This was the defensive performance Bo Pelini, John Papuchis, and the Huskers were looking to see from a young defense. After harassing Michigan’s offense and overcoming a slew of their own injuries, the Huskers are in a familiar spot with a return trip to Indianapolis still a very real possibility.
Tommy Armstrong’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Ameer Abdullah with 2:03 left in the game lifted Nebraska to a 17-13 win over Michigan after a dominating performance from the Huskers’ defense kept a beat up offense in position to win it late. Abdullah’s second touchdown of the game capped off an impressive 14 play, 75 yard drive as Armstrong went 5-of-6 for 59 yards and the decisive touchdown to keep afloat in the race for the Legends division title and a date in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Blackshirts may not have them in practice these days, but they turned in a performance that resembled defenses of Nebraska’s yesteryear.
It’s true, this was not the Michigan offense that was rolling up big numbers earlier in the season. But what Nebraska did to make the Wolverines ineffective in nearly all facets of its offensive game is quite impressive. Michigan had 60 yards of total offense at halftime, which included -10 yards rushing. A touchdown drive in the third quarter got Michigan on level terms at 10 apiece after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Devin Gardner to Devin Funchess. After grabbing a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Nebraska’s offense struggled mightily with a rash of injuries and a couple of turnovers, but overcame it all and found the end zone when they needed it most.
The teams were not world beaters on offense, whether it be due to the injuries on Nebraska’s side or the inability to run the ball on Michigan’s side. Nebraska dominated the line of scrimmage on defense and held Michigan to -21 yards rushing for the entire game. It ranks as one of the top six all-time performances in that category in school history, with the record being a -45 yard effort from Kansas State in 1976. The Wolverines managed a mere 175 yards of total offense for the game, which is even better than the 188 yards that Michigan amassed in last year’s 23-9 Nebraska win at Memorial Stadium.
Early on, Nebraska held the upper hand as Pat Smith knocked in a 21-yard field goal to give Nebraska a 3-0 lead. The Blackshirts would force a three-and-out on the next Michigan possession and cap off a 9 play, 56 yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run from Abdullah to give the Huskers a 10-0 lead with 2:50 left in the first quarter. Both teams would struggle on offense for the rest of the first half, until Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons knocked through a 27-yard field goal with 11:47 left in the second quarter to trim the deficit to 10-3. A 69-yard punt by Matt Wile flipped field position and pinned the Huskers at their own 3, which forced a three-and-out and a punt back to Michigan, but the Wolverines were snuffed out thanks to Avery Moss dropping Gardner for a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-five at the Nebraska 36.
The Huskers held that 10-3 lead into halftime, but Michigan answered the bell to start the second half. Gardner got in a bit of a rhythm, completing a 25-yard pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint to get the Wolverines to midfield, while a 16-yard pass from Gardner to Josh Butt put the ball at the Nebraska 34. Six plays later, Gardner found Funchess in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown pass and it was all square at 10 with 9:56 left in the third quarter. Runs from Abdullah and Armstrong would get Nebraska to the Michigan 36, but the drive stalled and Sam Foltz’s punt was a touchback. The teams would trade punts up until a key stretch in the fourth quarter. Nebraska weathered the storm, gaining only 25 yards of total offense in the third quarter, but only allowing seven Michigan points.
Michigan was gifted with a short field after Quincy Enunwa’s fumble was recovered at the Nebraska 33 as the third quarter came to a close. Nebraska held though, and dropped Gardner for a two-yard loss and a field goal attempt as a result. Wile missed a 52-yard field goal as the fourth quarter began to keep the score tied at 10, but Nebraska would see their next drive end at the Michigan 35 and another punt from Foltz. The Wolverines would get a first down, but were forced to punt after Randy Gregory sacked Gardner for an 8-yard loss and the Huskers were set to take over. However, the usually sure-handed Jordan Westerkamp muffed the punt and Michigan recovered at the Nebraska 26.
But as it had done a week before against Northwestern, the Blackshirts mitigated any damage and forced a 40-yard field goal attempt from Gibbons that kissed the right upright and went in to give Michigan a 13-10 lead, their first and only lead of the day. With 8:08 left in the game, Nebraska embarked on their most important drive of the season from their own 25. Abdullah would cross the 100-yard mark on the drive, but the most important play may have been Armstrong’s 26-yard strike to Kenny Bell on a fourth-and-2 kept the chains moving and set up the decisive score. Facing a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Armstrong looked to run the option to the short side of the field. With a Michigan defender bearing down, Armstrong hesitated, looked again, and flicked it to Abdullah with his off left-hand and the junior running back barreled into the end zone to give Nebraska a 17-13 lead.
Not an option pitch, but an option pass, of sorts, gave Nebraska the lead with 2:03 to play. 14 plays, 75 yards, and a precious 6:03 off the fourth quarter clock put the Huskers in the driver’s seat as a defense needed one more stop on a day in which it flexed its muscle. Michigan would pick up a first down on their first play, but the Blackshirts allowed no more as Gardner’s pass for Drew Dileo went incomplete on fourth-and-5 and the game was over. Nebraska heads back to Lincoln with a 17-13 win, a 7-2 overall record and most importantly perhaps, a 4-1 mark in the Big Ten with three games to go and a titanic showdown against Michigan State next weekend in Lincoln with the division title hanging in the balance.
The Blackshirts gave Nebraska a chance to win it, with Armstrong, Abdullah, Bell, and the offense coming through in the clutch to grab the victory. A lengthy touchdown drive in the Big House, with 112,204 on hand in one of college athletics’ most iconic venues, will give any team confidence. The thing is, Nebraska played confident all game long in spite of a number of injuries to their offensive line and looked to be the better team for most of Saturday. A young defense that was battered in losses to UCLA and Minnesota and embarrassed for the first half against South Dakota State and in a win over Wyoming, put it all behind them and stuffed Gardner and the Wolverines. It’ll go down as one of the finest performances by a Bo Pelini coached defense and came at just the right time.
Let’s go on to the grades….
Tommy Armstrong is 5-0 as a starting quarterback at Nebraska. The fact that the Huskers were able to win in the matter they did, with an offensive line already down Spencer Long and Jake Cotton and then Jeremiah Sirles, and a redshirt freshman quarterback to boot says everything you need to know about the resolve of Armstrong and his leadership. But it also speaks to Abdullah, who has put this offense on his back through nine games and racked up the best numbers of any running back in the Big Ten.
The numbers don’t jump off the page. 273 yards of total offense, with 145 passing and 128 rushing, and a key fumble by Enunwa isn’t exactly the recipe for success. But the Huskers converted 6-of-16 third downs and converted on a key fourth down to win the game, in large part due to its defense. Abdullah carried 27 times for 105 yards with a touchdown and added the decisive 5-yard touchdown grab. Armstrong finished 11-of-19 for 139 yards and a touchdown, and importantly zero interceptions. There were a couple of dropped passes, but there were some big plays by Enunwa and Bell in big spots. Not the best day at the office, but when the injuries are accounted for, I’d give the offense a B.
John Papuchis seems to have Michigan’s number. The argument last year was that the Wolverines only lost in Lincoln because Denard Robinson was hurt for most of the game. Never mind that Nebraska was ahead 7-3 when Robinson was injured and that the Blackshirts had frustrated the man named Shoelace for most of the first 30 minutes. Michigan was anemic last October and had only 188 yards of total offense. Saturday’s effort against Michigan was even better, as the defense racked up 13 tackles for loss and sacked Gardner seven times.
The touchdown drive in the third quarter was a bit concerning, in part because it was right after halftime and part because it tied the game. Nebraska struggled with the bunch formation Michigan’s receivers were using and Funchess found himself uncovered in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown catch to tie things up at 10-10. But Nebraska’s defensive line put an absolute beat down on the Michigan offensive line for most of the game, and gave up -21 yards rushing. Michigan’s longest run of the day was seven yards. Seven. Yards. Let that sink in for a bit.
Back to it, the pass defense had trouble with Funchess at times, as he ended with six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, but others have fared far worse against the Wolverines attack this season. Gregory finished with three sacks and three tackles for loss, Zaire Anderson had two sacks of his own, and Michael Rose led the way with eight tackles. The defense won this game for Nebraska, unquestionably an A in their best effort of the season.
The Special Teams
Westerkamp’s fumble spotted Michigan three crucial points late in the game, while Terrell Newby failed to field a punt that ended up travelling 69 yards and pinned Nebraska on their own 3 in the first half. Foltz averaged 43 yards per punt and Mauro Bondi hit three of his four kickoffs for touchbacks. The kick return game was again non-existent, but did nothing to cost the team points.
Basically, it was another average to below average day. Smith knocked in a 21-yard field goal for three big points, but those were essentially negated after Westerkamp’s fumble. There’s just no answer at punt returner and if Nebraska isn’t careful, it will come back to hurt them again in a big spot. Not a great day, the special teams get a D+.
Winning on the road is tough, especially in the Big Ten. When you end Michigan’s 19-game home winning streak and defeat Brady Hoke for the first time in Ann Arbor, it’s that much sweeter. The Wolverines were battered by rival Michigan State 29-6 a week prior, but this loss might hurt Michigan more in the long run as it ends any hope of the Wolverines playing for a Big Ten title and could see them finishing as low as fourth or even fifth in the Legends division standings.
This was a great win for Nebraska. Overcoming all of the injuries to the offense and winning the game behind a steely resolve from Armstrong resonates for a team that needed a statement type win. True, Michigan was unranked and packed little punch on its offense, but the way Nebraska won with strong defense and opportunistic offense gives this team confidence at a time in its season when it matters most. Michigan State awaits next weekend in the de-facto Legends division title game.
Which brings us to the showdown in Lincoln. Michigan State’s defense is bruising, ranked in the top 10 nationally in a slew of statistical categories, and full of confidence in addition to rest after the Spartans were on bye this weekend. The Huskers have controlled the series since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, winning 24-3 in 2011 and 28-24 last season in East Lansing.
If Nebraska is going to win, it’ll come down to Abdullah once again, as the Huskers are dealing with massive losses on its offensive line. Sirles is likely out after he sprained his knee against Michigan, while Jake Cotton’s status is unknown at this time. Credit to the patchwork line that did enough in the final 30 minutes against the Wolverines to get the win. But, Nebraska will be seeing a nasty front four from Michigan State and tremendous linebackers that comprise the Big Ten’s best defense. If Armstrong can lead the Huskers to a massive home victory over the Spartans, Nebraska has the inside track to the Legends division title.
Don’t look now, but Minnesota is 8-2 after their 24-10 win over Penn State. The Gophers are the feel good story of the season in the Big Ten and maybe nationally after rattling off four wins since head coach Jerry Kill left the sidelines due to his medical issues. Nebraska’s loss two weeks ago looks a bit better, but still represents a missed chance to take control of the division. Regardless, the Huskers are still alive for a return trip to Indianapolis in what will probably be the biggest game in Lincoln since the 2010 game against Texas.
This was a team win across the board for Pelini and the Huskers, with strong defense and just enough offense. The win-out mentality worked last season as Nebraska closed with six straight wins to reach the Big Ten title game. Three more wins, and the Huskers are back for a second straight year.