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Nebraska vs. Michigan – Rivalry from the Start

November 18, 2011


For two teams that have only played each other 3 times in the modern era, there’s certainly no love lost between Michigan and Nebraska. For most fans, it’s actually a game that never took place that is the source of the dislike.  The 1997 “shared” National Championship aka “Tom Osborne Retirement Present” aka “Phil Fulmer Screwover” is still a point of contention for both fanbases, even 14 years later.  For those not familiar, in 1997, Michigan headed into the Rose Bowl ranked #1 in the country while #2 ranked Nebraska headed to the Orange Bowl.  Both teams were undefeated, but Nebraska needed a last minute controversial kicked pass to escape a loss to Missouri, while Michigan had some close calls, but nothing quite that dramatic.  This was all prior to the BCS, so even though Michigan and Nebraska were #1 and #2, they couldn’t play each other due to conference bowl tie-in requirements.

Michigan defeated Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl, and finished the season 12-0.  Nebraska defeated Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl and finished the season 13-0 thanks to a Big 12 Championship win as well.  While no team that had ever entered the bowl game ranked #1 and won had been demoted to #2 by the coaches, that’s exactly what happened.  Michigan finished the season #1 in the AP Poll, while Nebraska finished #1 in the Coaches Poll.

There are a couple of interesting anecdotes that go along with that story.  First was Nebraska QB Scott Frost openly lobbying in his post game interview for the Coaches to reward Tom Osborne since he was retiring, something that they seemed to listen to.  Second was Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer – still bitter that Charles Woodson beat out Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy – reportedly ranking Michigan #4, which was low enough to drop them from #1 to #2 in the coaches poll.  For both reasons, both Scott Frost and Phil Fulmer are permanently in the Go Blue Doghouse.

8 Years later Michigan and Nebraska met again, this time in the Alamo Bowl.  Michigan, though coming off of a disappointing 7-4 season, was a decent favorite to beat a 7-4 Cornhusker team.  For a variety of reasons, including the Sun Belt referees who were formally reviewed after the game by their conference, Michigan lost 32-28.  The game will most likely be remembered for the final play, where Michigan lateraled the ball 8 times, despite the entire Nebraska team running onto the field, and would have scored if Tyler Ecker hadn’t run out of bounds instead of pitching it to Steve Breaston.  A crazy ending to a rather meaningless game.

Michigan and Nebraska also got together in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, with Michigan getting the better of the Cornhuskers 27-23 and finishing ranked #2 overall in the country.

And for those that don’t know, this will not be Nebraska’s first trip to the Big House – they came to Ann Arbor in 1962 and defeated Bump Elliot’s Wolverine’s 25-13.

So although Michigan and Nebraska have only met on the field 3 times, it feels like they are a longtime rivalry that conjures feelings and animosity to that of Notre Dame.  The opportunity to play them year in and year out will certainly make for some great games in the future, and hopefully starting on Saturday.


  1. The Battle of the Running QB’s – Neither Denard Robinson or Nebraska Quarterback Taylor Martinez are going to win too many passing awards this year, or maybe ever, but how well they pass on Saturday may determine the outcome of this game.  Like Denard, Martinez is a run first quarterback with blazing speed; though he’s not faster than Denard, he’s certainly in that class of runners.   Martinez has picked up 768 yards on the ground this year, along with 7 touchdowns. To compare, Denard has 864 yards and 12 touchdowns.  And like Denard, Martinez has struggled throwing the ball, with only 1688 yards through the air to go with 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.  Unlike Denard, Martinez has been improving throughout the season, and has improved upon his 50% completion percentage through the first 5 games.  As an overall passer though Denard is better, when he is making the proper reads and setting his feet.  The QB who can move the ball through the air the best tomorrow will be the one smiling after the game. 
  2. Postseason Implications – Though Michigan is all but eliminated from the Big Ten race (barring a huge upset by the Hoosiers in their protected rivalry with MSU), there is still plenty to play for.  A win against Nebraska and Ohio State next week would give Michigan a 10-2 finish, and if the cards fall right, a very good shot at a BCS bowl – something nobody thought was possible in August.  At the very least, the Wolverines would play in a marquee matchup in the Capitol One Bowl on New Year’s Day.  If the Cornhuskers win this week and next week against Iowa, they would only need one MSU loss (perhaps at Northwestern next week) to win the Legends Division title and play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.  Even if the Spartans don’t slip up, Nebraska could finish at 10-2 by winning out, and would have the inside track at a BCS bowl invite as well.  The bottom line is that both teams have a lot to play for these last two weeks. 
  3. The Other Running Backs – While both defenses will pay most of their attention to the quarterbacks, both Michigan and Nebraska have dangerous threats at running back as well.  For Nebraska, junior Rex Burkhead already has 1,000 yards this year, and has been one of the better running backs in the Big Ten.  For Michigan, Fitzgerald Toussaint hasn’t been as consistent as Burkhead all year, but has rushed for 420 yards in the last 3 weeks.   With so much focus on Robinson and Martinez, don’t be surprised if Burkhead or Toussaint steal the show.
  4. Blackshirts vs. Mattison’s Crew – Nebraska’s starting defense has worn black jerseys since the 1960’s, and have been known as the Blackshirts ever since.  Though Nebraska has had some stellar defenses in the past, they’ve been inconsistent all year long.  Dominating performances against MSU (3 points, 187 total yards) have been mixed in with perplexing results against Northwestern (25 points, 468 total yards).  The only emerging pattern is that teams with mobile QB’s like Northwestern, Wisconsin, and OSU, have done very well against the Cornhuskers, which bodes well for Michigan.  For Michigan, Mattison’s crew has been more consistent than any Michigan defense since 2006, peaking with a dominating performance against Illinois last week.  They’ll face a huge challenge against the two headed rushing attack of Burkhead and Martinez, and will need to play strong assignment football to keep them under control. 
  5. Turnover Battle – Like any good Big Ten game between two evenly matched teams, this will likely come down to who protects the ball the best, or in contrast, which defense forces the most turnovers.  Not surprising for two 8-2 teams, Michigan and Nebraska are ranked #51 and #52 in turnover margin in the country, and its likely the team that gets the better of that battle on Saturday will emerge victorious.  And since I think that quarterback play will play a huge role in this game, the QB who turns it over the least is going to be the winner. 


Nebraska’s strength is a rushing offense that requires a defense to play fundamentally sound football to stop it.  Stay in your lanes, stick with your assignment, keep the man in front of you, and make good tackles.  I can’t believe I’m writing this, but that’s exactly what Michigan has done best this year.  The amazing defensive turnaround has been because Greg Mattison has figured out what most college defensive coordinators never do – that most opponents aren’t good enough to continually make plays, so your best bet is to make them pick up yardage in small chunks and wait for a mistake to kill the drive.   On Saturday, Michigan’s game plan will be the same – wrap up on tackles, contain Martinez on the ground, and force him to throw the ball where he is prone to errant passes.  With Robinson and Martinez being such similar players, both defenses will have the advantage of having faced this type of player every day in practice.  The biggest difference though is that Martinez is a dynamic runner, while Robinson is a dynamic player who seems have found a rut in the passing game. 

Nebraska is going to get most of their action on the ground, through Martinez and Burkhead, while Michigan will be aided by Toussaint, but will need Robinson to throw better to win.  If his arm is healthy, I think that can happen.  I’ve been saying it for weeks, but I think this is the week we see the Denard of old.  His passing was pretty good last week before leaving with an injury, and Nebraska has had serious trouble containing mobile QB’s this year.  Denard goes for 300+ total yards, and Michigan wins. 

Michigan 24 Nebraska 18

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kref permalink
    November 18, 2011 7:11 PM

    Denard goes for 400+ yards and Michigan wins!

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