A great formula, a two-way mirror, meat-and-potatoes and Nebraska-Michigan
If things go to plan Nebraska may soon resemble No. 2 Michigan, but that may not help the Huskers Saturday. Unless it does.
“It’s a great formula, great formula,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday when presented with Nebraska’s rushing stats, offensive and defensive. “Stopping the run and being able to run the ball is a winning formula in football.”
Everyone who thinks about football knows this—it is, perhaps, the game’s greatest cliché—but this simple idea may actually be part of Harbaugh’s milk-fortified bone structure. At least that’s the image he presents, with the hat and glasses, the whistle and khakis. He is the archetypal 20th Century football coach finding success in the 21st Century with traditional football values.
The second-ranked Wolverines come to Lincoln with the nation’s No. 1 defense and No. 16 offense in rushing success rate. Nebraska is a few steps behind in both categories—11th defensively, 37th offensively—but that’s not bad give the Huskers are a couple of years behind Michigan. The Wolverines’ meat-and-potatoes approach stands out in today’s game, but it has powered back-to-back playoff appearances and this year’s team might be Harbaugh’s most talented.
When asked how much of Michigan’s basic blueprint he was hoping to replicate in Lincoln, head coach Matt Rhule led with “everything” before eventually summarizing the approach this way: “…being great on the o- and d-lines, having good quarterback play, being physical at tight end, all those things—that’s what we’re doing.”
Saturday’s game might be something of a stylistic two-way mirror. Michigan gets to look at the reflective side—in this case, that’s an advantage—and the Wolverines will see themselves, fully formed. The Huskers are on the other side. When they look at the mirror they might see Michigan.
That’s OK. It doesn’t mean Nebraska, 17.5-point underdogs as of Wednesday, has no shot. It just means Rhule and staff have had four games to get their team back to an elemental form of football. Harbaugh is coaching his 101st game at his alma mater.
“It will be a game of blocking, tackling, focusing on fundamentals, reads, getting off blocks, defeating blocks, playing the assignment, in the right alignment, being in the right technique, a lot of focus on real football fundamentals and technique,” Harbaugh said this week.
(Note: For the best footnotes experience, open this post in a browser or the Substack app.)
He’s right, inevitably, because he listed most of what happens in a football game,1 but it is notable that a “focus on fundamentals” came up twice. In recent years Nebraska wasn’t putting the football fundamentals test to many teams, and it certainly wasn’t passing that test often either.
Michigan is leaving Ann Arbor for the first time this season to administer its football fundamentals test on the road. It’s still early in Rhule’s tenure, but Nebraska has a chance to get some of the questions right, and that looks like an early sign of progress.
How many correct answers do the Huskers need for a passing grade? What does Nebraska need to do to pull off the upset?2 Here are a few specifics to consider: