Nebraska's dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez will challenge Michigan football

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen shares what he learned in Michigan football's 38-17 win over Wisconsin and looks ahead to the Wolverines' game against Nebraska on Saturday:

Next up

Matchup: No. 8 Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) vs. Nebraska (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

TV/radio: ABC; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Wolverines by 3.

Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) runs the ball against the Michigan State Spartans during the second quarter at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) runs the ball against the Michigan State Spartans during the second quarter at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

MORE FROM MICHAEL COHEN: Michigan had more in its playbook than running the ball. It showed on Saturday

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MICHIGAN REPORT CARD: Harbaugh deserves praise for complete effort

Know the foe

A frustrating 3-3 start to the season for Nebraska has done little to quell concerns about the job security of coach Scott Frost. Now in his fourth year, Frost enters Saturday’s game with an overall record of 15-23 and 10-19 in Big Ten play. The Cornhuskers have never won more than five games in a season under Frost, who was part of two national title teams (1995, 1997) at Nebraska as a player; the program is still seeking its first winning season since 2016. Frost was one of the hottest names in coaching after guiding Central Florida to a 13-0 record in 2017 but could be nearing the end in Lincoln if things don’t change in a hurry.

The Cornhuskers opened 2021 in deflating fashion with a 30-22 loss to Illinois in which they fell behind by 21 points. Frost’s club responded by blasting Fordham (52-7) and Buffalo (28-3) at home before a pair of difficult-yet-encouraging road losses to then-No. 3 Oklahoma (20-16) and then-No. 20 Michigan State (23-20). Nebraska demolished Northwestern on Saturday night by 49 points, while racking 657 yards of total offense, including 427 yards on the ground.

SHAWN WINDSOR: Michigan's win over Wisconsin showing this year might be different

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh leads his team on the field before an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh leads his team on the field before an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis.

Three things we learned

The effort is real: Two weeks ago, head coach Jim Harbaugh raised a few eyebrows when he answered a question about what makes this year’s team different from the one that plummeted in 2020. Harbaugh pointed to the effort players are giving in 2021 — an unusual comment because it implies last year’s roster didn’t try as hard as it should have. Similar platitudes about a culture change, an improved work ethic and a boost of energy from new coaches dominated interviews with players during the first month of Michigan’s season. Any doubts were erased following U-M’s beating of Wisconsin, in which the Wolverines dominated the trenches, exceeded the Badgers’ physicality and demonstrated the spirit indicative of a contender. “Tremendous team win,” Harbaugh said. “And I think the most impressive thing continues to remain just how hard they’re playing and the intensity.”

U-M REPORT CARD: Jim Harbaugh deserves praise for complete effort

Cornelius Johnson isn’t the only threat: In the wake of a season-ending injury to No. 1 wide receiver Ronnie Bell, questions about the veracity of Michigan’s passing game are likely to linger throughout the year. The emergence of wide receiver Roman Wilson on Saturday represents a critical development for a position group lacking proven playmakers behind Johnson, who caught two passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns against the Badgers. Wilson’s eight targets and six receptions were more than any other Michigan receiver, and his 81 receiving yards were both a team high and a career high. That he needed only 7 yards after the catch to gain those 81 total yards indicates his route running is improving. “It’s almost like in some of those X-Men movies when the little kid or the teenage X-Men finds their power, you know?” Harbaugh said when asked about Wilson’s performance. “Now they know they have it and they’re using it. That’s really exciting to watch as a coach.”

Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) rushes the quarterback as Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Logan Bruss (60) blocks during the third quarter Oct. 2, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.
Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) rushes the quarterback as Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Logan Bruss (60) blocks during the third quarter Oct. 2, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.

QB pressure came from all angles: Wisconsin quarterbacks Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf were given little chance to succeed as their offensive line crumbled. Together they absorbed 12 hits and six sacks and turned the ball over twice. The most encouraging part for U-M defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald had to be the variety of players involved. Seven Michigan defenders generated at least two pressures Saturday with outside linebackers David Ojabo (6) and Aidan Hutchinson (5) leading the way, according to Pro Football Focus. Just as important, if not more so, were the efforts of players like OLB Mike Morrs (3), NT Mazi Smith (3), S R.J. Moten (2), DT Kris Jenkins (2) and DB Daxton Hill (2). Six more players chipped in with one pressure as the Wolverines finished the game with 29 to set a new season high.

[ Big Ten misery index: Michigan made a jump, but can it dim Nebraska's lights? ]

Michael Cohen's three things to watch

Nebraska’s defense is strong: Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, who has experience at Central Florida, Oregon and with the Philadelphia Eagles, should be pleased with his group. The Cornhuskers rank 13th in the nation in scoring defense at 15.5 points per game and have held opponents to 16 points or fewer four times. Chinander’s group does an excellent job getting into the backfield, with 40 tackles for loss this season, ninth-most in the country and significantly higher than Michigan's 27. The primary threats are outside linebackers Garrett Nelson and JoJo Domann, who have combined for 15 TFLs, 4 ½ sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Nebraska limited standout Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler to 214 passing yards earlier this season.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez escapes from Michigan State's Jacub Panasiuk, right, and Jacob Slade during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in East Lansing.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez escapes from Michigan State's Jacub Panasiuk, right, and Jacob Slade during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in East Lansing.

Martinez is a dual-threat QB: There’s a good chance quarterback Adrian Martinez noted the success Rutgers had running the football in the second half against Michigan, especially with zone read and run-pass options. Noah Vedral taxed U-M’s defenders with deft fakes and strong decision making as the Scarlet Knights gained 156 rushing yards while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Unlike Vedral, who is a capable runner but prefers to pass, Martinez is a true dual-threat quarterback, the first Michigan has faced this season. Through six games, Martinez leads the Cornhuskers in rushing with 412 yards (fifth in the nation among quarterbacks), and nine rushing touchdowns, which is tied for third among all players regardless of position. Harbaugh said the U-M defense struggled with eye discipline against Vedral, and Martinez presents an even tougher challenge.

Kicking game is a weakness: One of the more overlooked aspects of this year’s team has been kicker Jake Moody, who has connected on eight of his nine field goal attempts, including three of four from 40 yards or more. He’s become a reliable drive-sealer whenever the offense stalls. The same cannot be said for Nebraska kicker Connor Culp, who transferred after playing one year at LSU in 2017. Now a senior, Culp has made just 50% of his field goals in 2021. He has struggled with all but the shortest of kicks this season and is just 2-for-7 from 30 yards or more.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: Dual-threat QB will challenge defense