Defense Does It

LINCOLN — It doesn’t matter how a team wins the must-win games, only that it does. That was the message from coach Bo Pelini following Nebraska’s 23-9 win over Michigan in Lincoln on Saturday night.

It was a game and, for now, a division lead that swung unmistakably when Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson left the game with an injury to his throwing arm following a first down run late in the second quarter.  A scoreless first quarter saw the Wolverines doing their best to limit Nebraska’s offense by simply keeping the Huskers off the field. Michigan had the ball for more than 10 minutes in the opening quarter as the teams traded punts and long fields early on.

After a chop block left the Huskers facing first-and-24 to open the second quarter, Nebraska decided to push the pace. Taylor Martinez hit tight end Ben Cotton for a 15-yard gain, then found Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa on back-to-back plays to move Nebraska out to midfield. Two plays later, he found Steven Osborne for 19-yards, setting up a 32-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell on the next play. The entire drive took 2:10 off the clock.

Michigan answered with a field goal on the ensuing drive and, two drives later, moved inside the Huskers’ 10-yard line on a 7-yard scramble by Robinson but it was a costly one. Robinson landed on his right arm and, according to television reports, aggravated a nerve injury suffered earlier this season. The Wolverines netted a field goal out of the drive to make it 7-6 but, without their star quarterback, it was as close as Michigan would get the rest of the night.

What kind of difference does Denard make? Despite playing only a third of the game, he still lead Michigan in rushing (46 yards) and passing (55 yards). With Robinson, Michigan had 136 total yards and 11 first downs at the half. Without him, the Wolverines managed just 52 yards and seven first downs – two of which came courtesy of Nebraska penalties. Coach Bo Pelini said after the game that Robinson’s injury didn’t change a lot for Nebraska defensively.

“Maybe we pressured a little more,” Pelini said. “We got a little bit more aggressive, especially on third down.”

The Huskers held Michigan to just 1-for-5 on third downs in the second half. Russell Bellomy, Robinson’s backup, went just 3-for-16 passing on the game with three second half interceptions while being sacked twice.

Even factoring in Robinson’s absence, it was a defensive effort that represented progress for Nebraska. The 188 yards by Michigan were the fewest allowed by Nebraska since the Huskers’ win over Michigan State last October. Like that game last year, the Nebraska staff handed out the Blackshirts after this one as well.

“I tried to give them to them last week and they didn’t want them,” Pelini said. “It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have…They said they hadn’t earned them and we’ll revisit it after the Michigan game. I think they earned them.”

And they did. Senior defensive end Eric Martin – who added to his team leading sack total with another one on Saturday — was sporting his in postgame interviews. But this game was as much about contributions from a few forgotten players as much as the usual suspects.

Linebackers David Santos (10 tackles), Alonzo Whaley (8), and Sean Fisher (7) – three players who have struggled to see the field consistently this year – led the team in tackles. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, starting his third straight game at corner back, and safety Daimion Stafford recorded their first interceptions of the season.

“It was a good team effort,” Pelini said of the defense. “We played well front-to-back. That’s a good offense, it stresses you in a lot of different ways.

“Even when Denard was in there, I thought we played well. We did a good job of containing him, keeping him bottled up.”

The win moved Nebraska to 3-1 in Big Ten play, tied with Michigan atop the Legends Division but the Huskers now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wolverines.

“This game just makes the next one that much more important,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “Every game we win from here on out just raises the stakes more and more to get us where we want to be. Every game is a must win for us.”

Nebraska travels to East Lansing next week to take on Michigan State. Big Ten officials announced late Saturday that game will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CT.