In one dramatic moment, a redshirt freshman quarterback grew up a little.
Over a solid four quarters of football, a freshman- and sophomore-dominated defense grew up a lot.
An injury-decimated Nebraska football team came to Ann Arbor, where it had not won in half a century, and left with a gritty 17-13 victory. Despite losing its third starting offensive lineman, Nebraska showed signs of the mental toughness and competitive greatness worthy of the fiery Michigan native whose statue was finally installed outside Memorial Stadium this fall. Bob Devaney would agree that NU's first-team defenders earned back their Blackshirts by shutting down Michigan for a second consecutive season, holding the Wolverines to one touchdown in eight quarters.
In 2012, Nebraska shackled Michigan 23-9, and Wolverine fans argued that Devin Gardner should have replaced the injured Dennard Robinson at Memorial Stadium instead of Russell Bellomy. This time, they had Gardner calling signals, but it didn't matter. Nebraska sacked him seven times, including three by defensive end Randy Gregory, who is making a bid for a first-team All Big Ten season as a sophomore.
A lot of Husker fans have been wondering if the youngsters on the Husker defense had enough starch to last 60 gut-wrenching minutes. Well, it turns out they do. On the Husker Sports Network's postgame locker room show, freshman middle linebacker Michael Rose, who had a team-high eight tackles, was using words like "focus" and "intensity" to describe how he and his teammates held Michigan to minus-21 rushing yards and 175 total yards.
Earlier this season, the young Blackshirts had multiple busts, but their saving grace was getting takeaways. They have only one takeaway over the past 12 quarters, but lately they are becoming more consistent, and they're getting more physical at the line of scrimmage. Tackling is steadily improving. Bigger challenges lie ahead, including games against better power running teams, but If they can bring back the takeaways, this defense could make it a very interesting stretch run.
With junior I-back Ameer Abdullah scoring a pair of touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards for the eighth time in nine games, the Huskers ended Michigan's 19-game winning streak in Michigan Stadium, a place where coach Brady Hoke had never lost. It was a satisfying gray November win against the Wolverines, who are not on the schedule again until 2018.
It capped a big eight days for Husker sports, encompassing a final-play Hail Mary victory over Northwestern, and the triumphant opening of Pinnacle Bank Arena with impressive victories by the men's and women's basketball teams.
It's tempting to overreact to this win, but Husker fans would do well to remember that Nebraska has not yet defeated a rated team in 2013. A huge reality check – in the form of Michigan State and its nation-best defense – rolls into Lincoln next Saturday. But it's good to see some enthusiasm flowing back into the Husker football program. If nothing else, this win impressed the television execs enough to earn the Huskers another 2:30 p.m. start, which is a boost for getting recruits to visit the NU campus.
Armstrong looked bewildered at times on the big stage, but he held together. In fact, he looked at least as steady as a couple of his teammates who are potential NFL draft picks. Quincy Enunwa had a drop in the second quarter and a fumble in the third, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste muffed a sure interception in the third quarter and tended to play tentatively against Michigan's short passing game.
Frankly, Armstrong may not have needed any last-minute heroics if offensive coordinator Tim Beck had not pulled him out of the game early in the second quarter after leading two scoring drives, or if on that next drive, Beck had called a running play on third and short near midfield, or if Enunwa hadn't dropped Ron Kellogg's pass. It's likely Nebraska would have pulled out to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, and the game may not have been so close.
Instead, the game came down to one big six-minute gut-check, a drive that started on the Husker 25-yard line. On it, Armstrong completed five of seven passes for 59 yards, including a fourth-and-2 pass to Kenny Bell, who ignored a groin injury to juke past a Michigan defender and race down the sideline to the Wolverine 5. Two plays later, facing third down and goal with more than 110,000 fans roaring in the Big House, Beck went with the option and Armstrong delivered when Nebraska needed him to. The Wolverines forced the redshirt freshman quarterback to make a split-second decision. As Armstrong ran to the short side, it looked like he wanted to duck inside, but the road was blocked. So he froze, and saw that Abdullah had already moved downfield beyond him. Armstrong ad-libbed, tossing a left-handed shovel pass – actually, a forward lateral – to Abdullah, who hurled himself into the end zone.
"(Armstrong) is a leader; he's a winner," Pelini said. We're not afraid to put the ball in his hands to win the football game. We picked each other up. We fought to the end."
But on a day dominated by defense, it was the young Blackshirts who stood tall. The Huskers held Michigan to three of 15 third-down conversions. They had 15 tackles for loss, and had a great game plan. Once Michigan adjusted and put together an impressive touchdown drive to open the second half, the Huskers re-adjusted and held the Wolverines to only three first downs the rest of the game. The most encouraging sign of all: NU's defensive tackles – in particular Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine – are starting to toughen up against the run, and Thad Randle sacked Gardner in the first quarter.
In a June 11 column, I looked ahead to a milestone for the young, unproven Nebraska defense – the moment when the Husker defense came off the field for the final time in Ann Arbor. When that moment arrived, it was evident that the Blackshirts have at least above-average speed and talent, and that they've improved to the point where they can keep Nebraska (7-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) in the game against most Big Ten teams. After his defensive front was pushed around by South Dakota State in September, Bo Pelini promised to get the defense fixed. He's made a lot of progress in the last two weeks, and he's put Hoke on the hot seat, at least for now.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org