LINCOLN — If Nebraska is going to pull off what would be the biggest upset in college football this season at Michigan on Saturday, it may be without its starting quarterback Casey Thompson.
The Wolverines enter the game as a four-touchdown favorite as the No. 3 team in the country with a real shot to play for a national championship.
Thompson, who suffered an elbow injury against Illinois and missed last week’s game against Minnesota, according to interim head coach Mickey Joseph, did not practice on Tuesday and is listed as day-to-day for Nebraska.
“Right now, just looking at him today, I probably would rule out Casey,” Joseph said during NU’s weekly news conference on Tuesday.
“If he does not go by tomorrow, I am going to have to rule him out. I look at these kids like my sons so I am not going to put them out there if they cannot go. Casey is going to be saying that he is feeling better, but I have to be smart with Casey and not put him out there if he cannot perform at a high level.”
Nebraska was just a few plays away from beating Michigan in Lincoln last season, but now hits the road to Ann Arbor with few national pundits and odds makers believing they have a chance to win.
It’s a spot Joseph said he’s never been in as a coach or player.
“I have never been an underdog like that but it happens,” he said. “But you still have to kick the football off. We have to play at a top level. We have to play 60 minutes. But we are not going to back down. We are not going throw the towel in. These kids will not do that. These coaches will not do that. We are not going to do that.”
The Nebraska coaching staff took a lot of public criticism for its decision to play Chubba Purdy for most of the game against Minnesota. Logan Smothers came in the game in the second half and engineered a scoring drive that ended in a field goal.
Both players bring strengths and weaknesses to the field, Joseph said, making it difficult to decide who might be named the starter at the end of the week. Joseph said he plans to name the starter by Thursday.
Purdy was named the starter against Minnesota, leading the offense to 10 first-half points. He struggled throughout the second quarter and into the second half, however.
Joseph said he’s looking for Smothers to practice better.
“I think Logan is more of a gamer,” a player who plays better than he practices, Joseph said.
“He has to practice better and he understands that. Logan is really going to attack this week trying to be a better practice player. That is his goal this week.”
Joseph said he will be watching both quarterbacks closely this week and looking for one of them to separate.
“They are competing right now and we will look at each practice and say, ‘He performed good this day and he performed really good this day,’ and on Thursday we have to make a decision, so we will just look at their reps,” Joseph said.
“We are trying to mesh that together right now. We think Purdy is the better thrower but Logan can make throws also. We think Logan is the better runner. It happens like that. Each quarterback is going to have different strengths and weaknesses.”
In last week’s 20-13 loss to Minnesota, running back Anthony Grant had a big first half that included a 36-yard run on Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage. In the second half, however, NU went away from Grant.
Joseph said he needs to see his offense continue to run the ball even if the big plays aren’t coming. It’s an issue Joseph said he has talked about with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple in preparation for the Wolverines.
“I think if you have been in this league and you understand what you are looking at as a coach you have to be able to slow it down because everyone else is slowing it down,” he said.
“That is the way this league is built and we have to play Big Ten football. We are eventually trying to get to that but we have to play Big Ten football and you have to try to slow it down. We have to trust and be happy with three- and four-yard runs. You have to be happy with them.”
Joseph said Michigan has a “very talented football team” that features good depth and is the best team Nebraska has faced this season.
“They are well-coached,” he said. “They do a really good job. They are a tough team. They do a lot in the run game. They do a lot on defense. They have a high-IQ football team. And they are an older football team. So, you are dealing with a solid football team this week.”
Though the odds of pulling off an upset seem long, Joseph said he has talked to his team about playing 60 minutes and how Nebraska will have to be good in all three phases of the game.
“We talk to them about having a lot of pride about not being broken and to continue to fight and that we started something and we are going to finish it against adversity,” he said.
“But we have to bow our neck and we have to play football. That is the only way you can approach it. It is a good group of kids and they are not going to quit.”
Nebraska’s defense faces perhaps one of the frontrunners for the Heisman trophy in running back Blake Corum. The Michigan back averages 131.9 rushinig yards per game and has 1,187 on the season.
Slowing the Michigan running game became more complicated with the suspension of safety Myles Farmer, who was cited for driving under the influence last weekend.
In his place Nebraska will turn to the likes of Phalen Sanford and DeShon Singleton to fill the void.
“Myles made a mistake,” Joseph said. “He made a bad mistake. We always talk about protect the football team and he did not. He will be suspended this week, and we will reevaluate him after this week. It is something that you cannot do. That is not smart. That is a bad situation. He understands that. He is a good kid. He made a mistake but we cannot make mistakes like that.”