Michigan football team's first matchup against Big Ten newcomer Nebraska will have familiar feel, high stakes
Yet, the Cornhuskers will seem familiar this weekend — sort of like looking in the mirror.
The Wolverines face Big Ten newcomer Nebraska at noon Saturday on ESPN. The Cornhuskers already have made noise in their new conference, handing Legends Division frontrunner Michigan State its only league loss.
Now, No. 20 Michigan and No. 17 Nebraska have identical 8-2 overall records and are second in the division at 4-2. That means their game this weekend will have important divisional and bowl implications.
The winner likely will have a shot to earn the league's second-best bowl bid with a win in the regular-season finale. The loser will be mired in a logjam of three- and four-loss teams battling for postseason destinations.
The similarities don't end there, though.
"You look at the statistical information between both teams, which I’m not real big into, but there’s a lot of similarities (between us) in their rushing offense and scoring and defensively," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
Both teams predicate their offenses on the run, with Nebraska ranking 13th nationally in rushing and Michigan 14th. Both, also, rely heavily on their quarterbacks to that end.
Michigan's Denard Robinson is fifth in the conference in rushing (91.0 yards per game), and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is seventh (76.8). Robinson is second in total offense (261.9) and Martinez is third (245.6).
Neither is a consistent threat throwing the ball, but both are electric runners, especially in space. Michigan center David Molk said that will help the Wolverines' defense prepare for Martinez because it sees Robinson every day in practice.
"I’m sure it does help (us scout)," Molk said. "They have a fast quarterback, we have a fast quarterback. ... It’s very similar, and obviously, it’s good, because it’s a scheme we’ve played against."
Of course, the same is true for Nebraska. It knows it'll have its hands full with Robinson, but also will be prepped for the challenge.
"You got about an hour?" Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said when asked about his impressions of Robinson. "He can beat you and do a lot of different things. This guy, you watch him on film, he's fun to watch. I won't get a lot of sleep this week. There are times he'll make three, four, five guys miss on a play."
Nebraska and Michigan also feature emerging tailbacks, with the Cornhuskers' Rex Burkhead third in the conference in rushing (107.2 yards per game) and the Wolverines' Fitz Toussaint fifth (91.0).
“Nebraska presents a challenge unlike any other team in the Big Ten, I think,” senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said. “The only other team that might present a challenge like them would be us.”
Both teams will try to beat the other on the ground.
The same is true on defense.
"The Blackshirts defense, the physicalness that they want to play with — it’s going to be one of those games,” Hoke said.
Nebraska and Michigan pride themselves on good defense, and try to assert themselves physically, especially up front. Hoke likes those kinds of matchups.
There is a difference here, though: The Wolverines have been much better.
They are No. 1 in the conference against the rush, and fifth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 15.5 points per game. Nebraska is eighth in the Big Ten against the run and 36th nationally in scoring (22.2).
The Cornhuskers have been better recently, though, allowing 14 or fewer points in three of their past four games.
"I just think Nebraska is going to add a whole new element to how the Big Ten is going to shake out," Van Bergen said, "because they’re going to be a powerhouse in the Big Ten, just like they were in the Big 12."
So far, the Cornhuskers and Wolverines have matched each other, blow for blow, in Big Ten play.
One, though, will deliver a knockout punch Saturday.