LINCOLN — The clouds rolled in this week. Thick ones with gray bottoms, bringing wind that stripped trees of their leaves and turned birds toward Southern homes.
It's been nearly one month since Nebraska's football team played at home, and the weather perhaps best associated with its biggest, best-known conference games will surround the occasion.
And on several levels, it is an occasion.
Michigan — college football's all-time leader in victories with 900 — comes to town for the first time in nearly 101 years to play NU, which ranks fourth in all-time wins. The helmets. The fight songs. A Legends Division lead at stake. History on a cold, prime-time stage.
“Two household names,” Husker secondary coach Terry Joseph said. “Two schools that recruit nationally. Two schools that you can walk in any high school, and no introduction is needed. We respect them. And I think they respect the N, too.”
“It's big-time, it's on,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kevin Williams said of the 7 p.m. game televised on ESPN2. “It's tradition. It's on. Big game. Tradition versus tradition. I think it's really cool.”
Williams grew up in Toledo, Ohio, one hour from Michigan Stadium. He made the drive more than once to watch games there. He even got an offer from the Wolverines. He chose instead Nebraska, a school he said had many of the same traits.
“Nebraska — everybody wants to play us,” Williams said. “It's like at Michigan, the tradition is unreal. They're just perceived that way.”
With a 3-0 record in the Big Ten, the 5-2 Wolverines are perceived as the Legends Division front-runner, too. Michigan has a one-game lead on Nebraska (5-2 and 2-1), an easier road to navigate down the stretch and a star senior quarterback in Denard Robinson with which to do it.
The 6-foot, 187-pounder with trademark dreadlocks and untied shoes leads the league in rushing yards per game. He's second in the Big Ten in total offense. He's likely first in Big Ten highlight plays over the past four years.
“Shut down Denard,” Williams said. “Seventy percent of their offense is generated through him. If we can shut down Denard, that's the key to the game on defense.”
The Huskers' offense — the best rushing, scoring and total attack in the Big Ten — will look for ways to dent a Michigan defense that's given up just 42 points in its past five games. On the road, UM held spread offenses Notre Dame and Purdue 148 and 163 yards below their season averages, respectively. Both scored just 13 points, as well.
Coordinator Greg Mattison's unit also shut down Nebraska last year in a 45-17 Wolverine win in Ann Arbor.
“Well-coached, very talented, they do a good job,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We've got to be on our 'A' game, for sure, this week. ... They're veteran players and they're playing really well together right now.”
With senior running back Rex Burkhead likely out for Saturday's game with a reinjured knee, Nebraska will turn to quarterback Taylor Martinez for answers to the Michigan riddle.
Martinez — third in the Big Ten in total offense and first in passing efficiency — led a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback at Northwestern last week in NU's 29-28 win, earning praise from coaches and teammates for a newfound vocal leadership on two deciding touchdown drives.
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“It was a different guy out there running,” Beck said. “I think he was feeling it. And he wanted it. You could see it. He had the ball in his hands and he was making plays.”
Other story lines to watch:
>> Turnovers: Both teams — and quarterbacks — have struggled at times with taking care of the ball. Nebraska is 110th in turnover margin, while Michigan is 80th. The Wolverines, however, have played two top defenses (Alabama and Notre Dame) away from home, while the Huskers have had no such challenge.
>> Special teams: The Huskers lost two fumbles on kickoffs, had a punt blocked and committed a roughing-the-punter penalty at Michigan last year. And last week, NU nearly duplicated those woes, losing two fumbles on punts and committing a personal foul that negated a fumble recovery on a punt.
>> Nebraska's night crowd: NU hasn't lost a night game at Memorial Stadium since 2008, and only a handful in school history. Coach Bo Pelini expects the atmosphere to be similar to that of the Wisconsin game, when the crowd helped the Huskers stage a 17-point comeback in a 30-27 win.
“This is going to be a pretty neat one from everything that I've heard — I guess the Sea of Red is the biggest phrase that has been used to describe it,” Michigan senior center Elliott Mealer said. “I think as a team we are pretty excited to go play there — it is going to be a great atmosphere.”
Husker long snapper P.J. Mangieri expects the same. The senior from Peoria, Ill., is another NU player who grew up in Big Ten country and knows Michigan has the reputation for being tough and physical.
“I hope they bring their best,” he said. “We're ready to play. First quarter to fourth quarter. And if overtime comes, it comes. I want a well-fought battle.
“You never want an easy game, and you never want somebody who's going to come in and whup you around. With Michigan, we got ourselves a good opponent.”
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