hey, it was a great play because it worked.’ If it didn’t work it was ‘do you wish you’d done something else, had a different call?’ That’s very easy to do. Hindsight is very 20-20.” This could not be more true but unfortunately, the run game never really was fully established in the first half so there was much hand wringing about what should have gone differently.
We will get to more details on both sides of the ball as we get into the preview below.
This week Michigan’s foe is a bit more formidable. The now Scott Frost-led Nebraska Cornhuskers visit the Big House, coming off a lackluster start to the season. Nebraska is 0-2 after losses to Colorado and Troy, both games they were favored to win initially. The Huskers will be looking to prove doubters wrong, prove to the national media that they are a better team than their record, and most importantly for Coach Frost, they’d like to “out-hit” Michigan. Frost is also well aware that this Michigan team will be his team’s toughest test thus far.
Nebraska and Michigan have met 9 times in the history of both programs. Both teams have won 4 and they have tied once vs. each other. Nebraska is riding a 2 game win streak against the Wolverines, beating Hoke-led teams in both 2012 and 2013. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since the two teams met on the gridiron but it’s true and much has changed for both teams since then. Michigan has had Jim Harbaugh at the helm since 2015 and Nebraska has had an entire coaching “tenure” expire in the time between match-ups with the Maize and Blue. Previous to Scott Frost, Nebraska had been led by Coach Mike Riley. Bo Pelini was in charge the last time these two faced off.
Scott Frost has some history in facing the Wolverines, however. In 2016 his UCF Golden Knights came to Ann Arbor to get punched in the face by Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, losing 51-14, while claiming some moral victories of sorts that you may have heard of. Also, back in 1997, when both Nebraska and Michigan were completing their respective undefeated season, Mr. Frost decided to open his mouth and say “If you can look yourself in the mirror and say if your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska to keep your job, who would you rather play?”. He was the QB for the Huskers at that time. Everyone should know that the safe money (or job) would have been spent betting while playing against Nebraska in 97. Michigan gave up far less points (only 9.5 per game) than Nebraska, had Heisman trophy winner, Charles Woodson, doing things on all three phases of the game, and Nebraska was only undefeated thanks in part to a fluke bicycle kicked/deflected ball in the end-zone which a Nebraska player luckily caught to win the game against Mizzou.
Michigan and its fans have not forgotten these comments or any others from Mr. Frost. Now it’s time to show and prove.
Michigan vs Nebraska Statistical Analysis
First we will look at some key statistics.
|Team||Record||Avg Point Diff||Off YPP||Off YPG||Def YPP||Def YPG||3rd Down %||Def 3rd Down %||T/O Diff.||PPG||PPG Allowed|
So, I decided to switch up the format a bit and not have a breakdown specific to each team’s offense vs the other’s defense and vice versa. Instead, I will be presenting the chart above, each week, displaying a few key statistics and highlighting who has the edge with each one. Edge is denoted by green numbers while red denotes a lack thereof. These stats are bit easier to digest and also allow the breakdowns to be a tad more concise.
While utilizing our new tools, we can see that in 9 of 11 of the selected statistics, Michigan holds the edge. This leaves Nebraska with 2 of 11. Yay, math! But what does this mean?
It means, Michigan is beating opponents by an average of 21.3 points while the Huskers are losing by an average of 5. The Wolverines are being out-gained offensively by Nebraska by a total of 67.2 yards per game even though Michigan is having greater success on each play by almost a yard. Nebraska seems to be getting more plays per game offensively than Michigan, or Michigan just has more chunk plays.
It also means that Michigan and Nebraska both have pretty stout defenses where Nebraska is giving up only 4.3 yards per play to Michigan’s 3.9 – pretty similar. The differences are that the Wolverines only give up a little over 276 yards per game and the Huskers are giving up nearly 50 more. Michigan has a decent margin on the Cornhuskers when it comes to keeping its offense on the field by converting on 3rd down but defensively Nebraska has the edge in the same category, but not by nearly as much.
The last three stats are key as well. Michigan is dead even on turnover margin whereas Nebraska has 2 more turnovers given up than caused. Michigan also scores quite a bit more and allows quite a bit less than Nebraska in terms of points per game.
To translate further, this game may be closer than it would seem by looking at just records but it also has the potential to be one sided for Michigan if things continue to go how they have been for both teams. The thing is, in quite a few of the statistics listed, it is pretty close in comparing both teams, especially when we are only 2-3 games in for each team so the sample sizes are small. One of the biggest things that stands out is that Nebraska is only losing by 5 points on average, which means they have been close to pulling out victories in one or both of their games. It turns out that they lost both games by 5 points each game. To counter this, we look to the fact that Michigan is averaging 37 points per game and only allowing 15.7. Nebraska should allow Michigan to basically score at least 29-30 points based on these numbers while Michigan should only give up maybe 20-24 points. That is, as long as things remain trending in the same manner they have to start the season.
Michigan has been better than expected at keeping drives alive this year and needs to improve at getting teams off the field. This isn’t news to anyone who’s noticed that Michigan isn’t getting as many offensive plays as many of the teams in D1 football, or anyone who’s watched games in frustration, as the defense seems to crack down, get the first two stops in a series and then somehow gives up a big play or enough yards for the first down.
In order to be successful in this game, by the numbers, the Wolverines need to keep the ball out of Nebraska’s hands and into the hands of their offense, namely, QB Shea Patterson. The rest should take care of itself.
A Non-Numerical Look Into Things. . .
There are a number of things to look at when looking at this match-up but the one that stands out the most is whether or not Michigan can contain scrambling QB, Adrian Martinez. In his first game action, Martinez threw for nearly 200 yards, hitting on 15 of 20 attempts (75%). He also ran for a team high 117 yards. This is just the type of QB that can (and does usually) give the Wolverine defense fits. Martinez was hurt late in that first game against Colorado and did not play in last week’s game against Troy. Andrew Bunch, the backup QB, was much less effective both passing and running – he ran for just 5 yards and passed for 177 while throwing 2 interceptions. Expect to see Martinez a bunch and A. Bunch a little.
On top of having a scrambling QB, Nebraska also has a nice RB in Greg Bell to compliment Martinez in the uptempo spread attack. Nebraska’s best WR is Stanley Morgan Jr., however; JD Spielman isn’t too bad himself. This offense can be scary if it starts to click. We know this because Frost had a nice thing going with UCF and Nebraska should be able to get a bit higher quality players eventually in their program. I’m not sure they are quite there yet but they are certainly still dangerous enough to make you pay if you aren’t disciplined. We also know that Michigan can be a tad undisciplined both in containing a running QB and also in containing the passing attack from a QB that is mobile. Last week was a bit of a reminder when SMU trotted out William Brown, the more mobile QB in their arsenal, who ran for 48 yards on limited attempts and threw for 2 TDs. That was SMU, a team that is not quite the caliber of a Nebraska. Nebraska’s biggest problem may be it’s inability to spread the ball around when passing. With Michigan’s (usually) tough man coverage, they should be able to lock down the duo mentioned above, as long as the secondary can stay assignment sound.
Defensively, the Huskers are the best team Michigan has faced since Notre Dame. I would even go on to say they are better than Notre Dame defensively, on paper, although ND has faced much better competition than Nebraska to this point (while playing more games). We saw from the numbers above that Nebraska is giving up over 4 yards per play though. This should allow Michigan to continue to boost their third down conversion rating as well as to help them to move the ball down the field and score points. As long as Michigan does their part to protect the ball, their shouldn’t be a whole lot of concern in turning it over. Nebraska only has one on the season that they’ve caused. The Huskers are best, position-wise. at Safety but their defensive line also seems like it could be good but it’s hard to tell based on who they’ve played.
When Michigan has the ball, look for them to possibly open the game with a little play action, but then get right back to trying to pound the ball for a while, while also mixing in some passes if and where necessary. Sorry folks, this is a Harbaugh staple, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to establish the run early. If Nebraska loads the box to stop it, this is going to open up passing lanes down the field. Shea Patterson has demonstrated that he can find those lanes and hit dudes pretty consistently with accurate passes. If the run isn’t working early, don’t panic and get all uptight thinking the sky is falling and play calling is from the 80’s. This is by design. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s working, because most likely for it not to work, opponents have to sacrifice something and this is usually by taking dudes who should be in pass coverage and bringing them closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. As mentioned, this is precisely when it is the perfect time to go ahead and take your shots with the passing game. As the passing game moves along, the run game opens back up. Pass vs Run, Run vs Pass, is a bit like chicken and the egg. What came first? Nobody knows, but we know they are both delicious even if they are both nervous birds or nervous birds to be.
With Karan Higdon back, Chris Evans hopefully feeling better, and with the emergence of Tru Wilson, the Wolverines should be primed to run more effectively than they did last week. Either way, Shea will get his shots, which means any number of targets could have a big day- could be Nico Collins or DPJ, could be Oliver Martin or Grant Perry. This could even be TEs Gentry, McKeon, or Eubanks. So many weapons to choose from. Might we even see Ambry Thomas be used again on passing plays? Last week he went deep but drew so much attention that he created a wide open spot for someone else to catch an easy pass.
Michigan wins if they can stop Nebraska from scoring many points. The Wolverines should be able to put up 24-35 points and just need to have their defense hold Nebraska to 20 or less. If not, this could be the third game in a row that Michigan falls to Nebraska, also giving them the series edge until the two teams meet again.
Thoughts From The BluePrint Family
Michigan goes up against a Scott Frost led team for the second time in the Jim Harbaugh era. This time around, Frost will be on the sideline for the Cornhuskers. Harbaugh and his staff must be ready for this game, as they enter B1G conference play. These opponents will not play lightly and just sit down; Nebraska must prepare the same way.
This Nebraska team might be win-less at the moment but they have shot themselves in the foot quite a bit in terms of penalties. This team isn’t one to take lightly when looking at their record; they can still play well, especially when their touted freshman Adrian Martinez is in. When healthy, Martinez allows Frost the freedom to play the game the way he knows and sees fit. This is a game Michigan should win. To me it’s a very similar situation to Minnesota last year; it’s just an earlier test this season. I believe in the talent on the offense and defense to execute their plays and hopefully move on to to a 2-1 record. Then it’s time to ready-up for Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats. Go Blue!
Oh how we have all waited for this matchup!
Frost vs Harbaugh
Who should have been the ‘97 Champs?
This is going to be exciting!….. for Michigan.
If they play the backup, he won’t be able to drive the field against the Michigan defense. I know for a fact Coach Brown has been telling the defense to hit a little “harder” this week.
Also, their “amaizing” (see what I did there) run game will be shut down.
Shea will dominate this week, with another 3 TD game. DPJ and Collins will also standout.
I’m excited to see what happens at HB for us. We have 3 reliable options!
Harbaugh > Frost
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