The 22nd-ranked Michigan Wolverines lost 23-9 to Nebraska in Lincoln on Saturday night. Michigan was derailed by an injury to Denard Robinson, which eliminated all offense for the Wolverines following his exit in the second quarter. The Michigan defense played valiantly, but this game would not be won without touchdowns.
This game provided the Michigan coaching staff with opportunities to prove that adjustments could be made to win without Robinson. However, the veteran players remaining did not do much to help the freshman backup quarterback, and that crippled any chance to win the game.
Now Michigan has lost control of its own destiny in the conference championship race. Nebraska still has games against the likes of Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan State, but the Cornhuskers will need to lose at least one for Michigan to slip back to the top of the division standings.
In other words, the Legends Division race just found some definition, and the interesting storylines will continue, especially if this is a long-term problem for Robinson.
Let’s take a look at how each of the Michigan position units are graded in this critical loss that may end up deciding the Legends Division representative in Indianapolis. Thanks for reading and joining us during the game, and feel free to give your own grades below.
Overall Game Grade: D
This game was a tale of two halves, one with Denard Robinson playing quarterback and another with backup freshman Russell Bellomy playing quarterback. When Robinson was in the game, he was efficiently finding the openings that Nebraska was giving him. Robinson completed 6 of 11 passes for 55 yards, but most of these completions were on third downs that kept drives alive.
Despite dominating the time of possession by a 2-to-1 margin in the first half, Robinson only led Michigan to three points before his injury, which occurred on a light hit from a linebacker in the red zone. The reports from the sidelines called it a nerve problem affecting his grip in his throwing arm, which undermines everything a quarterback needs to do. Despite Robinson doing a good job of taking what was given to him, he failed to make big plays before the injury.
That left the game in the hands of a freshman getting his first serious game experience. Bellomy was not ready for the task, as he overthrew some receivers and started the game with 10 straight incomplete passes. This caused the offense to stall out completely, which turned around the time of possession against the Wolverines.
Once Bellomy found his groove in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines were too far behind to be a serious threat. At the end of the game, Bellomy had three interceptions and not much offense to show for his efforts in the second half. The talent is there, but he is a long way from being ready to lead this team.
Overall Game Grade: D
Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith saw most of the time at running back against Nebraska, but neither ended up being very productive. Toussaint seemed to find more running room along the boundaries of the offensive line, even though there were some holes opened for him early. Toussaint ended with 2.5 yards per carry, which was not enough to make Nebraska stop blitzing when the freshman quarterback came in.
However, Toussaint did do a mostly admirable job of picking up blitzing linebackers and cornerbacks during the second half. That did not make much of a difference until the fourth quarter, but he did do his job when he was not carrying the ball.
Meanwhile, Vincent Smith only found success with two catches in the passing game. When Smith ran the ball, his best total was two yards. He simply was too small to break away from the solid Nebraska tackling on this night. Overall, not a great outing when you take Denard Robinson out of the mix (even with him, the rushing total was under 100 yards).
The catch that wasn't...on review
Overall Game Grade: F
Some may see this as a harsh grade, but the receivers were the one position group that needed to step up when Denard Robinson went down, and that just did not happen. Whenever Bellomy was hitting his targets in the third quarter, the receivers were dropping or bobbling the ball.
One of the most costly bobbles came from a running back Vincent Smith (led to an interception), but Jeremy Gallon had multiple drops which is highly unusual. Gallon also did not get any traction with his patented end around running play, despite trying it three times in the first half.
Roy Roundtree ended with one reception for 32 yards. While that was a big catch, he missed on a 50-yarder in the first quarter when the game was scoreless. That reception likely changes the whole complexion of the game, as Michigan would be playing with the lead early. Despite having 100 yards of catches, this unit largely fails on the night when the freshman quarterback needed them most.
Overall Game Grade: C
This grade could almost be an incomplete, as neither Brandon Moore nor Mike Kwiatkowski made it into the statistics with pass receptions. However, the tight ends are generally more important to Michigan as run blockers and pass blockers. In this role, the tight ends played sufficiently well to act as a sixth offensive lineman.
A couple of the bigger runs for Fitzgerald Toussaint were broken on the boundary thanks to good sealing blocks from the tight end position. It was still a pretty quiet night for both of these players, which goes along with the rest of the offense. Thus, a mediocre passing grade for Moore and Kwiatkowski.
Overall Game Grade: C-
At times the offensive line looked great, especially when Denard Robinson was in the game. However, Nebraska dropped into heavy coverage and played safe against Robinson to prevent getting burned on the quarterback run in response to a blitz. Thus, the offensive line was not challenged much in the passing game until Robinson went down to injury.
Then when Bellomy was in the game, it was open season with a lot of blitzes, which were not always picked up well by the Wolverines line. Taylor Lewan led the left side of the line admirably and did not make any apparent blitz pickup mistakes, but that was not enough with some failings elsewhere on the line.
The offensive line also only managed to run block well enough to open up small holes through the middle of the field. That led Toussaint and Smith to struggle to pick up any big plays, even when the Nebraska defense should have been more worn down in the second half. The effort was acceptable when Robinson was in the game, and not acceptable when Bellomy was in the game.
Overall Game Grade: B
The Wolverines played well on defense throughout this game against the Cornhuskers, and the good play started up front as usual. Craig Roh was an absolute beast on his end of the line, breaking through the Nebraska line to bust up multiple rushing attempts by both Ameer Abdullah and Taylor Martinez. Roh also made the passing game difficult at times for Martinez by limiting his time in the pocket.
Until the fourth quarter, this would have been an “A” effort from the defensive front. Unfortunately, the struggles on offense put the defense on the field for extended periods of time in the second half and almost always in Michigan territory. As a result, holding Nebraska to field goals became victories to celebrate until the fourth quarter.
Once the fourth quarter arrived, Roh began getting blocked more effectively and Abdullah found some big openings in the running game. This put the game away and so detracts from the grade a small bit. The Wolverines still should be credited for playing well up front in this game.
Overall Game Grade: A
Sometimes a team cannot come close to getting an “A” in a loss like this, but the Michigan linebackers certainly put out a winning performance in this game. Whether stuffing the run or helping out in pass coverage, all three of the starters made important plays tipping balls or making sure tackles. Even when the defense began to falter in the fourth quarter, the linebackers kept the big plays from breaking for more than 10-15 yards.
Desmond Morgan was the star of the game on defense. Morgan tackled Taylor Martinez so brutally in the second quarter that it dinged up Martinez’s legs for the rest of the game as well as forcing a fumble which Michigan recovered. Morgan then tipped a Martinez pass and intercepted it on the first drive of the third quarter. These plays gave Russell Bellomy a chance to get into the groove of the game without being buried in his own territory, but those opportunities were squandered.
Jake Ryan also deserves mention here for breaking up a lot of running plays at the line of scrimmage, especially in the third quarter. Ryan became slightly less effective late in the game, but he was a big reason why the Cornhuskers had well under 100 yards rushing before the fourth quarter.
Overall Game Grade: C-
If there were one area of the defense that did not quite live up to the great expectations on Saturday night, it was the defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Raymon Taylor and Jordan Kovacs failed to make any big plays and did not cover tightly when given the opportunity. Kovacs, in particular, gave up a ton of room on the sidelines and Martinez took advantage on more than one occasion.
The safeties made the bigger mistakes in the game though. Thomas Gordon was picked out of a play by a slot receiver at the beginning of the second quarter, which led to a 32-yard touchdown pass. J.T. Floyd committed pass interference on a play in the endzone where he may not have been beaten in the fourth quarter. These plays each let Nebraska continue or end drives with touchdowns.
Holding Nebraska to 166 yards passing is a decent performance, and the defensive backfield always shut down plays in the redzone. Nevertheless, a little better job could have been done when the rest of the defense stepped up so well.
Overall Game Grade: C+
The special teams had a shaky start, but then the returners settled down and Brendan Gibbons starting hitting field goals to keep Michigan close through three quarters. However, Michigan needed a game-changing type of play from special teams with the struggles on offense and it just did not happen. Even with limited opportunities, the special teams needed to do more to help beat Nebraska.
In the return game, Dennis Norfleet averaged a respectable 24 yards per return on four returns. Considering his top return was 26 yards, he was very consistent on each return. Jeremy Gallon, on the other hand, struggled to get anything going on punt returns. Gallon almost caused an early disaster by muffing a punt out of bounds at the Michigan two-yard line.
Kickoff specialist Matt Wile was asked to hit a 53-yard field goal because Brendan Gibbons had only hit from 43 yards as a career high coming into this game. When Wile was way short and inaccurate on this long field goal attempt, Gibbons got the next shot from 52 yards out. Gibbons hit that field goal and two others to keep Michigan close. He and punter Will Hagerup did their jobs, but the team needed touchdowns to win.
Overall Game Grade: C
Michigan had a great game plan for grinding out a win like last weekend against Michigan State, but that game plan of playing keep away with the offense faltered when Denard Robinson went down. It can be difficult to adjust, but Michigan did not figure out how to rework the offense to be effective with backup QB Russell Bellomy, even with a full halftime to figure it out.
It begs the question, why did Devin Gardner, who does have game experience, not get a look at some point in the second half. The coaches would have found it tough to win this game thanks to the circumstances, but the adjustments that were made were not good enough. In addition, those adjustments grew predictable and stale, which led to Nebraska intercepting passes on two fourth-quarter drives.
Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison proved themselves last year on defense and continue to do so during Big Ten play. However, now the focus will be on fixing the offense, especially if Denard Robinson is lost for any significant period of time. If the future is being forced on the Wolverines now, then the coaches will certainly have to do better going forward to keep Michigan relevant in the Big Ten championship chase.