LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Michigan's first road game comes with an added challenge at Nebraska on Saturday.
The Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) will go against an offense that has gone back in time under first-year coach Matt Rhule.
The Cornhuskers (2-2, 0-1) have been lining up in the I formation at times and mixing in some option plays to the delight of fans who remember the days when no team pounded the ground better than Nebraska.
“It’s one of the best plays in football," said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned a bit nostalgic as he recalled Rick Leach running the option for the Wolverines in the 1970s when Jack Harbaugh, Jim's dad, was an assistant under Bo Schembechler.
“It’s very effective when it’s implemented correctly,” Jim Harbaugh said, "whether it’s the double option or the triple option.”
Michigan held Rutgers to 77 rushing yards in a 31-7 win last week. But preparing for the option stresses defenses because the style of offense is rarely seen outside service academies these days.
Nebraska quarterback Heinrich Haarberg, with Anthony Grant the lone running back, ran the double option with success in last week's 28-7 win over Louisiana Tech.
When fullback Barrett Liebentritt joined Grant in the I formation, there was the threat of the triple option where Haarberg could keep the ball, hand off to Liebentritt or pitch to Grant. The Huskers lined up in the I on 17 of their 66 plays, including seven times on a nine-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to open the second half.
The option plays are not as sophisticated as the ones made famous by Tom Osborne and quarterbacks like Tommie Frazier. Haarberg, for example, never pitched the ball against Louisiana Tech.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield has turned to the option because of limited depth at receiver, and it probably will remain a part of the offense whether the quarterback is Haarberg or Jeff Sims.
This will be the most option second-year Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter has schemed against. The last time the Wolverines saw much option was in 2019, when they beat Army 24-21 in two overtimes.
“Stopping the run and being able to run the ball is a winning formula in football," Harbaugh said. "We’re just going to have to play good. It will be a game of blocking, tackling, focusing on fundamentals, reads, getting off blocks, defeating blocks, playing assignment, being in the right alignment, being in the right technique, a lot of focus on real football.”
BE LIKE MIKEY
Michigan cornerback Mike Sainristil has emerged as a key player on one of the nation's best defenses, making a 71-yard pick-6 in last week's win over Rutgers.
“For him to stay up and and take it back to the crib, as the young people like to say, that was just a beautiful thing,” Harbaugh said.
The fifth-year player has 11 tackles and two interceptions after playing receiver and scoring a touchdown in each of his first three seasons.
Donovan Edwards is averaging just 3.3 yards a carry for the Wolverines after picking up 7.1 yards per rush last season, when he replaced an injured Blake Corum as the featured back late in the year.
“Absolutely nothing wrong with Donovan Edwards,” Harbaugh said.
Edwards is backing up Corum again and hasn't had a lot of chances, getting 12 carries in the season-opening win over East Carolina and an average of seven rushes against UNLV, Bowling Green and Rutgers. Harbaugh said he is mindful of managing the number of carries for his backs.
“While they’re not getting paid, I don’t like to take the tread off the tire,” he said. "I like to keep that tread on the tire.”
RUN DEFENSE TO BE TESTED
Nebraska is allowing an average of just 46.5 rushing yards per game and has held each of its first four opponents under 60 yards on the ground. Rhule likes the trend but doesn't put much stock in it.
“This is a team that’s going to come in, that’s trying to prove a point on the ground against you and run the ball at you,” Rhule said. “Guys have to be up for the challenge.”
Michigan offensive lineman Trevor Keegan still marvels at how nice Nebraska fans were after his team's visit in 2021.
“We beat them and they’re like, `Hey, congratulations, great game! You played so well!'" Keegan recalled. “I thought, `Are they messing with me?’ But then like 20 more of them did the same thing.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Michigan, contributed to this report.
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