The Michigan Wolverines squared off with the Nebraska Cornhuskers Saturday night with the Legends Division hanging in the balance. A Michigan win would all but secure the division title for the Wolverines, while a Nebraska win would put the Huskers firmly in the driver’s seat.
The Huskers claimed a 7-3 lead deep into a highly contested first half when the game changed in the blink of an eye. Scrambling in Nebraska’s red zone, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson went down with an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the game. Nebraska then seized control, stifled the Wolverine attack and cruised to a 23-9 victory.
Here are the winners and losers in the Big Red’s crucial win over Michigan Saturday night in Lincoln.
Ameer Abdullah was not given much opportunity early in the game to break into the open field as his first rush for more than one yard came late in the second quarter. But once the running lanes opened up more in the second half, Abdullah took advantage.
On multiple occasions, he made the first man miss and earned extra yards, most notably on his fourth-quarter touchdown run that put the game out of reach.
Perhaps even more important was his elimination of the turnovers that overshadowed his performances against UCLA and Northwestern a week ago. Abdullah showed again that he is more than capable of filling in for injured Rex Burkhead.
Make no mistake, Nebraska should be given credit for its first-half performance. Prior to Denard Robinson’s injury, the Huskers held a 7-3 lead and had held Robinson to 101 total yards in over 25 minutes.
But Robinson’s injury obviously changed the face of the game. Freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy replaced Robinson, completing three passes for 38 yards and three interceptions. And Michigan’s only subsequent scoring drive was largely due to 45 penalty yards by the Blackshirts.
Although Nebraska had the upper hand when Robinson went down, it was an entirely different game after his departure.
With Denard Robinson in the game, the Husker defense did a sufficient job of containing Michigan’s high-powered offense. Yet Papuchis earned his stripes for the tactical changes he made after the introduction of Russell Bellomy.
Time and time again, Papuchis drew up heavy blitzes to ensure that the young quarterback’s first experience in a hostile environment was as unpleasant as possible. And the results showed, as the Huskers forced three interceptions and inflicted numerous hits upon Bellomy.
A year ago, Husker fans thought they were seeing the second coming of the great Alex Henery. Brett Maher replaced the should-have-been Groza Award winner effectively as he made 16 of 17 field-goal attempts under 50 yards. But this year Maher has seemed like a different player, already missing three field goals under 50 yards and hitting only one of three beyond that mark heading into Saturday’s game.
But in a low-scoring game where every field goal was crucial, Maher came through, making all three of his attempts, including a 51-yarder. Not to mention he dropped two of his four punts inside the 20-yard line.
Despite arriving in Lincoln as a highly touted recruit out of Omaha, Sean Fisher has been the frequent target of criticism throughout his time at Nebraska. His performance Saturday night, however, should make more than a few skeptics bite their tongues.
Fisher was often the cause of big defensive plays as he ran down Michigan rushers on the perimeter. He ultimately totaled seven tackles, two for loss. While Husker fans are accustomed to expecting solid games from Will Compton and Daimion Stafford, performances like this one from Sean Fisher are just what the Blackshirts need to elevate their play to the next level.
It is hard to criticize anyone after such a momentous victory for the Big Red. And it is even tougher to criticize an offensive line that played so well in the pass game.
Yet through much of the first half, the Nebraska offensive line failed to move the Michigan front and produce running lanes for Ameer Abdullah. While the quality of the Michigan defensive front and the offensive line’s improved performance in the second half should be considered, many of the Huskers’ offensive struggles in the first half were attributable to the stagnant running game.
The problem of penalties, which has frequently plagued the Huskers under head coach Bo Pelini, reared its ugly head again on Saturday night.
Nebraska was penalized eight times for 108 yards, including 45 penalty yards on a single Michigan scoring drive. Most disconcerting were a couple penalties that were purely mental mistakes, one on a late hit out of bounds and another charged to the Nebraska bench (aka Bo Pelini) for berating the referees.
While it is open to debate how good (or absolutely horrible) some of those penalties were, Nebraska must eliminate those sorts of mistakes in future games.
Freshman wide receiver Taariq Allen is an extraordinary talent who, despite his lack of on-field targets, has been making plenty of heads turn in practice. With his 6’3” frame, Allen is poised to become the next great target receiver for Nebraska.
But it will not be happening this year. Allen went down on the opening kickoff against Michigan with a severe leg injury. Based on his demeanor following the injury and Pelini’s postgame press conference, Husker fans should not expect to see Allen back in action any time soon, which is particularly disappointing after he tallied his first touchdown last week at Northwestern.