Nebraska is coming off an emotional 17-14 win at controversy-marred Penn State last weekend, as the Huskers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the third quarter and held off a late push by the Nittany Lions in the fourth quarter. The win put the 8-2 Huskers in good shape in the Big Ten Legends Division, where Bo Pelini's team is 4-2 and trails by just one game to Michigan State with two games left to play. Following this weekend, Nebraska will conclude its regular season schedule at home next Friday against Iowa.
A week after tripping up at Iowa, Michigan regained its footing with a crucial 31-14 win over Illinois in Champaign. The Wolverines got a huge day out of Fitzgerald Toussaint, who rushed for 192 yards and put Michigan at 4-2 in the Legends Division heading into this weekend's impactful matchup with Nebraska. Michigan closes out its 2011 regular season at home next weekend against fierce rival Ohio State.
Against Nebraska, Taylor Martinez didn't dominate from the quarterback position, but he played clean football in the win. Martinez threw for 143 yards with no interceptions, and did what he does best on the ground, running 19 times for 56 yards and giving the Huskers a steady, consistent performance. Rex Burkhead had another stellar game on the ground for Nebraska, leading the team with 121 yards rushing on 25 carries, and added a touchdown on the ground.
"He comes to play every week," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini following the win at Penn State. "We gave the players some rest this week, and it was actually hard to get Rex off the field because he is going to fight you to the tooth and nail when you try to replace him. But, he mixed it up well, and I thought it was a real team effort on the offensive side of the ball. I thought we had a couple missed opportunities, but that a good defense we played over there."
Burkhead is the key player down the stretch. He is a Big Ten-type football player, rugged and durable out of the backfield. Burkhead has rushed for 1,072 yards this season with 14 touchdowns, and isn't a player that loses alot of yards. In 10 games, he has lost just 37 yards. Martinez complements him out of the backfield, accounting for 245.6 yards of total offense per game, which ranks third in the Big Ten. Nebraska is third in the league in rushing as well, gobbling up 232.7 yards per contest.
The Huskers' defense settled in against Penn State, frustrating quarterback Matt McGloin into a 16-of-34 passing performance, with 193 yards through the air. The Huskers front also controlled the line of scrimmage for much of the afternoon, holding Silas Redd to 53 yards on 15 carries, although Stephon Green gave Penn State 71 yards and two touchdowns on 71 carries. Nebraska ranks seventh in the Big 10 in both total defense and scoring, allowing 352 yards and 22.2 points per game. Lavonte David is fourth in the league in tackles, averaging 9.7 stops per outing.
Toussaint was a bona fide star for Michigan in its win over Illinois, and he gave the Wolverines 27 carries and one touchdown alongside the 192 yards.
"He is (getting better). I'm glad he's here at Michigan and our running back. There were times when he came out and he would say, 'I need to see that better' or 'I need to put my foot in the ground a little more physically,' " said Michigan head coach Brady Hoke of Toussaint following the win over Illinois.
He was a standout on a day when Denard Robinson ran for 30 yards on 12 carries, although the quarterback scored two touchdowns with his legs and chipped in 92 yards on 6-of-10 passing. Michigan finished with 223 yards rushing.
Robinson and Toussaint have proven to be a dynamic duo in the Michigan backfield, and the Wolverines will need playmaking ability in two huge games the next two weeks. Robinson accounts for 275 yard of total offense per game, with 96 of those yards coming on the ground. He has thrown for 1,611 yards this season with 13 touchdowns, but has also thrown 13 interceptions. Toussaint is averaging 84.1 yards rushing per game, and has ran for 170 and 192 yards in two of the last three outings after posting just one 100 yard performance prior. He has five touchdowns to boot, and last Saturday marked the most carries he's gotten all season long.
Michigan's defense deserves credit for the win against Illinois as well, as the Wolverine swarmed early and often against Nathan Scheelhase and company. Scheelhase completed just 16-of-31 for 170 yards and one interception in the loss, and Illinois was held to just 37 yards rushing on 33 carries. That was exactly the type of performance Michigan needed heading into the last two games, as the unit will face two of the best runners in the final two weeks in Burkhead and in Ohio State's Dan Herron. Michigan ranks seventh in the country in scoring defense, allowing 16.11 points per game, and has the sixth best defense in the Big Ten, allowing 322.2 yards per game.