Huskers come up big with 23-9 win over Michigan
It was a game that Nebraska absolutely had to win in order to keep its Big Ten Conference title hopes alive and well, and while it may not have been the prettiest performance, the Huskers finally found a way to get it done when they had to.
After a tight first half ended with Michigan star quarterback Denard Robinson leaving the game with an injury, Nebraska's defense took over the rest of the way to lead a dominating second half and pull out a 23-9 victory.
The win puts the Huskers (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) in sole possession of first place in the Leaders Division standings, while the Wolverines (5-3, 3-1) drop to second.
"It's a good win for our football team and our kids," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm proud of them. I thought they played hard, they did a lot of good things. We'll enjoy it tonight, and we've got a lot of football left to play this year. I thought we made some progress, thought we did a lot of good things, but there's a lot we need to correct from that game. We're going to have our work cut out for us next week. We'll enjoy it tonight, get back to work tomorrow and stay the course."
In what was projected by many to be a high-scoring affair, the first half was dominated by defense on both sides. It wasn't until early in the second quarter that the game saw its first points, and it came off one of Nebraska's more impressive passing displays of the season.
Facing a first-and-24 after a personal foul penalty to end the first quarter, quarterback Taylor Martinez came out firing to start the second quarter with four straight completions, including four of 12 yards or more.
The final pass was the biggest of the half, as Martinez connected with a wide-open Kenny Bell down the right sideline, and Bell dove over the pylon for a 32-yard scoring strike to give the Huskers a 7-0 lead with just over 13 minutes to go in the half.
Outside of the that drive, which covered 72 yards on seven plays, Nebraska's offense sputtered otherwise, gaining just 81 more yards the rest of the half.
"I thought we left some points out there, we left some drives out there," Pelini said. "At times, we looked really good. At times, we had some missed opportunities. I think we can play better. I don't think it was our best effort, but I think we did a lot of good things. They've got a pretty good defense."
Michigan got on the board on its next possession with a 52-yard field goal by Brendan Gibbons, making up for a missed 53-yard attempt by fellow kicker Matt Wile in the first quarter.
The Wolverines then cut the lead to one on another Gibbons field goal on their next drive, making it 7-6 with 2:38 left to go before halftime.
While that would be all for the scoring in the opening half, things definitely still got interesting on one of the final drives. With Michigan marching down the field deep inside NU territory, Robinson scrambled for a 7-yard run, but ended up getting injured on the tackle.
Clutching his right (throwing) arm, Robinson remained on the sideline for the remainder of the half, with freshman Russell Bellomy taking over the offense for the final three minutes of the half. Robinson would not return for the rest of night, which completely changed the course of the game for Michigan's offense.
"When he got hurt the backup quarterback came in and he's not really a threat," safety P.J. Smith said. "We were able to not be so [worried] about the quarterback... It didn't matter who was their quarterback, because we were going to try to go after him anyway. That was just our game plan. The defense did their job, and the cornerbacks and safeties were doing their job."
As both offenses failed to put many points on the board, Nebraska's defense was the big reason it went into the locker room with the lead. Despite Michigan running 16 more plays (40) than the Huskers (24), the Wolverines only managed 136 total yards in the half.
The turnover problems continued on into the third quarter, as Martinez was intercepted by an impressive tip and catch by UM linebacker Desmond Morgan at midfield on Nebraska's opening possession of the half.
However, the Huskers finally caught a break of their own when Michigan running back Vincent Smith mishandled a pass from Bellomy and the ball popped up right into the arms of NU's Smith. The senior safety returned it all the way to the Wolverine 4 before being chased down by Bellomy.
That tackle by Bellomy ended up being a fairly significant play, as the Huskers failed to punch it in and had to settle for a Brett Maher field goal to go up 10-6. Maher added two more field goal from 51 and 31 yards out to bump the lead up to 16-6 with 4:43 remaining in the third.
Not scoring touchdowns kept what should have been a lopsided game within reach for the Wolverines, however. With the help of 45 yards worth of penalties by Nebraska on one drive, Michigan cut it back to a one-score game on a 38-yard field goal by Gibbons to make it 16-9 going into the fourth quarter.
With Robinson out, though, UM managed just 9 yards of offense in the third quarter, and Bellomy completed just one of his seven pass attempts.
Nebraska's defense came up with another big play on Michigan's first play of the fourth quarter, as safety Daimion Stafford picked off a bad pass by Bellomy at the UM 47. This time, the Huskers capitalized on the opportunity, marching downfield on just three plays and scoring on a nice 12-yard run by Ameer Abdullah to make it 23-9 with 10:19 remaining.
The Wolverines made one last push by driving inside NU territory with about seven minutes to go, but cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste put an end to those hopes with a pick in the end zone that all but sealed the victory.
The Huskers will look to further their lead in the Legends next week when they travel up to take on Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.
"(This) was the next one, so it was the biggest one," Pelini said of the importance of Saturday's win. "So next week, that becomes the biggest one. This was a big step for us, but like I just told the team, I said when you're winning, as it goes on the stakes get higher and higher. If we approach it that was and keep preparing the way we have, we'll give ourselves an opportunity."