The Nebraska football team easily had its most positive weekend of the season last Saturday, setting up a big week ahead to keep that momentum going against No. 9 Michigan.
Saturday’s contest comes at a pivotal moment for both head coaches, who have had similar issues at their respective teams. Both Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and Michigan head coach John Harbaugh played quarterback at their schools, and brought in high expectations for their tenures.
Results have been mixed so far for both programs, with neither reaching the Big Ten Championship game, as well as going winless against their teams’ biggest rival.
Frost and Harbaugh have faced once before, in Frost’s first ever conference game, with Michigan earning a dominant 56-10 victory over the outmatched Huskers. For the current Nebraska players who played in that game, the memory of the beatdown still lingers fresh, with the difference in physicality between the two teams being noticeable.
“I remember I was getting smacked,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said in Monday’s press conference. “It was a rough game for myself, and a rough game for the team. We’re in a much different place on both sides of the ball here.”
The improvement on both offense and defense was noticeable in the Northwestern game, with Nebraska putting up 657 yards of total offense while holding Northwestern to its season-low of seven points.
A big reason for that was the play of the offensive and defensive lines. The Huskers had struggled previously in the season from those units, but saw a complete performance on Saturday. The offensive line featured two new starters, and swapped one more starter with a different starter. That paved the way for the Huskers’ highest rushing total of the season while the defensive line stifled Northwestern to just 1.4 yards per carry.
Both units will need to keep up that level of production for success against Michigan, who leads the conference with 255 rushing yards per game. Just behind Michigan in the standings is Nebraska, who ranks second in the conference with 237.5 yards per game.
While Michigan has the edge in yards, Nebraska tops the conference in rushing touchdowns, tallying 20 so far this season, though it has played an extra game. The run game will face its biggest challenge yet, with Michigan only allowing one rushing score so far this season and 3.3 yards per carry.
“That’s how it is every Big Ten game, it’s what you signed up for and why you came here,” Senior defensive lineman Ben Stille said at Monday’s press conference. “We’re ready for that, it will be [decided] on both sides up front.”
The run offense has seemingly found its top back in freshman running back Rahmir Johnson. Johnson led Nebraska in rushing yards two of its last three games, and picked up his first two touchdowns of the season against Northwestern. The Huskers have struggled to settle on a top running back so far, with four different running backs designated the lead back in its first six games.
Freshman running back Jaquez Yant put his name into the mix against Northwestern, leading the team with 127 yards in his first extended action as a Husker.
“Rahmir took the competition seriously and he kept improving,” Frost said in Monday’s press conference. “He’s still got room to go, but we’ll keep letting these guys compete and sooner or later we’ll find the lead guy. For right now it’s Rahmir, but we’ll play whoever gives us the best chance”
The run offense is not the only portion of Nebraska’s game that’s continuously improved over the season. The Husker defense went from allowing 167 rushing yards in its conference opener against lowly Illinois, to shutting down the vaunted Michigan State offense to 71 rushing yards and 254 total yards.
The defense, as a whole, has played strong since that first game, with every unit playing its part. A standout player has been senior linebacker JoJo Domann, who led the team with eight tackles and two sacks against Northwestern. Domann ranks second in the Big Ten with seven tackles for loss, trailing sophomore linebacker and teammate Garett Nelson’s eight.
Domann was named Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance, the second Husker of the year to do so with sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer getting the honors after his Week Two performance against Buffalo.
“This is an award for the Blackshirts,” Domann said at Monday’s press conference. “I’m blessed to be a part of this team that made it possible”
After coming up just short in its previous two contests with ranked opponents, Nebraska will get another chance at a season-defining win against No. 9 Michigan, an opportunity that is not lost on the players.
Playing the ranked matchup at home in primetime makes this ranked matchup different, where the previous games were on the road. Michigan lost its only previous trip to Memorial Stadium 23-9, and will be returning to a full crowd ready to make a difference. Nebraska’s defeat over Northwestern last Saturday was the first night home victory in Memorial Stadium over a conference opponent since Nov. 12, 2016 against Minnesota.
“Other than the Akron game where we had one play, that was the best atmosphere I’ve seen, and this one could be as good or better,” Frost said “We need noise, we need help. Hope the fans are as excited as we are.”
Saturday’s contest marks an important point in Nebraska’s season, with Michigan representing one of three ranked teams left on the schedule. The Huskers are halfway to bowl eligibility, but with just six games remaining the margin for error is slim.
Players spoke about remaining focused and up to the task with a schedule that’s not getting any easier.
“Frost told us this week we’ve got three two-week seasons left,” Junior tight end Austin Allen said at Monday’s press conference. “There’s two weeks until the bye week, then two weeks until the other bye week, and then two weeks until the end of the season. That’s how I’m going to approach it but the biggest task at hand is this weekend.”
After dropping close contests in its previous big games, the home crowd and improved mentality could make a difference in Nebraska’s biggest game yet. Play up front will be crucial, particularly slowing down the Michigan ground game that’s been the conference’s best so far.
If the Huskers can keep up the physicality and control the line of scrimmage, the blueprint is there to flip the script Saturday from Frost’s previous matchup against Michigan.