LINCOLN — Michigan man down and out. Blackshirts back and bold. And Nebraska to the top of the Legends Division.
After NU’s No. 1 defense last week declined coach Bo Pelini’s offer to wear the traditional black practice jerseys, it knocked Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson out of the game Saturday, intercepted his replacement three times and carried an inconsistent Husker offense to a 23-9 win before 86,160 fans at Memorial Stadium.
And when the defense — which gave up just 188 yards — returned to the locker room, players found those Blackshirts hanging in their lockers.
“I’m going to go home and sleep in it,” defensive end Eric Martin said. He was already wearing the new Adidas black jersey that features three stripes on each shoulder and NU’s trademark skull-and-crossbones on the arms.
“We shut down Michigan. Now we deserve to get them,” said safety P.J. Smith, who had one of the three interceptions.
“It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards they have,” Pelini said. “They didn’t want them last week. They said they hadn’t earned them, and we’ll revisit it after the Michigan game. I think they earned them.”
At 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten, Nebraska also earned a tiebreaker over the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Legends Division, Michigan (5-3 and 3-1) and Northwestern (7-2 and 4-2).
“It was kind of must-have,” linebacker Sean Fisher said. “Not that it wasn’t still possible to get to the Big Ten Championship, but it was out of our control if we lost it.”
An injured nerve in Robinson’s right throwing arm boosted the Huskers’ cause. With Michigan trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter, he’d just run 7 yards for a first down to the NU 8. Nebraska defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler tackled the quarterback from behind, and Robinson’s right elbow slammed into the turf.
Robinson left. His backup, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy, promptly misfired on two passes and the Wolverines settled for a field goal.
“Everybody in the stands and on the sidelines, you kind of breathe a sigh of relief,” Fisher said. “Because (Robinson) is such a threat.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Robinson suffered the same nerve twinge in a 45-0 win over Illinois. He returned to play in that game, but against Nebraska, he stood on the sideline with a giant blue coat around his shoulder pads for the entire second half.
“He couldn’t grip the ball real well,” Hoke said. “And he didn’t feel like he could throw the ball well enough.”
Whether or not Bellomy felt like he could, he didn’t. He completed as many passes — three — to Michigan receivers as he did Nebraska defenders. Smith’s interception led a third-quarter field goal. Daimion Stafford’s interception led to a game-deciding touchdown. And Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s grab in his own end zone ended any Wolverine hopes of a fourth-quarter comeback.
“For a while there, I was thinking we didn’t have anyone on defense who could catch,” quipped Pelini, who made defenders and their position coaches perform ten on-the-spot push-ups for each drop in practice last week.
Several of Bellomy’s passes found no target except an inanimate patch of turf. Pelini dialed up the pressure on the kid, rushing at least five defenders on many of Bellomy’s passes. Nebraska sacked him twice and hurried him three more times.
And after Robinson left the game, Michigan’s rush attack boiled down to running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fruitless plunges into the teeth of the Huskers’ front seven and the occasional jet sweep from wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. For the night, the Wolverines rushed for 95 yards — and Robinson accounted for 46 of them.
Nebraska’s offense had its own struggles. Just 326 total yards, which was 186 yards below its season average.
Five of NU’s first six drives ended in three punts and two turnovers. NU had first-and-goal from Michigan’s 4 and gained 2 yards on three plays. Quarterback Taylor Martinez — absorbing big blows from the Wolverines’ defense — overthrew open receivers in the red zone. The Huskers lost the time of possession battle even with Michigan’s offensive ineptitude, and settled for three Brett Maher field goals for a 16-9 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“We left some points out there,” Pelini said. “We left some drives out there.”
But the Huskers found their stride in the final 15 minutes, gaining 103 yards, 92 of them on the ground. Martinez gashed the Wolverines for 29 yards on an option play. Running back Ameer Abdullah — spelling an injured Rex Burkhead — then ran 12 yards for a touchdown. Later, NU bled nearly seven minutes off the clock to ice the win.
“At halftime, we readjusted and we came out strong,” Abdullah said. “They had some pretty big guys up front. We felt like if we could get those guys running laterally, they’re not as effective when we go up the middle. Which you saw late.”
But the night belonged to the defense, which Pelini said effectively defended Robinson even before his injury. Pelini glanced at a stat sheet, rattled off Robinson’s numbers and said flatly, “I’ll take that.” It’s the second straight week NU has stood up to its biggest bogeyman — a mobile quarterback.
“Nothing magical,” Pelini said. “It’s about doing your job.”
Which, this Saturday, led to Blackshirts. By players’ decree.
|Yards per carry||2.6||3.9|
Nebraska is 4-5 all-time against Michigan.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 1|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 15|
|Idaho State||Sept. 22|
|Ohio State||Oct. 6|
|Michigan State||Nov. 3|
|Penn State||Nov. 10|
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