It's a game between two of the top five winningest programs in college football history. Nebraska and Michigan on a November day. The teams big enough that they’re showing this one on national television.
Two classic helmets set for collision in the Big House. Put a gray sky above the scene and it’s a Norman Rockwell painting.
But as the two proud programs meet for their last time as Legend Division foes, there's restlessness in both fan bases.
Even with last week’s miracle finish, a 49-yard lightning bolt of joy to snag victory from the clutches of defeat, there's an understanding that Nebraska is a fingernail from being 5-3 right now with two straight losses.
As exhilarating as the Hail Mary pass was, Husker assistant coach Barney Cotton expressed this sentiment at the Big Red Breakfast on Friday when he joked: “We came within four seconds of me standing up here with a bag over my head.”
And up in Michigan? Well, Wolverines’ third-year coach Brady Hoke is hearing loud criticism for the first time after last week’s disaster against rival Michigan State – a 29-6 loss that was every bit as ugly as the score suggests.
It was bad enough that a couple columnists – at least one locally and one nationally – went so far as to call the Wolverines “soft.”
Hoke, of course, disagreed.
“I do think we can be a very good football team,” the coach said. “I’m sure most of you think I’m nuts, but when we make sure all the details and how we want to play are in line, we can play pretty good football.”
The same disgruntlement in Michigan was found in Nebraska just last week after the Huskers went to Minnesota and were overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage, losing by 11 points.
Holes in the red wall. Holes in the blue wall. Both teams arrive for Saturday’s game trying to patch them.
Which team covers its blemishes best Saturday, well, that’s the locker room that will have the most noise after the game.
Even with those flaws, the Huskers arrive in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a very real chance to turn the season in their favor.
For whatever criticism of this team, and speculative talk about coaches' futures, Nebraska still holds its fate in the Legends Division race in its hands. Beat Michigan and the Huskers could change the tone of conversation about this season, with a home game against Michigan State next week.
“We always tell our team we are in the exact same position as last year," said junior running back Ameer Abdullah. "We can either pack it up and say try again next year or you can fight to the end.”
Certainly there was optimism in Husker camp this week, a belief that the dramatic win against Northwestern, while too close for comfort, could also provide a spark.
Part of that optimism was also based on the fact the Husker defense played its best football of the season in the last 2½ quarters, stopping Northwestern on 11 straight possessions.
"I thought that half of football was as good as we've played, really, in a couple of years,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “But we need to build on it ... and that won't help us come Saturday unless we continue to play with that sense of urgency and that attention to detail."
Whether the Huskers bring pressure as much as they did against Northwestern remains to be seen, but, certainly, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, dangerous as he can be, has made his share of costly mistakes when under duress this season.
While Gardner has averaged 308 yards of offense to rank first in the Big Ten, he’s also thrown 11 interceptions and lost four fumbles.
Can the Huskers get to Gardner? As much as Michigan’s young offensive line has struggled, Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said it won’t be easy.
“They max-protect a lot. They’ll do a lot of play-action. It’ll be a lot of 7-on-4, and then they’ll leak the back out,” Kaczenski said. “You've got to control the pocket. It’s not necessarily getting home (to the quarterback). There’s going to be a one-on-one across the board somewhere. That guy has to win, but he also has to do a good job of staying in his gap.”
In lesser words: Make the pocket uncomfortable for Gardner while also staying disciplined to your gap responsibilities.
If given time, Gardner has weapons in the receiving game in Jeremy Gallon (50 catches for 898 yards) and Devin Funchess (29 catches for 557 yards).
"Because of their athleticism, and with (Devin) Gardner at quarterback, and their skill guys, they have potential to make big plays really every down," Papuchis said.
And while the Wolverines have struggled to get a running game going, ranking just 79th in rushing offense (154.9 yards), Kaczenski points to that area as being as big a key as any for Nebraska's defense.
“We've still got to stop the run. We’re giving up a lot of unearned runs out there. A lot of things that we’re able to control that we’re not doing. You've got to make teams earn it,” Kaczenski said. “A lot of big chunks of yards people have been getting on us, we haven’t made them earn.”
On the offensive side of the ball for the Huskers, injuries are still a concern, with Nebraska mixing and matching on its O-line to account for the loss of guards Spencer Long and Jake Cotton.
After giving up just three sacks the first six games, Nebraska has given up eight in the last two.
Protecting the ball could be the deciding factor. Tommy Armstrong gets the start, trying to bounce back from two straight games where he threw three interceptions in each contest.
After starting the year winning the turnover battle, Nebraska is now in the minus category, falling to 75th nationally in turnover margin. Michigan is even worse – 83rd.
All those little details will add up to a winner among two programs that, over the long haul, have had much more happy Saturdays than sad ones.
Michigan has won 914 games in school history, the most of any college program. Nebraska has won 866, which ranks fifth.
Kaczenski is no stranger to games against Michigan. He admits he occasionally gets its catchy fight song stuck in his head.
He coached against the Wolverines when he was an assistant at Iowa. He also played against them when he was at Notre Dame.
As a player, he won one game at the Big House and lost one. He understands well that these are the kinds of games that you remember.
“I’m fortunate to be at Nebraska, but when I’m done doing these things, you become a college football fan,” Kaczenski said. “On Saturdays, you’re going to turn on the Nebraskas, the Michigans, the Texases, the Oklahomas, the Penn States, the Notre Dames. Those are the schools you’re going to watch when this thing is all said and done.
“So I’m privileged to be part of games and opportunities like this, and walking these sidelines and coaching these kids.”
Kaczenski added one line to that thought:
“It’s better when you come out on top, though, that’s for sure.”