November 9, 2013

Defense sparks Huskers to 17-13 win over Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the second week in a row, Nebraska was able to keep its Big Ten Championship hopes alive in the most dramatic of fashions.

Trailing Michigan by three with eight minutes remaining in the game, the Huskers - who struggled offensively all day up to that point - engineered a 14-play, 75-yard drive and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a five-yard diving touchdown by running back Ameer Abdullah with just over two minutes left to play. When the game clock finally hit zeros, Nebraska (7-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) had pulled off a 17-13 victory and, at least for another week, kept itself in contention in the Legends Division race.

Abdullah led the Huskers with 105 yards on 26 carries and two total touchdowns, and the defense ended up with arguably its best overall performance of the year, holding the Wolverines to 175 total yards and minus-21 yards rushing while racking up seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss in front of crowd of 112,204.

The game snapped a 19-game home winning streak for Michigan and marked head coach Brady Hoke's first home loss at Michigan Stadium.

"It was a heck of a win," NU head coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm proud of that group of kids in that locker room. We're short-handed and we're beat up, but the character on that football team showed. We just fought to the end. The way they played and played with passion - how about that defense? They stood up time after time... There were a lot of situations that could've changed that football game, and guys rose to the occasion."

Just as it did in the second half of last week's win over Northwestern, Nebraska's defense looked like a completely different unit in the first half on Saturday compared to how it had played at times earlier this season.

With some timely blitzes and excellent pressure from the front four, the Huskers had quarterback Devin Gardner running throughout the half and made the Wolverines work for every yard. Michigan managed just 60 total yards, including minus-10 on the ground on 19 attempts, and only came away with a 27-yard field goal by Brendan Gibbons in the second quarter. Nebraska sacked Gardner three times and held UM to just 2-of-8 on third-down conversions.

An eight-yard touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah and a 21-yard field goal by Pat Smith were all the Huskers could muster when they had the ball, though, and only went into halftime with a 10-3 lead. Quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg were just a combined 4-of-11 passing for 47 yards, while Abdullah was really the only consistent source of offense by either team during the first two quarters, rushing 15 times for 71 yards and a score.

Despite struggling to do much of anything in the first half, Michigan's offense came out hot to open the third quarter. Sparked by a 25-yard screen pass to running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines marched 75 yards on 10 plays to tie the game up at 10-10 on a five-yard touchdown pass from Gardner to Devin Funchess.

After both teams stalled for much of the third quarter, Nebraska nearly committed the first costly error of the night when receiver Quincy Enunwa fumbled what would have been a first-down catch and Michigan recovered at the NU 33 with 42 seconds left in the quarter. Luckily the Husker defense held firm, and Gibbons shanked a 52-yard field goal try wide left to keep the game knotted at 10-10 going into the fourth.

"We're mentally tough," Enunwa said. "I think we were the tougher team today and we came out with the win."

Nebraska wouldn't get so lucky after it's second major blunder a few minutes later, though, as a muffed punt by Jordan Westerkamp - who was the hero with his Hail Mary touchdown catch a week earlier - muffed a punt that was recovered by Michigan at the NU 26. While the Wolverines quickly went three-and-out, Gibbons was able to bounce in a 40-yard field goal off the right upright to give UM its first lead of the day at 13-10 with 8:08 remaining.

After nearly giving the away the game twice, the Huskers responded with one of their biggest drives of the season. Having moved the ball down to the Michigan 31 with just under 3:30 left on the clock, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-two and and a conversion attempt to potentially decide the game. Armstrong found Bell open along the left sideline, and Bell evaded a tackle and followed the lead blocking of wide out Sam Burtch 26 yards all the way down to the UM 5. Three plays later on third and goal, Armstrong improvised a late forward option pitch to Abdullah, who leaped over the goal line to reclaim the lead at 17-13 with 2:03 to play.

"We had that fire and desire," senior offensive lineman Andrew Rodriguez said. "We were up and down, and came out first quarter and were letting our defense down, I felt like. That last drive, we put it upon ourselves to make the effort to make that drive happen. It was effort, and me personally, I get sick to my stomach when I watch the defense play that hard and we're not putting anything in for it. Ameer got us together, and he told us what was up. When that happened, we came together and decided to do something about it."

Michigan was able to move the ball near midfield on its final possession, but Gardner's last pass fell incomplete on fourth down with 59 seconds left, and the Huskers ran out the clock to pull off a crucial road victory.

Nebraska will have yet another big test next week when it plays host to No. 17 Michigan State, which will come to Lincoln with an 8-1 record and a perfect 5-0 mark in conference play after a bye this week.

"We talked all week about no matter what the odds or where we were playing or anything else, just playing as a football team and picking each other up," Pelini said. "That's what a team's all about. That was a good football game. It's been a long time since Michigan's lost in this place, and there's a reason why. This is a hard place to come out with a win. Like I said, I'm proud of this football team. I told them, we'll enjoy this tonight and go back to work tomorrow."




 

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