4-3? How About 3-4?
One of the headlines heading into the game against Michigan is how Nebraska is likely to play with three linebackers for much of the game this week instead of just one or two (which NU has had to use facing teams that feature three or more receivers). Certainly, stopping the run is of paramount importance for Nebraska on Saturday. Denard Robinson has killed teams with his legs, but not so much with his arm. Even his biggest days in terms of passing yardage against BCS competition (against Northwestern and Notre Dame last year) saw him throw three interceptions each time. So a 4-3 seems like a better alignment to use than a 4-2-5 or 4-1-6. But why stop at 3 linebackers?
It's Worked Before
The biggest win of the Bo Pelini era (on paper anyway) was a home victory over seventh-ranked Missouri in 2010. In that game, NU surprised the Tigers by coming out with a 3-4 look that caught Mizzou totally unprepared. MU was a spread team which is quite a bit different than a Michigan squad that lines up often with a fullback and a tight end. Still, Alabama (a 3-4 team) and Notre Dame (with their "no crease" 3-4) had huge days against the Wolverines defensively using the 3-4. Going further back in time, the 3-4 morphs quite well into a 5-2 which Nebraska ran in the 1980's to combat Barry Switzer's option teams. It can be a terrific run-stuffing front. You want to keep contain on Robinson? You can widen out that front with an extra man without creating huge holes inside. On passing downs, you can drop 8 or bring zone blitzes to confuse Robinson. Michigan doesn't give up many sacks, but zone blitzes allow you to get pressure without exposing the secondary.
NU Has the Personnel
Cameron Meredith's versatility (the ability to play end or tackle) on the defensive line makes him an excellent candidate to play end in a 3-4 scheme. Jason Ankrah is probably big enough to handle a similar assignment on the other side. Baker Steinkuhler could be capable of filling the role of nose tackle (though he's certainly not built like the classic 3-4 nose). Eric Martin seems like an ideal 3-4 linebacker, since you usually look for 'tweeners that have both end and backer skills. Sean Fisher hasn't seen time as an end, but his 6'6" frame seems just right. With Santos ready for more time and Will Compton sure to play plenty, the pieces may be there to run a 3-4.
Depth on the Line
Let's also not forget the injuries that have plagued NU at defensive tackle. Thad Randle seems to limp off the field in every game. Chase Rome and Kevin Williams may still not be available. With so many tackles banged up, using only one at a time could help compensate for that. If you take Eric Martin out of the mix at defensive end, Joe Carter can still allow you some rotation at end.
There are counter-arguments of course. With a young player like Santos and a still new defensive coordinator in Papuchis, you may not want to get away from the bread and butter 4-man fronts. The 3-4 can put particular pressure on the inside linebackers if you bring the outside backers up to the line. Without a jumbo nose man, the defense could be particularly soft in the middle. Even pass-happy Missouri rushed for 142 yards against the Huskers 3-4. You could flash back to Nebraska's big comeback win against Texas A&M in 2002 against an undermanned 3-4. If you can move that middle nose, those iso-plays can get pretty hard to stop. How Steinkuhler holds up should be evident fairly quickly. So NU could try the 3-4 look and if all goes well, stay with it. If Michigan comes up with an answer, you could go back to the 4-3 pretty easily.
Regardless of the front the Huskers use, they have to be assignment sound and tackle well. That will matter more than how they line up anyway. Still, Alabama and Notre Dame's success against Michigan this year with a 3-4 makes it awfully attractive.