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October 28, 2012All anyone needs to know about Michigan's 23-9 loss at Nebraska boils down to one crushingly cruel statistical line.
Before senior quarterback Denard Robinson left the game late in the second quarter with a nerve problem in his throwing arm, Michigan had racked up 144 total yards, and stood a chance.
Over the final 33 minutes in his absence, Michigan picked up 44 more yards. For all practical purposes, the Wolverines' night was over when Robinson called it a day.
"It was pretty tough, but at the end of the day, we all have to have his back," fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree said of Robinson's replacement, redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy. "Him being a young leader out there, we've got to respond. You've got to give credit to Nebraska, because they held us to nine points. The offense has to score. That's the main thing. We've got to come together and score, move the ball."
That's proper, brave talk, but in front of Nebraska's Sea of Red, a rabid Memorial Stadium crowd of 86,160 - NU's second-largest crowd ever -- it was far more likely that a rookie-led offense would sink instead of swim.
That's exactly what happened.
Bellomy (3-for-16, 38 yards, three interceptions) came under relentless fire from a Nebraska team desperate to claw back into the Legends Division race. Robinson's departure opened the door, and the Cornhuskers (6-2, 3-1) came storming through against the Wolverines (5-3, 3-1).
Robinson (6-for-11, 55 yards) had his hands full in front of the hostile crowd as it was. When his throwing hand couldn't grip a football, it wasn't long at all before Michigan's hold on first place in the division slipped away.
"He just couldn't grip a ball well enough, didn't feel like he could throw it well enough," Hoke said.
In his absence, Nebraska junior quarterback Taylor Martinez (14-for-24, 166 yards passing, one touchdown, combined with 14 carries for 58 yards) secured a vice grip on the game. He combined with sophomore I-Back Ameer Abdullah (24 carries, 101 yards, one TD) and a hungry 'Huskers defense to choke off any U-M hopes.
The Wolverines trailed just 7-6 at the half, but when Robinson didn't emerge for final 30 minutes, Hoke's crew remained in neutral.
Nebraska senior placekicker Brett Maher gave the 'Huskers a 10-6 lead on a 19-yard field goal just 3:12 into the second half, after a wild exchange of interceptions. Michigan sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan leaped high to tip a Martinez pass into the hands of freshman defensive end Mario Ojemudia, giving the Wolverines the ball on their own 46.
But three plays later, Bellomy fired to diving senior tailback Vincent Smith, who cradled the ball as he crashed to the turf, seeing it pop out of his hands and tumble upwards. Nebraska senior safety T.J. Smith grabbed it in stride, racing 53 yards down to the U-M 4.
Michigan's defense held on a gutsy goal-line stand, forcing Maher to hit a 19-yard chip shot, widening the margin.
With Robinson out and Michigan going nowhere, the Cornhuskers soon cashed in again. This time, Maher boomed a 51-yard field goal, making it 13-6 with 8:41 left in the third quarter.
He added a 31-yarder with 4:43 remaining in the period, boosting the lead to 16-6, the game beginning to slip away from a Michigan crew totally devoid of offense.
The Cornhuskers' propensity for penalties injected some life into the Wolverines late in the period. On the verge of U-M's fourth straight three-and-out, Nebraska grew lawless, giving the Wolverines 45 yards on penalties - 30 of them on one key third-down play, when junior wide receiver Jeremy Jackson absorbed a shot to the head and the Cornhuskers also garnered an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The flying flags and a 12-yard Bellomy completion to redshirt freshman fullback Joe Kerridge set up a 38-yard field goal by redshirt junior placekicker Brendan Gibbons, somehow pulling the Wolverines back within a touchdown at 16-9.
But Nebraska senior safety Daimion Stafford picked off Bellomy's badly underthrown heave into the teeth of the defense at the U-M 47. Finally, the Wolverines' well-worn defenders cracked, giving up a 29-yard run by Taylor and Abdullah's 12-yard touchdown dash with 10:19 remaining to form the final margin.
The Cornhuskers seemed to flip the switch instantly after a scoreless first quarter, in which they managed all of 34 yards total offense. Entering the second period facing 1st-and-24, they took just six plays to cover 85 yards for a touchdown.
That instant offense included a 19-yard toss to senior wideout Steven Osborne and a 32-yard touchdown bomb on broken coverage to NU sophomore receiver Kenny Bell. Just like that, Michigan's defense went from brick wall to porous pass defenders versus a hurry-up Nebraska offense.
"The expectations for us from a defensive standpoint, the players, the coaches, we've got to play better," Hoke said. "If we're giving up points, we've got to play better. We've got to tackle better."
Michigan answered in unlikely fashion, after sophomore kicker Matt Wile had missed a 53-yard field goal earlier. The Wolverines' "long" field goal kicker gave way to Gibbons, who bombed a 52-yarder with 8:21 left in the half, pulling Michigan within four at 7-3.
Gibbons booted the Wolverines within one, 7-6 on a 24-yard field goal with 2:38 left in the half. But that score took a back seat to the seat Robinson assumed deep in the red zone.
He'd started the 77-yard field goal drive by gunning a 32-yard strike to Roundtree over the middle. But on a run to get his teammates down to the Nebraska 8, Robinson stayed down in obvious pain. Following a long delay with trainers huddled around him, Robinson departed, leaving the drive in the hands of Bellomy.
Bellomy gained a yard on a keeper, then fired one slightly behind and off freshman tight end Devin Funchess' hands over the middle. The Wolverines had to settle for the field goal, and more than a few furtive glances at its training staff.
When Martinez coughed up the ball at the Nebraska 45, redshirt junior defensive tackle Quinton Washington forcing the fumble and redshirt freshman defensive end Keith Heitzman diving on it, the Wolverines earned one final shot at a halftime lead. But Robinson remained in the shadows, Bellomy firing a pair of incompletions before getting swarmed on a nine-yard sack.
The half ended with the Wolverines down one, but down a much bigger one, in terms of personnel.
When Robinson didn't return, neither did the Wolverines.
"I think it's always a combination of everything," Hoke cautioned. "It's never one guy's deal. We brought 70 guys, coaches and staff. This is on all of us."