Two down, four to go.
A suffocating defensive effort from Nebraska and just enough offense from Taylor Martinez and company helped the Huskers knock off 20th ranked Michigan 23-9 Saturday night in a game which saw the Wolverines’ talented quarterback Denard Robinson leave with a second quarter injury and never return. While Robinson’s backup Russell Bellomy was in over his head against the Blackshirts, the Huskers held the Wolverines in check for nearly the entire 60 minutes and grinded out the two-touchdown victory.
With visions of Braxton Miller dancing in their heads just three weeks prior, many questioned whether Nebraska could contain the premiere dual threat quarterback in the country in Robinson. Through nearly two quarters, Robinson was largely ineffective in rushing for only 46 yards on 10 carries and completing 6 of 11 passes for 55 yards. However, Robinson left the game with an injury to his right hand with Michigan driving in the second quarter and the complexion of the game changed as the Wolverines settled for a field goal and Nebraska did more than enough to win comfortably and take the inside track to the Big Ten championship game in the Legends Division race.
The first quarter was pretty even as neither offense was able to gain much traction as both defensive lines settled in. Michigan went three-and-out on their first possession while Nebraska was able to get a first down before their drive stalled. The Wolverines second drive saw Fitz Toussaint and Robinson combine for most of the limited yardage, but it was a key overturn of a 55-yard catch by Roy Roundtree to the Nebraska 17 that proved to be the biggest play. Matt Wile’s 53-yard field goal was well short and wide as the best scoring chance of the first quarter came and went. Nebraska’s offense managed just 34 yards and never threatened as Ameer Abdullah and the running game couldn’t get on track as the first quarter ended scoreless.
Michigan’s defensive line continued to shut down the Husker running game in the second quarter, but Martinez got on a hot streak by hitting five straight passes with the fifth culminating in the first score of the game, a 32-yard strike to Kenny Bell to give the Huskers a 7-0 lead. The Wolverines responded by going 44 yards in 10 plays to get a 52-yard field goal from Brendan Gibbons to cut the lead to 7-3. A theme started on this drive however that we’ll touch on more in depth later—a 15 yard penalty on Nebraska essentially gave Michigan those three points.
After a three-and-out from the Husker offense, here’s where the game turned with Robinson’s injury. Robinson connected on a 32-yard pass to Roundtree to start things out and eventually the Wolverines would grind their way down to the Nebraska 16 before Robinson scrambled for eight yards and a first down. However Robinson went down in a heap and stayed down for a few minutes with what turned out to be an injury to his right elbow and never returned. Bellomy entered and the Wolverines settled for a field goal to cut the Nebraska lead to 7-6 as the first half ended.
Nebraska’s stats looked a lot better heading into the half as they had outgained Michigan 153-136 and neutralized the Wolverines offense. True, Michigan would be largely anemic in the second half, but the Wolverines were largely anemic in the first half with Robinson in the game. Other than the 32-yard strike to Roundtree, Michigan’s longest play from scrimmage was a nine yard run from Toussaint. The Blackshirts faced 40 plays in the first half and only gave up those 136 yards, or 3.4 yards per play and kept Michigan out of the end zone. Five penalties for 59 yards didn’t help matters for Nebraska, but they didn’t turn the ball over and were pretty conservative for most of the half outside of the scoring drive. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done for the first 30 minutes.
Robinson stayed on the sideline as the Huskers took the second half kickoff. A questionable late hit on Martinez out of bounds gave the Huskers the ball on their own 46 before Mario Ojemudia intercepted Martinez after the ball had been tipped by Desmond Morgan as Michigan took over on their 46. Toussaint ran for 7, Bellomy misfired on second down and would then misfire again on third down as the pass intended for Vincent Smith was knocked into the air and right to PJ Smith, who took it all the way to the Michigan 4-yard line before being chased down by Bellomy. Nebraska couldn’t find the end zone however, and settled for a 19-yard field goal from Brett Maher to take a 10-6 lead.
Three-and-out from Michigan and a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing fourth down punt on the Wolverines gave Nebraska enough room to get another field goal, this time a 51-yarder from Maher to extend the Husker lead to 13-6 with 8:41 left in the third quarter. Michigan would again go three-and-out, as Bellomy misfired twice more and Nebraska took over on their own 29. Nebraska put together their second best drive of the half on this exchange as Martinez found Quincy Enunwa, Tim Marlowe, Kyler Reed, and even CJ Zimmerer to get the Huskers down to the Michigan 11 before settling for yet another field goal—Maher’s 31-yarder was good to push the Husker lead to 16-6.
Here’s where things got interesting and the penalty bug big Nebraska in a big way. A flag for targeting, another for unsportsmanlike conduct on the Nebraska bench, and one more for pass interference put Michigan at the Nebraska 21 before the Blackshirts stuffed three straight runs and the Wolverines had to settle for another Gibbons field goal to close the gap to 16-9 as we went to the fourth quarter.
At this point, you felt like Nebraska should be up by more than seven points, given that Michigan had gained a mere nine yards of total offense in the third quarter while Nebraska racked up 45 yards in penalties—or roughly five times the offensive output of Michigan in the third quarter, if my math is correct. Nebraska’s ground game kicked up a little bit on the first drive of the fourth quarter, but fizzled out as Maher’s punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Bellomy’s inexperience continued to show and proved costly as he threw his second interception of the game to Daimion Stafford at the Michigan 47. Three plays later, and Abdullah zigged and zagged into the end zone from 12 yards out and this one was over with the Huskers leading 23-9 with 10:19 to play.
Michigan did threaten to get some point back however, as the Wolverines did find some running and throwing room, driving down to the Nebraska 28. But, Bellomy lofted a pass a little too high into the end zone and Stanley Jean-Baptiste went shades of 2011 Ohio State by going over his shoulder to pick off the errant pass and seal the victory as Nebraska would run the final 6:54 out and get the 23-9 win.
Make no mistake—Robinson’s injury changed the game, but maybe not as dramatically as it might seem…or if you’re talking to a Wolverines fan. The Blackshirts, who earned their name after this win, were stingy in the first half and downright nasty in the second half and tackled well all night and shut down running lanes that not even Robinson could break through. The 188 yards of total offense for Michigan were the fewest by a Nebraska opponent since allowing 87 yards of offense in a 20-3 win over Kansas in 2010. The Jayhawks offense was particularly inept that night and surprisingly, Michigan’s was nearly equal to the task as the Wolverines produced 52 yards on 24 plays in the final 30 minutes.
Sure, Robinson could have found a crease and broke through for one of his patented game-changing, long touchdown runs, but this was a Michigan offense that didn’t score a touchdown the week before in a narrow-win against Michigan State and looked a step or two slow in the opening half. Nebraska’s offense did just enough to win despite turning the ball over twice and the defense, despite a glut of penalties, was at their best to put the Huskers in pole position atop the Legends Division. Let’s grade it out…
The running game took awhile to get going as the front four of Michigan was simply stronger than Nebraska’s offensive line and took over the line of scrimmage for the entirety of the first half. The Huskers ran for 38 yards in the first 30 minutes and averaged just less than three yards per carry. Martinez was 8 of 11 for 115 yards and the big touchdown to Bell gave them the lead heading into the break. The first quarter was slow, the second was plodding, and the second half was just good enough to get the job done.
On Nebraska’s touchdown drive in the second quarter, the Huskers did what they do best against Big Ten defenses—they pushed the tempo, made easy plays for chunks of yards, and capped it off with a big play for a score. The 326 yards of total offense were a season low and it was also the first time this season the Huskers did not rush for 200 yards, finishing with 160 yards on 41 carries. Martinez went 14-of-24 for 166 yards with one touchdown and one interception in addition to 58 yards rushing and one fumble.
The offensive star of the game was Abdullah, as the sophomore went over 100 yards for the fourth time this season as he finished with 101 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown to boot. His 12-yard run to ice the game in the fourth was maybe his best run all season—the vision, the balance, the explosion through a little crease in the defense—all added up to the nail in Michigan’s coffin. What may have been most impressive however, is that Abdullah had only 16 yards rushing in the first half and closed the second with the remaining 85 yards. It was a bit puzzling that Braylon Heard didn’t see the field, however. Imani Cross did have two carries, but with Abdullah and Martinez accounting for 38 carries, perhaps there just weren't enough touches to go around.
The chop block call on Jackson at the end of the first quarter was a bit dubious, but still put Nebraska in a bad spot before they responded with their first touchdown drive. Wide receiver Taariq Allen was injured on the first play of the game on kick coverage and had to be carted off the field with a right knee injury. Pelini and Tim Beck both said in the post game that Allen never returned from the locker room and that the injury did not look good. It’s a tough break for Allen, who was beginning to come into his own and showed flashes of brilliance, especially on his touchdown catch against Northwestern a week ago. It wasn’t a great night for the offense, but they played their part. We’ll give the offense a C due to the two turnovers.
When you hold an opposing offense to less than three yards per play, force three interceptions, and not allow a touchdown, it’s hard to say the Blackshirts deserve anything other than an A+. Heck, after the game, Bo Pelini revealed that not only would the defense have Blackshirts after their effort, but that the Blackshirts were offered earlier in the week at practice but turned down by the players, who felt they hadn’t earned them yet. They certainly earned them after holding Robinson down for nearly 30 minutes and suffocating Bellomy and company for the final 30.
Nebraska’s front seven has played lights out for three of their last four games. To little surprise, Nebraska has won three of those four games, which makes the meltdown against Ohio State three weeks ago even more puzzling. This might have been the best game played by Husker linebackers since the departure of Lavonte David as well. The three leading tacklers for Nebraska were redshirt freshman David Santos, senior Alonzo Whaley, and senior Sean Fisher who tallied 10, 8, and 7 tackles respectively. Once Michigan got through to the second level, the linebacking corps shut down Robinson, Toussaint, and whomever else the Wolverines felt like giving the ball to.
The secondary got hit for one big play to Roundtree and nearly a second, but was also hit for numerous 15-yard penalties, which contributed to six Michigan points. The targeting calls were somewhat dubious, but in today’s football world not unexpected, and the pass interference and holding penalties were correct as the Huskers racked up eight penalties for 104 yards on the night. However, that’s not enough to tarnish the night and merely a point necessary for fixing in the coming weeks. The Huskers get their Blackshirts with an A effort.
The Special Teams
The kickoff and punt teams looked a lot better this week after some much needed changes that were implemented after the win over Northwestern. Maher was a perfect 3-for-3 on the night kicking field goals and his punting saw Michigan start twice inside their 20 and once at their own 2 yard line. No fumbles in the return game and no penalties either proved that the problems had been largely fixed—if at least for one week.
Average returns in both the kick and punt return game were just what the doctor ordered as the Huskers were superior in the special teams game as well. It’s a solid B+ night when it’s all said and done for the special teams.
The end result puts Nebraska at 3-1 in conference with the tiebreaker over Michigan. A tough October schedule saw the Huskers go 2-1 with wins over Northwestern and the Wolverines, which counts a little bit more because they’re also in the Legends Division. Michigan State came back to defeat Wisconsin which puts a little more juice into next week’s game in East Lansing, with the Spartans now at 2-3 in conference. As Pelini said after the loss to Ohio State, his team needed to win out, and they’ve passed the two toughest hurdles in their way with four games to play.
Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa remain between Nebraska and a trip to the Big Ten title game in December. After defeating Michigan, Nebraska has now avenged all three losses in conference play from last season and has teams remaining on the schedule that they defeated last season. The trick is now to guard against the let down that has cost Nebraska in key spots during the Pelini years. A big win over the Spartans last season saw the Huskers lose at home against Northwestern a week later and end their chance for a shot at Indianapolis. The same could happen this year if the Huskers take an off night again.
While the turnovers and penalties are still alarming, the defense has shown vast improvement since the debacle at Ohio State and the offense is doing enough to win games. Although they were held under 29 points for the first time this season, Nebraska has still proven that they can score on even the toughest of opposing defenses. We’ll see how they fare at Sparty next week however—so they’re not entirely out of the woods yet.
Denard Robinson or no Denard Robinson, Nebraska’s defense was up to the challenge. They’ve turned a corner and if they can play close to where they played against the Wolverines, this is a team bound for Indianapolis and a rematch with Wisconsin...or maybe Indiana?. The next corner to turn is not dropping a game they shouldn’t as the case has been the past three seasons.
Given Abdullah’s performance, I’d also doubt the injured Rex Burkhead is rushed back onto the field as may have been the case against Northwestern. However, Pelini did say that if he were to venture a guess, he'd think Burkhead would return against Michigan State. Sure, the senior wants to get as much as possible in his final year at Nebraska, but Burkhead is meant for bigger and better things next season and beyond in the NFL. Let him rest, be 100 percent, and have him available for the final few games if necessary. With two games down and four to go in the second half of Nebraska’s season, this is a team that controls its own destiny—just as we all thought and were sure to remember after a night in Columbus that seems farther and farther away by the minute.