Nebraska vs. Michigan: 10 Things We Learned in Cornhuskers' Win
The Nebraska Cornhuskers survived another close showdown with Michigan on Saturday afternoon, coming from behind to win in Ann Arbor 17-13.
The Huskers (7-2, 4-1) finally solved the riddle that Big Ten teams have struggled with for most of the past three years in winning on the road at Michigan Stadium. The defensive effort was fantastic in a sloppy game dominated by field position and offensive ineptitude.
Having eliminated Michigan (6-3, 2-3) from the division title race, Nebraska will now turn to the game against Michigan State, which leads the Legends Division.
Here are 10 things we learned from Nebraska's most important victory of the season to date.
Nebraska Can Beat a Team with a Pulse
Here's the mighty list of opponents Nebraska had defeated to get to 6-2 before this game against Michigan: Wyoming, Southern Mississippi, South Dakota State, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern. Those three Big Ten teams still don't have a conference win, even after this weekend!
Yet beating Michigan in Ann Arbor, even a struggling Wolverines squad, is still a notable accomplishment. Michigan is at least in the middle or upper crust of conference contenders, and the value of a win against a good opponent cannot be understated.
Now Nebraska heads into the game against Michigan State (another good team) with confidence and an actual good win.
It's nice to see from Bo Pelini's team, especially if the coaches want to keep their jobs this offseason.
Bo Pelini and His Staff Aren't Done Yet
Following the first embarrassing loss of the season to UCLA, Bo Pelini began to come under fire from a Nebraska fanbase that expects greatness. Even Nebraska legend Tommy Armstrong continues to make public comments calling for the end of the Pelini tenure.
Although the wins over Northwestern and Michigan were not terribly impressive, wins will get the angry mob quieted down and off the coaching staff's back for a little while.
A win over Michigan State would really turn down the heat on Pelini's seat, as Nebraska would then likely be headed to Indianapolis for another conference championship game.
That's good news in Lincoln, no matter whether you like Pelini or not. Positive momentum is good for a program, wherever it can be found.
Pelini and His Defense Do Watch Game Tape
Until last week, it may have been unclear how to really exploit the Michigan Wolverines. Then Michigan State went out and held Brady Hoke's team to six points and more than 40 yards in negative rushing. A blueprint was set for blowing away the Michigan offense.
Good thing Nebraska was paying attention to game tape from last week. The Cornhuskers called a blitz-heavy game plan that pressured Devin Gardner all day and dominated the weak Michigan offensive line (and awful pass protection from Michigan running backs).
That allowed Nebraska to give up 200 yards of efficient passing while still holding the Wolverines to only one offensive touchdown.
Nebraska followed the blueprint, and until Michigan proves it can handle the heat, other teams will make life miserable for Devin Gardner and company. Nebraska deserved the "Blackshirts," if only for this afternoon.
Randy Gregory Is a Beast
Devin Gardner was sacked seven times for the second straight week. Hands up if you saw that coming?
Regardless of whether it was predictable that Nebraska's defense would match the total put up by Michigan State a week ago, defensive end Randy Gregory made himself a highlight reel on Saturday. His three sacks of Gardner caused a total of 14 lost yards, and he was in on many other plays as well.
Michigan's offensive line is inexperienced and not very good, but Michigan State and the remaining teams on Nebraska's schedule also do not have great offensive lines. That means Gregory could have some more big games and certainly earn All-Conference honors with more important defensive stops.
Led by the defensive line, Nebraska made Bo Pelini and his coaching staff proud on Saturday. Now we will get to see if Gregory and his line can keep it up.
Ameer Abdullah Is the Team MVP
When Nebraska needed to win with defense and a strong running game, Ameer Abdullah delivered in a big way. His 27 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns overall made the difference in this game against the Wolverines.
Abdullah missed a couple of big holes that could have pushed his numbers to astronomical levels, but he cannot be faulted given the strong effort throughout the game. Pundits wondered if Abdullah could carry the load for 25 or 30 times a game like Rex Burkhead used to, but he has proven capable.
Tommy Armstrong and Ameer Abdullah ran a fair bit of option attack as well, allowing Abdullah to get a running start when Michigan defenders would cheat in on Armstrong. This is where Nebraska's run game must succeed going forward.
Especially in the absence of Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska offense will only go as far as Abdullah will take it. Thankfully, he plays like a team MVP.
Tommy Armstrong Can Lead a Game-Winning Drive
Michigan had dominated the scoring since the first quarter and punched home what appeared to be the game-winning field goal after Nebraska muffed a punt in the fourth quarter. There was only eight minutes, eight seconds left on the clock, and the score was 13-10 Wolverines.
Then, Tommy Armstrong came out and did exactly what Ron Kellogg had done to Northwestern a weekend ago. Although this drive took up five minutes and did not require a miracle Hail Mary pass, the result was the same: a go-ahead touchdown.
Unlike the previous three quarters, Armstrong put the team on his back and found the creases in the prevent defense the Michigan secondary put on.
When Armstrong improvised on an option play to throw a forward shovel pass to Ameer Abdullah, he found his first Huskers moment. As the future leader of this offense, it was good to see Armstrong execute the most important role a quarterback has in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska Has Offensive Balance Once Again
Totaling up the numbers from the Michigan game reveals an offense that was not highly effective. However, it was balanced with 128 yards rushing and 145 yards passing. Add in 40 yards of return yardage, and it was good enough to win.
In games where Nebraska has struggled, opposing defenses have forced the Huskers to be one-dimensional (one way or another). For example, UCLA pushed Nebraska behind so quickly that the running game was abandoned in that loss.
But not Saturday, as Tommy Armstrong did just enough in the first and fourth quarters to outpace the strong effort from the running game.
If there is to be any chance of holding off the ravaging dogs of the Spartans defense, Nebraska will have to be relatively balanced and unpredictable. The tools are there, if Saturday's results are repeated next week.
Taylor Martinez Probably Is Not Coming Back, and That's OK
It is just as hard to believe that freshman Tommy Armstrong has started five games already in the absence of Taylor Martinez. One would expect that Nebraska would have no chance at a conference title without the leader of the offense T-Magic.
However, that sounds a lot like the same thing that was said when Rex Burkhead went down for long periods of time a season ago. Nebraska did just fine without him, running all the way to a division title.
Now losing a running back like Burkhead may not be as big a blow as the starting quarterback, but it does show that Nebraska knows how to adjust to adversity. Bo Pelini is showing the signs of stress in postgame interviews, but he is happy to be surviving.
Tommy Armstrong has gotten the Huskers to this critical point in the season. Now let's see if he can take the team to the next level (or at least gain valuable experience for the next three years).
Nebraska Is Heading Back to a New Year's Bowl
Nebraska has three games remaining, but the win over Michigan likely locked up at least an appearance in one of the top two non-BCS Big Ten bowls for the Huskers in January. Nebraska will almost certainly stay ahead of Michigan in the standing now, with Michigan still needing to play Ohio State.
That means Nebraska is really only competing with four other teams for the top bowl slots: Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Despite the loss head-to-head, Nebraska will always be picked before the Gophers by the Florida-based bowl games (Outback, Capital One) thanks to fan following.
A win against Michigan State means Nebraska likely ends up in the Big Ten Championship. It would be unfathomable for the Huskers to fall behind more than just OSU and Wisconsin in the bowl pecking order even with a loss then.
If Nebraska loses to Michigan State, then the likelihood that the Big Ten will have an at-large BCS berth increases dramatically (either Wisconsin or MSU). That means Nebraska will easily be picked over Minnesota and Michigan for the fourth bowl slot, which would be the Outback Bowl.
Nebraska better be ready. The SEC awaits again.
Nebraska vs. Michigan State Is the Game of the Year in Legends Division
When Ohio State played Wisconsin back on the last week of September, it was pretty evident that the game would be for the Leaders Division title. That has turned out to be true, as Ohio State and Wisconsin both have not lost since (and the Buckeyes win will put the team in Indianapolis).
After a twisty and turvy journey, the Legends Division now has a clear game of the year as well. Michigan State holds a one-game lead in the division but now must go on the road to keep that lead against Nebraska, which is one game behind the Spartans in the standings.
Minnesota is not officially eliminated yet, but it would be a long shot for the Gophers to get to the Big Ten Championship. Thus, the Spartans and the Huskers will be facing off for the final bragging rights during the Legends Division era (Michigan State and Nebraska hold the only division titles in this three-year period with the Legends-Leaders setup).
Enjoy this culmination of a wild season next weekend, and also of the last three years. These teams will be separated into different divisions, so eternal bragging rights are on the line!
With that, we've learned all that is possible from Nebraska-Michigan. See you next week.