Nebraska vs. Northwestern, 10.20.12 (copy)

Turnovers like this one from Nebraska tight end Kyler Reed (25) nearly cost the Huskers the game against Northwestern last week. The Huskers can ill afford to make those same mistakes against Michigan.

1. Turning the table on turnovers

It’s difficult to drop any lower than 104th in turnover margin. To pull that off, you’d have to do something like go minus 3 your next game. Face palm. That’s exactly what the Huskers did a week ago, almost costing them a game. NU's turnover margin ranking this week — 110th. It wasn’t just the three fumbles against Northwestern. Husker defenders had at least three interceptions go in and out of their hands. “That's game-changers right there,” said safety P.J. Smith. Michigan has learned the hard way, too. The Wolverines rank 80th in turnover margin, including a six-turnover night at Notre Dame. A victory in the turnover category doesn't always guarantee the same on the scoreboard, but they align often enough. If ever there were a time for Nebraska to rid itself of the turnover bug, and maybe squeeze a couple picks in the process, it’d be now.

2. Two guys used to the spotlight

A reporter tried this week to get Taylor Martinez to make it into a duel between he and Denard Robinson. The Husker quarterback picked the right answer. “It's my offense versus their defense and our defense versus his offense,” said Martinez. That's true. Each QB will face his own unique challenges. For Martinez and the Husker offense, it will be dealing with a defense that dominated Nebraska on third down a year ago. The Huskers were just 3-of-13 on the money down. Those failures, along with special-teams meltdowns, allowed Michigan to hold the ball nearly 23 minutes longer. For Michigan's Robinson, his biggest assignment may be avoiding turnovers that have plagued him in big games away from home. While he has thrown just one pick in his last three games, Robinson will put the ball up for grabs on occasion. Can Nebraska make him pay when he does? Maybe an even bigger question: Was the Husker defense’s improved performance against the zone-read last Saturday just one good day or the catalyst for a second-half surge? Hey, Robinson’s going to burn a defense a time or two or three. ... The problem is if those explosive plays begin to multiply. But if the Husker defense can play disciplined and win some early downs, well, then you have a quarterback completing just 53.5 percent of his passes in some third-and-longs. You’ll take your chances there.

3. The adventures of Ameer

It looks like Rex Burkhead will probably be a spectator Saturday. Fortunately for the Huskers, sophomore Ameer Abdullah has proven to be quite talented. You know he’ll run tough. Can the Husker O-line do the necessary mauling to help Abdullah (and Braylon Heard and Imani Cross) inflict some real damage against a big, physical D-line? Michigan ranks a so-so 49th in rushing defense, but is coming off holding Michigan State to just 112 yards on the ground. It’s a challenge. But Abdullah seems to be the type who rather likes that. He'll have plenty on his shoulders. As a running back. As a return man. Talk about a critical chess piece.

4. A chance to change the conversation

Husker coaches and players have made no secret about it: The goal this season was to win the Legends Division, get to Indianapolis, win there, get to Pasadena. Roses. Now, it’s often true that in a conference race, you're allowed a bad week or even two. But there are certain games within a race that you simply can’t lose to keep the championship dream alive. Here’s one. A Nebraska loss means Michigan has a two-game edge in the standings and the tiebreaker. Don’t let anyone fool you. There’s no coming back from that to win the division. On the other hand, a Husker win and Nebraska is the lead pony heading into November. And while a win doesn’t guarantee anything beyond hoarse screaming on O Street for a night, it sure could go a long way in changing the narrative of this Husker season. Thus far, it’s a season that has had the talk center on turnovers, 653 UCLA yards and 63 Ohio State points. You won’t hear a lot about those things over the next week if the Huskers put it together vs. the Wolverines. There would be a new popular conversation topic — a championship chase. As Bo Pelini put it this week, "The stakes are high."

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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