Well Husker fans, what can I say about the Northwestern game that hasn’t already been said or won’t make me sound like a broken record? Oh, I know. Nebraska won. Now I’m not being a Bo Pelini apologist with this statement, but it does make discussing the implications of the Michigan game a lot more fun. Which leads me to the first down of this week’s column.
First Down: Is the Michigan game the most important game remaining on Nebraska’s schedule?
Yes and no.
This seems the hot topic of discussion of this week. My first response to this question was, “DUH!!! Is this a real question?” Then I thought about the “why” more. Let me break it down for you.
Nebraska already has an in-conference loss. Michigan has yet to lose in the Big Ten. Right now both teams control their own destiny. If Nebraska wins out they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wolverines. If Nebraska loses they will have two conference losses, as well as losing the tiebreaker with Michigan. Nebraska would essentially be back three games compared to Michigan and would need help to win the Legends Division.
So my answer to the original question is that Michigan is the biggest game left to play. That is unless Nebraska wins. Then the next game and the next game and the next game become the most important games. Losing another game puts destiny back into the hands of the others in the division. So if Nebraska loses this week the luster is lost on the remainder of the schedule.
That being said, Nebraska can still lose to Michigan, win out and be considered for a big bowl game at the end of the year, similar to what Michigan did last season. But Pelini’s goals would no longer be intact. And we’ve seen what uninspired players do for Bo & Co.
Second Down: Nebraska’s defense can stop Denard Robinson.
The Cornhuskers have done a pretty good job of keeping running quarterbacks from taking over a game this season. They kept Braxton Miller under wraps for a time and they kept Kain Colter’s contributions to a minimum. Athletic QBs give Nebraska problems; they give everyone problems. They present yet another weapon that can tear off an 80-yard run.
If Nebraska’s rearranged and depleted defensive line can keep Michigan’s linemen from blocking safeties and linebackers Nebraska should be able to contain Robinson. I am more worried that Nebraska will continue the bad habit of making middling running backs look like Heisman candidates.
Third Down: What Nebraska needs to do to win.
Cold weather may be a factor at night in Lincoln. A close, ugly game (similar to the Northwestern game) plays right into Michigan’s hands.
Nebraska needs to keep it’s big-play offense going without pressing into bad decisions. Michigan has a good enough defense to make Taylor Martinez pay for throwing off his back foot or into traffic.
Make Robinson beat you through the air. Nebraska hasn’t produced the interceptions that Robinson is prone to, but their pass coverage has been good. Don’t bite on play-action.
Stay disciplined. Do your job so the next guy can do theirs. Offensive linemen can’t leave their feet. Defensive linemen need to maintain running lanes for linebackers. Don’t run yourself out of a play. No cheap shot penalties. Catch the ball on returns. Have a short memory if bad things happen.
And finally, win the turnover battle. Regardless of perceived defensive woes, Nebraska’s offense is potent enough to keep up with anyone as long as drives are finished and short fields aren’t given.
Fourth Down: The offense.
Seemingly lost in the growing crowd with torches and pitchforks outside of Pelini’s house is one simple fact: Nebraska’s offense has become dynamic.
I find this funny considering this has been one of the biggest criticisms of Pelini over the years. Players have gone out with injuries and the offense hasn’t missed a beat. Martinez has a much higher completion percentage than last season; something though laughable during the off-season. Receivers are making great catches. Multiple contributors are seeing the field.
So win or lose against Michigan this weekend, remember how far the Huskers have come compared to previous years. The players and coaches are growing. I say let them keep growing a few more years after this season, because next year should be a big year.