LINCOLN — Keep the football inside and in front.
The way Michigan fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs says that, you can tell he's heard it thousands of times.
The basic defensive principle appears to be the foundation of the Wolverines' team-oriented system.
Avoid the big plays. Gang-tackle everyone.
“We're more bend but don't break,” Kovacs said. “We want to make the offense drive the length of the field.”
And that philosophy would seem to provide a nice starting point for a game plan against Nebraska's offense, which can at times rely too heavily on big plays or stall out drives with its own mistakes.
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The Husker offense has needed seven plays or more on just 16 of its 43 scoring drives (37 percent). Only 14 of those possessions have lasted more than three minutes.
NU has totaled 22 rushing plays of 20 yards of more, the fourth-most nationally. The Huskers have 27 passing plays of 20 yards or more, a total that ranks 37th.
“It's a very explosive offense,” Kovacs said. “They've got a lot of athletes, and they like to get the ball in their hands in space. We've got to contain them.”
Just so happens that Michigan's been pretty good at doing that this year.
Opposing offenses have recorded 14 total plays of 20-plus yards against the Wolverines — three on the ground (tied for fifth-fewest nationally) and 11 through the air (only one defense has allowed fewer). Alabama was responsible for four of those big gains.
“If you let the ball outside your defense, you don't have a chance,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “The will to run to the football leaves you because there's no chance for you to get there.”
“That's why keeping it (inside and in front) gives you that incentive — that if I run real hard to the football, it's going to be there and there's going to be a target there.”
But Nebraska won't make it easy. The Huskers will likely use zone-read option plays to attack the edges. Maybe some jet sweeps, as well. Kovacs said quarterback Taylor Martinez runs “tough,” and he'll get to the sidelines quickly.
With the exception of some two-back, downhill-style running plays, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, the NU offense is quite similar to the Wolverines' attack. Especially, the lethal play-action game, he said.
But while Hoke has been critical of his own offensive line this month, he — and his players and assistants — made sure to compliment the recent work of a “physical” Nebraska front. “They have the ability to move people off the ball,” Hoke said.
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The Huskers managed just 138 rushing yards in a 45-17 loss to the Wolverines last year, but Mattison said the NU offensive line is more athletic this season.
Senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said the Nebraska O-line is one of the best units he's faced. Add in the skill players, and it creates quite a challenge.
“They're leading the Big Ten in offense, period — in almost everything,” Campbell said. “We've got a big game ahead of us.”
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