ANN ARBOR, Mich. - If we've learned one thing the last couple of years about Bo Pelini, he has more than nine lives.
Just when you are ready to count Pelini out and think he has nothing left, he's defied the odds. Last year his team won six straight after a 63-38 loss at Ohio State. On Saturday, Pelini's group notched their second impressive victory in a row winning 17-13 at Michigan. It was the Wolverine's first loss at home since 2010 and NU's first win in Ann Arbor since 1962 - Bob Devaney's first season at Nebraska.
So many times over the last few seasons Husker fans have become accustomed to seeing NU fall flat in these types of games. Heading into the season this was the game everybody circled that Pelini had to have. It was a chance for a "signature win" at place Michigan head coach Brady Hoke had never lost.
Even with their starting quarterback, starting slot receiver and three starting offensive linemen out today, NU found a way to get a win that mattered. This win keeps Nebraska alive another week in the Big Ten standings and puts all the pressure on Michigan State now as they get ready to come into Lincoln.
"We talked all week we need to stay together and we need to go shoulder to shoulder and lean on each other and play for each other," Pelini said after the win. "That's what a good football team does and that's what they did."
All season we've heard Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis talk about how much potential this defense has.
Over the last seven quarters of football we are finally seeing that. In the last seven quarters against Michigan and Northwestern NU has only allowed 337 total yards of offense. On Saturday the Wolverines rushed for -21 yards and failed to convert a single first down on the ground. That's a far stretch from what Minnesota did to Nebraska two weeks ago. Also keep in mind Michigan beat the Gophers 42-13 earlier this season at the Big House.
11 of Michigan's 13 possessions were 16 yards or less and eight of those 11 were 4 yards or less. It was one of the more dominating performances we've seen from Nebraska on the road in quite some time when you factor in the venue and Michigan's 19 game home winning streak.
"I think going forward and I've said all along I like what this defense is going to be down the road," Pelini said. "As this group comes of age this has a chance to be a really good defense for a number of years. I think we're watching some guys grow up in front of our eyes and get more comfortable. With great preparation comes success, and with success comes confidence and that's when you start to have good things happen for you."
One of those players that continues to grow is defensive end Randy Gregory who's put his name into legit discussion for the Big Ten defensive player of the year honors. After the Michigan game, Gregory now leads the Big Ten in both sacks (7 ½) and tackles for loss (11 ½) and he finished Saturday with three sacks and one quarterback hurry.
Gregory was arguably the best player on the field in a lot of respects and he impacted the game in every which way.
Going into the game Nebraska knew they could get after Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner after they saw the physical and mental beating he took last week against Michigan State.
"Coach (Papuchis) last night played a clip for us before we went to bed of Gardner," redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose said. "It was fourth-and-six and Michigan was still in the game and it was their last shot to get back in it. (Gardner) had been hit hard all game, and he scrambled out of the pocket and he had a chance to get 8 yards and he needed only 6, but he slid at about 5 yards.
"We knew that he didn't want to take those hits. We knew if we kept putting the pressure on him we were eventually going to get him to fold a little bit."
That message was sent early and often to Gardner and set the tone for how the rest of the game went.
On to the post game grade out…
What I saw on Saturday
***Offensive line coach John Garrison said after the game they came into Ann Arbor wanting to give Armstrong a game plan he could manage. The key word is "less." Garrison said with Armstrong "less is more." Garrison used the analogy they didn't want to give Armstrong the "fire hose" to drink out of, but instead the "garden hose."
***Pelini really felt for wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp after he muffed a punt that let Michigan kick a go-ahead field goal. However, he was very proud of how his team rallied around Westerkamp.
"Poor (Westerkamp), he dropped that ball and he was crushed," Pelini said. "You know what though, the defense picked him up and the offense rallied behind him. That's what a team is all about."
***As post-game interviews wrapped up Garrison joked that he needed to start calling recruits.
"I need to make a bunch of recruiting calls right now because we were on national television in a big game," Garrison said. "To come out with a win and to have our defense play the way they did and our offense respond is huge. That's kind of been our Achilles heel. To have this is huge, especially in the Big House."
***Hats off to Thad Randle, who played one of his better games of the season on Saturday. Randle had one sack and two tackles for loss and helped NU own the interior.
***Junior offensive lineman Mike Moudy said they knew this game was going to come down to who wins in the trenches.
"It came down to a battle between the o-lines and the d-lines," Moudy said. "We were just going run inside zone on them to see who could match-up better. We had to move them off the ball and that was our challenge."
***I was very underwhelmed with five-star freshman Michigan running back Derrick Green. Either the Michigan offensive line is that bad, or we got that one way wrong at Rivals.com. Green finished with just 11 yards on eight carries.
***I love the "game manager" role Armstrong took on today. He didn't try to win the game on one play, but when it mattered he made plays. That's the sign of a true winner and team player.
***Running back Ameer Abdullah is putting a lock on the All-Big Ten running back spot. Abdullah now leads the league in rushing by 53 yards over Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
***It was puzzling that Nebraska did not travel senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to Ann Arbor. Both Spencer Long and Jake Cotton made the trip, but for whatever reason NU chose not to bring Martinez.
The final grades
Rushing offense: B
Nebraska managed to only rush for 128 yards on 43 carries, but Abdullah's 105 yards were what the Huskers needed. You also have to factor in all the injuries that caused NU to shuffle in so many faces on the offensive line.
Passing offense: C+
Armstrong did what he had to do win this game. It by no means was a pretty day passing the football, as the Huskers had three drops. However, on the final drive Armstrong made things happen and playmakers like Kenny Bell stepped up. Bell had two huge catches, including one on fourth down to set up NU's final touchdown pass to Abdullah on third down.
Rushing defense: A+
This was one of the more dominating rushing defensive performances we've seen at Nebraska, considering the fact Michigan has a roster full of four and five star offensive linemen and running backs. The Huskers held the Wolverines to -21 yards on 36 attempts. If you take out the sacks and tackles for loss on Gardner, Michigan's running backs had just 17 yards on 17 carries.
Passing defense: A
Nebraska sacked Gardner seven times and made things miserable for him any time he didn't get rid of the ball in a hurry. Michigan had some success in the screen game, but still a very solid day for NU's passing defense.
Special teams: D
Nebraska muffed a punt that allowed Michigan to jump up 13-10 in the fourth quarter and they also let a punt fly over their head that put the ball on the 3 yard line. Those were two huge special teams errors. Westerkamp did have one 17 yard punt return, and Terrell Newby had a 10 yard return. Pat Smith made his only field goal attempt of the game from 21 yards out and Mauro Bondi put three of his four kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.