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November 9, 2013

Game Rewind: 2013 Huskers looking like '12 edition

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the second straight week, Nebraska waited until the game's most pivotal moment to play at its finest. There was no Hail Mary this time around, but the Huskers did drive 75 yards in 14 plays for the game-winning touchdown after not scoring on their previous eight drives and exited the Big House with a win, which is never something to scoff at.

This team is starting to look eerily similar to the 2012 edition, when Nebraska won the Legends Division by repeatedly pulling off second-half comebacks with their backs against the wall late in the season. This squad might not win the division - Michigan State will be favored in the teams' matchup next weekend - but they are putting together a string of gritty performances that could give athletic director Sean Eichorst a very tough decision at the end of the season on whether or not to retain Bo Pelini.

On with the rewind…

Five defining moments

Tommy Armstrong's pitch/pass for the win: The Huskers ran the option with a good deal of success all night, so offensive coordinator Tim Beck went back to it in the game's biggest moment, a third-and-goal situation from the five-yard line with NU trailing and two minutes left. A Michigan defender immediately got in Armstrong's way and the freshman froze for a moment before pitching the ball forward to Ameer Abdullah, who bulled his way to the end zone for the game-winning score.

Kenny Bell's fourth-down catch: This play gets quickly forgotten, but if NU doesn't convert from Michigan's 31-yard line with about three minutes left, the game might have been over. But the coaches saw Michigan's cornerbacks playing well off the NU receivers and checked the call. Armstrong had to rifle a pass about 30 yards for a short completion to Bell, who then ran the ball down to the Michigan five-yard line with some great blocking from Sam Burtch.

Jordan Westerkamp's muffed punt: Nebraska hurt itself all day by not fielding punts and letting them roll, but things got even worse when Westerkamp tried to catch a fourth-quarter boot. Last weeks' hero, the freshman couldn't hang onto the punt and it was recovered by Michigan at NU's 26-yard line. The Blackshirts got a stop, but Michigan connected on the go-ahead field goal. Punt returns have been arguably Nebraska's biggest weakness this season.

Randy Gregory's final sack: With time running out on Michigan's last drive, Devin Gardner tried to scramble on third down. But Gregory stayed home and brought down the elusive quarterback for a one-yard loss, his third sack of the game. The play forced the Wolverines into a tough fourth and five, which they failed to convert, giving Nebraska the win.

Michigan's 69-yard punt: Up 10-3, Nebraska had all the momentum after the defense forced yet another stop and the Wolverines had to punt from their own 28-yard line. Punter Matt Wile didn't have a great punt, but Terrell Newby chose not to catch it for some reason. The ball rolled down to Nebraska's three-yard line. The Huskers promptly went three and out and the entire feel of the game seemed to change. Michigan scored the game's next 10 points and NU didn't get on the board again until the final drive.

Game balls

Ameer Abdullah: The junior ran for 105 yards, his eighth 100-yard game this season. Abdullah willed his way into the end zone on NU's first touchdown, a bullish eight-yard run. He then alertly stayed with the play after the option was seemingly blown up on the game-winning touchdown. His performance gives him 1,213 rushing yards on the season, already surpassing his 1,137 from last year.

Randy Gregory: The beast has been unleashed. Gregory seems to somehow get better and better every week and he simply abused the Michigan line, finishing with a career-high three sacks. The third-year sophomore is now tied for the conference lead in sacks and leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss. When asked how much more Gregory can really learn at the college level, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said he simply wasn't going to let Gregory leave early for the NFL. He was joking - kind of.

Defensive tackle Thad Randle: He has taken a good deal of heat for his so-so performances this season, so when he puts together probably the best game of his life, it has to be recognized. Randle posted two tackles, both for loss, including a sack. But even if he wasn't finishing the play, he did a great job blowing up the middle of the offensive line and played a huge role in Nebraska holding Michigan to minus-21 yards rushing.

By the numbers

7: Sacks by Nebraska's defense. This was the same Michigan line that had given up seven sacks the week before too, so it's a noted weak link. But that doesn't take away from NU's great performance. The staff decided on Tuesday that they were going to bring heavy pressure to try and get to Gardner, and the Blackshirts executed that plan to perfection.

0: Michigan first downs gained by running. The Wolverines' running game was completely inept and the Huskers repeatedly met Gardner and Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield.

2: Fumbles by Nebraska. The Huskers have had a fumbling problem for years, but they hadn't had one for eight straight quarters heading into halftime. Then Quincy Enunwa put the ball on the ground in the third quarter (Michigan missed a field goal on the ensuing drive) and Westerkamp threatened to lose the game with his botched punt catch. Whatever it takes, Nebraska has to get this fixed or it's going to cost the Huskers a game.

10: Targets for Enunwa compared to 13 for the rest of the team combined. It's clear that the senior is Armstrong's go-to target, and Enunwa mostly carried the burden well, hauling in seven passes. But he also fumbled and had a critical drop on third down.

1962: The last time Nebraska won at Michigan - Bob Devaney's first season at NU.

They said it

"That's just the type of kid he is. He's played in big-time high school football games, so he's used to pressure. Having that type of training has really helped him become a leader and not shy away from this moment. I think when he gets in those moments, he embraces it, he wants it and he wants everything he has to do in it. He proved to us today that he can handle probably the toughest situation."

Graduate assistant Joe Ganz on the clutch play of Armstrong

"This is rare. It's a fluke. This will never happen again. I'll hopefully be in this for another 20 years or so and I guarantee that will never happen again, especially against Michigan. But it was just kind of the way the ball bounced. Our guys were in the right spots."

Kaczenski on the great effort put forth by the defense

"I think it's one of my best (performances). I just came out ready to play. I haven't been here (at the Big House), it was on ABC, it's my last time playing Michigan… I just wanted to help my team out and I think I did a pretty good job today."

Randle on what is likely the best showing of his career

Biggest question/concern: Can the defense keep this up?

That's back-to-back stellar performances by the Blackshirts, who just might get those famed practice jerseys back. Whether the starters are donning black or white this week, it has to keep up its high level of play. With so many injuries, particularly along the offensive line, the Huskers are going to struggle to score points. That leaves the onus on the defense, which was the definitive weakness of the team as recently as the start of the Northwestern game. But the Blackshirts have seemed to turn their season around and have allowed just 13 points on opponents' last 25 drives.



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