Nebraska-Michigan Preview

BY foxsports • November 15, 2011

The Big Ten Legends Division has become a three-team race, with No. 17 Nebraska and No. 20 Michigan in the thick of it.

That won't be the case after Saturday's meeting at the Big House.

The Cornhuskers and Wolverines, each 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the conference, sit one game behind No. 12 Michigan State, which faces lowly Indiana on Saturday. If the Spartans win, Michigan will be eliminated from the race - win or lose - while Nebraska can stay alive by winning in Ann Arbor.

A Michigan State loss would put the winner into a tie for a chance to play in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. Nebraska holds the tiebreaker over the Spartans, while Michigan needs to win out and hope Michigan State loses its remaining games.

"We've got a lot to play for,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "We're going into a tough environment against a good football team.''

That would've been an understatement last week, when the Huskers went to Penn State with increased security amid a sex-abuse scandal that led to the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno days before the game.

Nebraska blocked out the distractions and came away with a 17-14 victory to help it keep a realistic shot at appearing in Indianapolis on Dec. 3.

After facing the Nittany Lions in college football's second-largest venue, the Huskers will visit the only one with a bigger capacity in their first trip to Michigan Stadium since a 25-13 win in 1962.

"It's a good environment and should be fun for our kids. It's why you play college football," Pelini said. "You get to play in a lot of places with tradition and history and it'll be a heck of a challenge for us."

Their main hurdle may be slowing Denard Robinson, who will play despite a slightly sprained right wrist he suffered in Michigan's 31-14 win last Saturday at Illinois.

The injury occurred in the third quarter and kept Robinson out for the rest of the game after he rushed for 30 yards and two touchdowns. He threw an interception for the fifth straight contest before leaving, but backup Devin Gardner's TD pass to Martavious Odoms put the game away in the fourth.

Robinson has seven interceptions during his dubious streak, though Pelini said Robinson's threat to run is what makes him so dangerous.

"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.''

Nebraska ranks eighth in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 161.3 yards per game, while Michigan averages 231.3 yards on the ground - 13th in the nation.

The Huskers counter with their own dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Martinez, who threw for 143 yards and ran for 56 more in the win at Penn State.

Martinez has had his own struggles through the air, ranking seventh in the Big Ten in completion percentage (57.7), while his seven interceptions are tied for second-most in the conference behind Robinson's 13.

"He is only a sophomore and he is still learning and growing and developing," Pelini said. "He is making a lot of progress and his confidence continues to grow, which is always a positive.

"There is a lot he needs to learn and improve upon, but you can say that about anybody in that stage of their career."

With Martinez and tailback Rex Burkhead, Nebraska boasts a formidable running game that ranks one spot ahead of Michigan nationally, averaging 232.7 yards.

Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a touchdown against Penn State and has rushed for a TD in each contest this season.

Michigan held Illinois to 37 yards rushing and 214 total yards last week, though coach Brady Hoke said his team will have its hands full attempting to slow Burkhead.

"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."

Nebraska beat Michigan in the most recent meeting 32-28 on Dec. 28, 2005, in the Alamo Bowl.

Michigan has lost five straight home games against ranked opponents by an average of 16.6 points.

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