ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football is hitting the road for the first time after starting the season exactly as expected: four stress-free home wins.
Sure, there were some bumps along the way -- nobody expected Bowling Green to be within a point right before halftime or Rutgers to score one minute into the game -- but overall, it’s hard to argue with four wins by a total margin of 104 points.
But now the Wolverines are leaving the friendly confines of Ann Arbor and heading west (not as far west as next year, mind you) to face a Nebraska team that seems to have found its stride under new head coach Matt Rhule.
Reasons not to worry
The first two weeks of the season, Nebraska was, well... Nebraska.
Leading by 10 points with under three minutes to play at Minnesota and finding a way to lose in regulation was just about the most Nebraska thing I’ve ever seen. The following week, honestly, the Cornhuskers weren’t even competitive at Colorado.
The biggest problem in both of those losses is something that has haunted Nebraska for years: turnovers. Quarterback Jeff Sims threw three interceptions in the opener and a fourth (along with two fumbles) against Colorado before getting yanked for backup Heinrich Haarberg.
Nebraska turned the ball over four times in each of the first two games. If that happens against Michigan, it’ll be lights out.
Against their two Power Five opponents, Nebraska averaged just under 320 yards per game. That doesn’t inspire much confidence coming into a matchup with the Wolverines, whose starters have allowed one touchdown all year.
Rhule hasn’t yet determined which quarterback will start Saturday, but even if it’s Haarberg -- who has been much better than Sims -- he’s only completing 51.1% of his passes for an average of 5.9 yards per attempt.
If there’s one weakness to the Michigan defense, it’s the secondary’s tendency to give up chunk plays through the air. Bowling Green completed two 30-yard passes against the Wolverines, and Rutgers’ Gavin Wimsatt had four completions of 17 or more yards.
It doesn’t appear Nebraska is well equipped to exploit that weakness.
Another problem for the Cornhuskers is the kicking game. Tristan Alvano made a 27-yard field goal in the opener but has only attempted two kicks in the three games since -- missing both. If Nebraska does keep the game close, that could come into play.
Reasons to worry
As bad as Nebraska looked in the first two games, the team got back on track against Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech.
The biggest difference has been Haarberg’s ability to run the football. If he plays against Michigan, that’s the most dangerous weapon in Rhule’s arsenal. In two weeks as the starter, Haarberg has led the Cornhuskers in rushing yards with 98 and 157. His most recent score was a 72-yard touchdown run.
Haarberg might not have the most impressive passing stats, but he’s a major threat in the running game and he hasn’t thrown an interception. (It’s worth noting he’s fumbled three times the last two games, but only lost one.)
Nebraska is also a strong defensive team, ranking among the top 25 nationally in both yards per game and yards per play. Only one team in the country shuts down the run better than Nebraska -- the Cornhuskers allow just 46.25 rushing yards per game and 1.83 yards per run.
If Nebraska fans are looking for some hope, that’s the formula. Michigan is going to try to run the football whether it’s working or not, and if the Cornhuskers can force J.J. McCarthy to beat them through the air, he might make mistakes.
The McCarthy we saw against East Carolina and UNLV is capable of demoralizing Nebraska, but he hasn’t looked quite as crisp the last two weeks.
Nebraska is also 12th in the nation with 14 sacks -- five more than Michigan has against even weaker competition. Between the run stuffing and the quarterback pressure, this defense is going to be a major test for Michigan’s offensive line.
It’s never easy to win Big Ten games on the road, which is why the month of October feels so dangerous for this No. 2 Michigan team. Everybody is expecting the Wolverines to be 9-0 by the Penn State game, but winning at Nebraska, Minnesota, and Michigan State in the span of four weeks is no easy task.
Two years ago, Michigan was on its way to a Big Ten championship and Nebraska was on its way to a 3-9 record, and it still took a late fumble for the Wolverines to win in Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers haven’t looked great so far, but expect Michigan to get their best on Saturday.