View from the other side: Michigan vs. Nebraska
NEBRASKA AT MICHIGAN
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Nebraska 0-2, Michigan 2-1
Line: Michigan by 17
View from the other side
Christopher Heady covers Nebraska football and basketball for the Omaha World-Herald. He breaks down the Cornhuskers for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Nebraska game. You can follow him on Twitter at @heady_chris.
1. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez suffered an injury in the first game and didn’t play last week. He could be a game-time decision. Do you think he’ll play? If he can’t go it will be Andrew Bunch again? How will either fare against this defense?
Heady: I think he’ll play. But I'm not sure we'll find out until about five minutes before kickoff. Martinez was “close” to playing against Troy, coach Scott Frost said. And Martinez is back at practice this week and appears to be moving just fine on that right knee. The only thing holding Martinez back is the possibility of furthering his knee injury, according to Frost. But that’s a risk you take playing any position. I think he plays, because they need him to.
With Andrew Bunch, Nebraska’s offense is more predictable, isn’t as smooth and quite frankly, was a mess against Troy. That's not all on Bunch. He was fine against Troy. But Nebraska's offense is predicated on chaos and confusion, and with Martinez, the playbook opens up and there are far more options. If Martinez plays, Michigan will see a young quarterback with the highest ceiling of a Nebraska quarterback in almost a decade. He’s shifty. He can throw. And he can escape the pocket. If Michigan sees Bunch, expect Nebraska to try and run the ball quite a bit. Which may not go very well.
2. A new coach in Scott Frost, an 0-2 start, and if the Cornhuskers lose Saturday that would be seven straight. How are the Nebraska fans handling this?
Heady: As you can imagine, not great. There’s one faction of the fan base that are true Frost believers, and will follow Frost blindly no matter what happens. That's an advantage you get winning (or splitting, I should say for Michigan fans) a national title as the 1997, and being the best high school athlete Nebraska's ever seen. For the most part, fans are giving the coach patience, a luxury a Nebraska coach has not had since 2011 at least.
From 2012 to 2017, when things went awry in Lincoln, the answer from the fan base was, essentially, fire the guy. That’s not the case now. Those who are upset with Frost are doing it under the guise of: Well, at least it isn’t Mike Riley at the helm. So, right now, things are pretty much what you’d expect. But going 0-3? That might change a bit. Remember, this is a fan base that hasn’t seen a conference title since 1999 and just fired a coach after three seasons, and fired the coach before that after he won nine games seven straight years. They’re crazy thirsty for success.
3. Frost has installed a new offense and defense. How long before you think he gets this going?
Heady: The offense has come a long way in 12 months. With Martinez at quarterback, it looks like the beginnings of UCF’s offense in 2016, Frost's first year. It’s fast, there are a lot of weapons, and it can move the ball. What they haven’t done yet? Score in bunches. Nebraska outgained Colorado and Troy by a wide margin, but couldn't turn drives into points. The defense might actually be farther along than the offense. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander inherited an excellent group of defensive linemen and some linebackers who can do some damage. It’s the secondary that’s an issue right now. How long until it all looks more like UCF 2017? Probably a year and a half. By bowl season of 2019, Nebraska should figure this thing out. Right now, the foundation of the house is still being built.
4. The Cornhuskers have been able to run the ball and are averaging 258 rushing yards per game (5.1 a carry). Martinez ran for more than 100 yards against Colorado. Will this will be the game plan against Michigan?
Heady: Michigan’s defensive front is scary. Don’t need to tell you that. But in 2016, when Frost led UCF to the Big House, the Knights ran 46 times for 275 yards. With this spread, up-tempo scheme, Nebraska’s going to get creative in the way it gets the ball in the hands of the running backs and receivers. With questions at quarterback, the run game likely will be a big part of the game plan this weekend. Look out for Maurice Washington, a true freshman from California. He ran for 92 yards against Troy and seems to be picking up the speed of the game. If there’s one guy who can break off a long run, it’s him.
5. What will be a key matchup to watch?
Heady: Nebraska’s wide receivers have really struggled so far this year. Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman have half of Nebraska’s receptions so far. That, Frost said, just isn’t good enough. Michigan plays lots of man coverage. That’ll play into the strength of Morgan Jr., who will be in the NFL next year and set the school record for receiving yards in 2017. Same with the speedy Spielman, who set the freshman record for receiving yards in 2017. Nebraska is going to be able to get some yards on the ground, like UCF in 2016. But if they want to avoid a 51-14 loss like that 2016 game, Nebraska needs to find some success through the air. And that may come down to receivers making plays.
Players to watch
Stanley Morgan Jr., WR: The 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver, along with JD Spielman, combined for 1,816 receiving yards, the highest two-player total in Nebraska history. After setting a school record with 986 receiving yards in 2017, Morgan Jr. will look to become Nebraska’s all-time leading receiver this fall. Through two games, he has 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Spielman has nine catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Morgan has 129 career receptions, which ranks seventh on the Huskers’ all-time list. He needs 52 receptions to tie Kenny Bell (181) for the school record.
Adrian Martinez, QB: The freshman quarterback, in his first start for Nebraska against Colorado, rushed 15 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns, including a 41-yard run in the first quarter. He completed 15-of-20 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown. He also was injured in that game and sat out last week’s game against Troy and his availability remains unclear for the Michigan game. Martinez became the first true freshman quarterback in Nebraska history to start a season opener. Martinez joined Tommie Frazier (1992) and Cody Green (2009) as the only true freshmen to start at quarterback in Nebraska history. The 117 rushing yards by Martinez were the most rushing yards by a Nebraska quarterback since Tommy Armstrong Jr. rushed for 132 yards at Northwestern in 2016.
Dedrick Young II, LB: The senior continues to move up Nebraska’s career tackles chart. He has 12 this season, including three tackles for loss. He has 213 career tackles, leaving him just 43 tackles shy of the career top 10. Young entered his senior season with 201 career tackles, nearly 70 more than any other Nebraska player. That total marked the fourth-highest total ever for a Nebraska player entering his senior season. He is looking to become the first player in school history to record least 60 tackles all four seasons. He set a Nebraska true freshman record with 61 tackles in 2015, added 60 stops as a sophomore in 2016 and 80 tackles as a junior in 2017.
Facts and figures
Series status: Nebraska and Michigan will play for the 10th time and fourth as Big Ten members. This will be the first meeting between the two since the Big Ten switched to the East-West division format. The Cornhuskers leads the league series with Michigan, 2-1, including a win at Michigan Stadium in 2013. The overall series is tied at 4-4-1.
Elite group: The Cornhuskers are one of only seven teams in FBS to rank among the top 25 nationally in both rushing offense and rushing defense. They are the only Big Ten team in that group, which also includes Cincinnati, Air Force, Georgia, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Near perfection: The Wolverines have won 11 of their last 12 Big Ten openers, including three straight. They have won 47 of 50 conference openers since 1968. They had a 23-game winning streak in Big Ten openers snapped at Wisconsin (23-20) in 2005. This will be their 113th conference opener.