Michigan's surging defense to butt heads with Nebraska's league-best offense
ANN ARBOR -- Nebraska averages 48.5 points per game at home. Michigan's defense has allowed 42 points in its past five games.
Worlds are about to collide.
The 20th-ranked Wolverines (5-2, 3-0) travel to Lincoln, Neb., Saturday to engage the Cornhuskers (5-2, 2-1) in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 Legends Division battle. Their defense has been one of the hottest units in the country, but hasn't faced a challenge quite like this.
"They have a really explosive offense, probably one of the toughest offenses we've seen so far this year," junior safety Thomas Gordon said Monday. "It's really going to test us as a defense. It's all going to come down to techniques and fundamentals and what we preach in practice. Everybody getting to the football."
Nebraska leads the Big Ten in several offensive categories, including scoring (41.6 points per game), total yardage (512.4 per game) and rushing yardage (279.0 per game). It's also third in passing yardage (233.4 per game).
The Cornhuskers are paced by junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, a third-year starter who has matured as he picks up experience. He's third in the Big Ten in total offense, second in passing and first in pass efficiency.
That's in contrast to last year, when his mechanics and decision making in the passing game were highly questionable. He will pose a challenge for Michigan's third-ranked pass defense.
"He's gotten better as a passer since last year, everybody knows that," Gordon said, "and then (you got) receivers on the outside like Kenny Bell that can take it the distance. So we got to put in a lot of film time and practice time this week."
Added coach Brady Hoke: "I just think it’s a maturity and maturing in the offense. I think he’s surrounded by a physical group up front that we have to contend with.”
Martinez also contributes to Nebraska's rushing offense, which ranks sixth in the country. He's complemented by tailbacks Ameer Abdullah, who averages 87.9 yards per game (sixth among league tailbacks) and Rex Burkhead.
"I think (Burkhead's) as good a back as we have in this league, and I think Abdullah’s a little different when you look at running style, which is a complement to what they’re doing offensively and to their offensive line and personnel,” Hoke said.
Michigan's defense, though, is surging and showed last week it can stop formidable running games.
The Wolverines held Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, the Big Ten's leading tailback, to 68 yards on 26 carries. His long of the day was just 8 yards.
Michigan is even better through the air, holding teams to just 142.3 yards passing per game. It has allowed only 11 passes of 20 yards, second in the country.
"It just comes down to restoring confidence in us, the coaches showing that they trust us," Gordon said. "(Defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison, he has our back through everything, and I think as a whole, we've become like brothers -- like a band of brothers -- on defense."
The Wolverines are forcing teams to grind out long drives, if they are to score -- and not many are. They haven't allowed 14 points since the second week of the season.
Nebraska, though, hasn't scored fewer than 29 all season.
Two juggernauts headed for a collision.
"(Our success is) a confidence booster," defensive lineman Will Campbell said. "At the same time, knowing Nebraska is the best Big Ten offense, is a humbler."