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Two of the biggest names in college football will tangle in the 2005 MasterCard Alamo Bowl. With traditional powers Nebraska and Michigan facing off, this will certainly be another Alamo worth remembering.
Michigan Offense vs. Nebraska Defense
RB Mike Hart is the motor that drives Michigan's offense. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, their bell cow running back suffered through an injury-riddled sophomore season, missing four full games and portions of three others. Hart only carried the ball 20-plus times in four games during the 2005 season, but the Wolverines won three of those four contests. With a month to rest, Hart should be the healthiest he has been all season and can be expected to carry a heavy load. The time off will also benefit a Michigan offensive line that has been plagued by multiple injuries this season. If healthy, the Wolverines should be able to exploit their size advantage up front in order to establish a strong rushing attack versus an improving Nebraska defense that surrenders 123.8 yards per game on the ground. Hart does not possess the speed to run away from playmaking MLB Corey McKeon, but Michigan can wear the undersized McKeon (225 pounds) down by continually running at him.
Who: Michigan vs. Nebraska
When: Dec. 28, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: San Antonio
Like Hart, QB Chad Henne has also struggled through an up-and-down sophomore season. Henne has a tendency to force throws under pressure and made far too many mistakes inside the red zone this season. However, he is at his best when working off of the play-action series and should benefit greatly from having a healthy Hart in the lineup. If Michigan can give Henne time, he has the weapons in WRs Jason Avant, Steve Breaston and freshman Mario Manningham to scorch the Nebraska secondary. The one advantage that the Cornhuskers have is the fact that their defensive front-four does a fine job of getting pressure on its own, as DEs Adam Carriker and Barry Turner, and NT Le Kevin Smith have combined for 20.5 sacks.
Nebraska Offense vs. Michigan Defense
Nebraska QB Zac Taylor finally seems to be settling into a comfort zone in coach Bill Callahan's West Coast offense. Taylor is reading coverages more quickly, making more intelligent decisions and showing more accuracy as a passer now that his confidence is improved. In his last two outings (both wins), Taylor completed 65 percent of his passes for 612 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. In order to pull off the upset against Michigan, Taylor will need to be even more effective throwing the ball.
The Cornhuskers do not possess great talent at wide receiver, but they will still look to spread Michigan out with three- and four-receiver sets that will include Nate Swift, Terrence Nunn, Frantz Hardy and Grant Mulkey. The Wolverines lack great talent in the secondary, but their linebackers are athletic and their defense does a good job of capitalizing on mistakes of opposing quarterbacks. Nebraska should gain a lot of yards via the air in this game but eventually the pass rush pressure, led by OLB LaMarr Woodley (six sacks), will get to Taylor and result in a few big play opportunities for Michigan's back seven.
Nebraska's Cory Ross does not garner the respect he deserves because he is an undersized running back with just decent rushing totals (721 yards on 197 carries in 2005) on a middle-of-the-road Nebraska football team. However, Ross is a much more valuable player than most people give him credit for. At 5-foot-6, 195 pounds, Ross carries a relatively heavy load on the ground. With 40 catches this season, he also has been a valuable weapon for QB Zac Taylor.
Michigan's defense improved as the season progressed, but it still is a unit susceptible to the run. NT Gabe Watson has great size, but he is an inconsistent performer who will allow too many blockers to release off the line in pursuit of his ILBs Dave Harris and Chris Graham. The Wolverines have had some trouble versus smaller, quicker backs this season (Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, Notre Dame's Darius Walker, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun), so Ross could play a key role as a runner and receiver in this game.
Michigan's special team units are good, but Nebraska has a clear edge in this area -- especially in the kicking game. Thanks to the strong leg of Sam Koch, the Huskers ranks second nationally in net punting. They also have a weapon in kicker Jordan Congdon, who has connected on 18-of-22 field goal attempts this season and has only missed once in his last 13 tries. Nebraska has been below average in the kickoff return game, but Cortney Grixby and Terrence Nunn are big-play threats as punt return specialists.
Michigan's biggest weapon on special teams is Breaston. After struggling through a shoulder injury early in the season, Breaston has re-emerged as a big-play threat in the return game. He is averaging 12.9 yards per punt return and 26.3 yards per kickoff return, including a 95-yard score. The Wolverines are solid in the kicking game, as punter Ryan Ross averages 38.8 yards per attempt and kicker Garrett Rivas has connected on 19-of-25 field goal attempts this season.
Three Key Individual Matchups
1. Michigan ROT Jake Long vs. Nebraska DE Adam Carriker
2. Michigan WR Jason Avant vs. Nebraska CB Cortney Grixby
3. Nebraska OC Kurt Mann vs. Michigan NT Gabe Watson
The Wolverines are undoubtedly the more talented team in this game and avoiding a five-loss season will serve as enough motivation for coach Lloyd Carr's team. Things have finally begun to click for Taylor in Callahan's West Coast scheme, and the Cornhuskers will keep this game close by moving the ball effectively via the air. But in the end, Henne is simply the better quarterback with a more explosive supporting cast in Hart, Avant, Breaston and Manningham. It won't be Bo Schembechler or Tom Osborne's brand of football, but Michigan will prevail over Nebraska in what promises to be a high-scoring event between two of college football's most traditional powerhouses.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Nebraska 20
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