Junior running back Rex Burkhead just keeps bringing it every single week, as he continues to establish himself as one of the best rushers in the Big Ten Conference with every stellar individual performance. Burkhead was as good as he's been all year last week against Penn State's stingy run defense, running for more than 120 yards and a touchdown and scoring what would end up being the game-winning touchdown.
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez hasn't been nearly the running threat in recent week that he was earlier in the year. Still, he's the type of player who can break off a long run at anytime, meaning defenses always have to account for him. The Huskers have tried to get more out of their three freshmen backs, but they haven't done much to take some of the load off Burkhead lately.
As has been the case seemingly every week since the start of Big Ten play, Nebraska will be faced with yet another strong rush defense today in Michigan. The Wolverines have given up an average of just 130.9 yards per game on the ground this season, good enough for fifth in the conference and 41st nationally. The thing to really watch in this match-up is how well NU holds onto the football in traffic. The Huskers have had some problems with fumbles recently, and UM has forced 19 fumbles this season, recovering 16 of those.
NU Pass Offense vs. UM Pass Defense
Martinez isn't putting up big numbers in the passing game, but there's no arguing that he's been as good the last five games as he's been the past two seasons as a thrower. Since Nebraska's win over Ohio State, Martinez has completed 77-of-120 passes (64.2 percent) for 865 yards and six touchdowns, against two interceptions.
Martinez's numbers would be even better if he could get a little more help from his receivers. Last week against Penn State, at least four of his 13 incompletions came on catchable balls that were simply dropped by NU's wide outs. Even worse, two of those came on third downs, and another on a deep pass over the middle.
Michigan has been fairly good against the pass, giving up 191.3 yards per game to rank 22nd nationally. The Wolverines have also had a decent pass rush all season, as they've averaged 2.11 sacks per game. In particular, their front four has been able to get enough pressure that UM hasn't needed to blitz all that much. Defensive tackle Mike Martin is as good as they get in the middle of the line, and with Nebraska's lack of depth at guard, he could be an issue for the Huskers.
UM Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Michigan comes into today's game boasting the nation's 11th-ranked rushing offense at 235.9 yards per game. However, the success of the Wolverines' rushing attack has relied heavily upon quarterback Denard Robinson. The dual-threat weapon, ranks 36th nationally and third among quarterbacks with 96.0 rushing yards per game, but he's been held in check of late, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry over his past four games.
The good news for Michigan has been the emergence of freshman running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who emerged as UM's feature back over the past few weeks and ranks second on the team behind Robinson 83.7 yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns.
Nebraska's depth at defensive tackle is still a concern, but it finally got some good injury news when head coach Bo Pelini said redshirt freshman Chase Rome was not only good to play in today's game, but was feeling as healthy as he has in weeks. The key for the Huskers will be keeping contain on Robinson both on designed runs and scrambles, and linebacker Lavonte David will likely play a big role in that area.
UM Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
As good of a runner as Robinson has been this season, he's left much to be desired in the passing game. Michigan ranks 84th nationally with just 200.4 yards per game, and Robinson has just as many passing touchdowns (13) as he does interceptions on the season. Just like his rushing numbers, Robinson's passing has gone down over the past four games as well, as he's completed just 48 percent of his passes in that span.
When the Wolverines do complete passes, though, they definitely make them count. As a team, Michigan is averaging 15.9 yards per completions this year, led by Junior Hemmingway 19.9 yards per catch. Tight end Kevin Koger has been one of Robinson's favorite red zone targets, as he leads the team with three receiving touchdowns.
After getting torched by Northwestern two weeks ago, Nebraska's secondary picked things up against Penn State. The Huskers held the Nittany Lions to just 209 yards on 35 pass attempts, with PSU picking up big chunks of its yards through the air on a tipped pass and one big completion into double coverage.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior Brett Maher Maher is tied for ninth nationally in field goals per game at 1.6 per contest and his 8.6 points per game places him 26th nationally. With 16 field goals this season, Maher is just two field goals shy of the top five on the NU single-season list for field goals made. Maher's average of 45.4 yards per punt leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally. He has downed 18 punts inside the opponent 20 and has 15 50-plus-yard punts.
It seems like it's been weeks since freshman Ameer Abdullah has broken a long runback, but he's still putting up kickoff return numbers that ranks among the best in college football. The Huskers rank sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten with 26.5 yards per kickoff return.
On the other side, Michigan has had some issues with its special teams units this season. The Wolverines rank 112th nationally and dead last in the conference in punting, as Will Hagerup has a net punting average of just 32.8 yards per punt. Michigan also ranks 102nd overall with only 19.4 yards per kickoff return. The only real bright spot for UM's special teams has been in punt returns, as Jeremy Gallon is averaging 11.0 yards per return to help the Wolverines rank fourth in the Big Ten.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can put together long and productive drives on offense and keep contain on Robinson defensively. While Burkhead will likely be the top option on offense once again, the Huskers could make things much easier by converting on a few big pass plays to open up Michigan's defense. As always, turnovers will be key against UM's opportunistic defense and occasionally wild offense..
Michigan Will Win If:
It can slow down Nebraska's running game and make the Huskers one-dimensional by having to throw to move the football. The key for the Wolverines is Robinson, as he's capable of single handedly winning the game with his mobility. As long as he doesn't have to try to do too much, UM will have a great chance to pull out the win.
This game will mark the second straight week Nebraska has had to get mentally ready to win a crucial game on the road, and how well the Huskers can reset their emotions after last week will play a big part in today's game. Nebraska obviously needs to win this game to have any shot at playing for a Big Ten title, so it's no secret just how important this game is. As long as the Huskers can bring enough intensity to meet the challenge, they should live to play another week.