LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive end Avery Moss loved the way the Husker defense finished a 27-24 win over Northwestern. It flipped a poor start into a “fire,” Moss said, holding the Wildcats to three points over their last 12 drives.
Moss wants to see NU keep that edge. But as Nebraska prepares for Saturday’s game at Michigan, it’ll have to temper that aggression with smart play, he said. The Wolverines — especially mobile quarterback Devin Gardner — burn teams that get too hyped.
“We don’t want to get out of our gaps or get too far above the quarterback where he can beat you,” said Moss, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound redshirt freshman who has 3Ĺ sacks this year and an interception return for a touchdown. “He’s an athletic quarterback and he can just run through lanes, so we’re focused on staying in our gaps and keying him. More disciplined instead of more aggressive.”
In Tuesday’s padded practice, Moss said, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski drilled his linemen on staying in their lanes as opposed to shooting gaps and getting the quarterback as quickly as possible. This strategy could mirror what the Huskers tried to do against UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. NU wanted to keep Hundley in the pocket and away from the quarterback draws he liked to run. It worked for almost a half. But then Moss missed a sack, the Bruins scored late in the second quarter and rattled off 38 straight points to end the game.
Gardner, who’s run for 474 yards and thrown for 1,989 this year, can run that same play, along with a zone read game that Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges still occasionally incorporates into his pro-style offense.
In the Wolverines’ 29-6 loss to Michigan State last week, little of Michigan’s offense worked. The Wolverines hit a few long passes against Spartan coverage, but lost 48 yards rushing for the game. Gardner, sacked seven times, left the game before its conclusion.
Borges, hand-picked by Michigan coach Brady Hoke to install a power, pro-style attack, told reporters in Ann Arbor this week he’s frustrated.
“Hell, everybody’s frustrated,” he said, according to Mlive.com. “There were several cuss words that came out of my mouth during that game.”
In a rocky start to the Northwestern game, Nebraska’s defense had similar frustrations. The Wildcats gained 160 yards and scored two touchdowns on their first two drives. So NU coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis scrapped a three-man front they had installed for the game and returned to a base, four-man-line package that worked more effectively. Instead of pouting, Moss said, “I tried to channel my frustration onto the field.”
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Redshirt freshman middle linebacker Michael Rose didn’t get much of a chance after the opening drives — he was pulled in favor of true freshman Josh Banderas. Rose said he didn’t play as well as he could, but expects to be part of the defensive plans this week.
Michigan uses a variety of sets, play-action and misdirection to confuse the linebackers, Rose said. The key, he said, is keeping “eye discipline.”
“They do a great job of getting their skill players in position to make plays for them,” Rose said. “And we have to do our best to make plays on what they’re trying to do.”
Leading Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (50 catches, 898 yards, seven touchdowns) is a major threat, even if Nebraska held him to two catches and 9 yards in a 23-9 Husker win in Lincoln last year. Rose called UM tight end Devin Funchess (29 catches, 557 yards) an “athletic freak.” The two players account for 62 percent of the Wolverines’ receptions this year.
But the biggest name on Michigan’s offense might be the Wolverine receiving the most negative attention this week: left tackle Taylor Lewan. Lewan, who returned for his senior season to win a Big Ten championship despite receiving a first-round grade for the NFL draft, was spotted twisting the facemask of a Spartan player at the bottom of a pile last week. Lewan apologized for it, and the Big Ten was reviewing the infraction. Wednesday, a national columnist at ESPN accused Lewan of playing soft all season because he was distracted by his eventual entry into the NFL.
Moss, who’s likely to face Lewan often Saturday, said he has respect for the Wolverine senior. But he’s not intimidated. Moss spent most of his high school career in Tempe, Ariz., going against close friend and current Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat.
“After going against Andrus,” he said, “I can’t be scared of anyone else.”
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