Saturday’s match-up between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Michigan Wolverines will have massive implications for both programs. Although neither school controls its Big Ten championship destiny per se, a Michigan State stumble coupled with either team emerging victorious could completely shift the Legends Division landscape.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers, by virtue of their tiebreaker over Michigan State, theoretically has more to play for this weekend. Whether or not that particular greater sense of purpose will be enough to counteract the emotion and enthusiasm that Michigan fans will no doubt infuse their stadium with remains to be seen. The Big House is the largest venue in college football and houses one of the most loyal fan bases around. Plus, it's a place the Huskers haven’t visited since 1962.
Of course, there was no shortage of emotion or enthusiasm last week when the Huskers defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 17-14 on the road, so maybe the theatrics won’t get to them as much.
The number one objective for Nebraska come Saturday will be stopping Michigan quarterback, Denard Robinson. As it stands, the Huskers rank a pitiful eighth in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing over 161 yards per game. Couple that with the Wolverines averaging over 231 yards per game on the ground and you see why things may get ugly – quick.
Coming off a 31-14 victory over Illinois, Robinson -- despite a mild wrist sprain -- poses the type of threat that many teams identify Huskers' quarterback Taylor Martinez as. He’s evasive, speedy and when he’s on, he can deliver the ball in tight situations.
When he’s on.
Michigan’s problem is that Robinson tends to be off just as much. Heading into this week’s showdown, Robinson has thrown a pick in each of the last five outings. Altogether, he’s thrown seven total interceptions in that same time span.
Not that the notion of Robinson’s inconsistency will cause Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to take him lightly.
"He can beat you and do a lot of different things," Pelini said. "This guy, you watch him on film, he's fun to watch. I won't get a lot of sleep this week. There are times he'll make three, four, five guys miss on a play."
Offensively, Nebraska will attempt to counterbalance the perma-threat that is Robinson with their own version of a mobile quarterback in Martinez. Last week against Penn State, the enigmatic Husker passer had one of his more quiet (albeit, not bad) showings with 143 yards passing and 56 yards rushing. More important than what he did, though, is what he didn’t do. He didn’t throw the ball away to the opposition as he’s proven prone to doing. Currently, he ranks second in the Big Ten in interceptions behind Robinson.
The key to Nebraska’s offensive attack, though, remains running back Rex Burkhead. The quiet but amazingly impactful Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a score against Penn State, and has had at least one touchdown in every game the Huskers have played this season. It is Burkhead above all else that has kept Nebraska afloat despite the squad’s unimpressive defense, sporadic offense and countless disappointments by staying a model of consistency through thick and then.
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke acknowledges the threat that Burkhead poses.
"Obviously, he's a challenge to all 11 guys out there and coaches and everything else because he's a guy who runs downhill, runs hard, and he's got enough acceleration and movement to him that he's tough to tackle," Hoke said. "He's really a great slicing style of runner."
For better or worse, it all comes down to this.
We’ve laid out the path to the Big Ten Championship game for Nebraska, and winning on Saturday is an absolutely integral part of that equation. Will it ultimately happen?
Time will tell.