While it did not go down to the last play, Nebraska's win at Michigan Saturday uncannily unwound in the basic form of the previous week's win over Northwestern. The Huskers spent the majority of the second half tied with their opponent after an early third quarter touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Nebraska committed a fatal error that, if they were to lose the game, would have been the point where they gave the game away. And then they won anyway, earning the win only when they absolutely had to.
How much credit does Nebraska deserve for holding Michigan to negative rushing yards? Huge credit, given how low the floor for the Blackshirts has been over the past two seasons. But a slice of credit should also go to Michigan State's defense, as the Spartans FBS opponents' are now a combined 0-8 in their first game after playing MSU. (By the way, Nebraska has Penn State on the road the week after facing Sparty, so be worried.)
175 yards allowed; even Iowa got 200 against the Blackshirts a year ago. What's more, the longest rush that Nebraska allowed was seven yards. Granted, Michigan is using spread personnel to run a traditional offense (and Michigan's offensive line is as bad as any Nebraska's seen the past five years), but this performance was on the road, where young players aren't supposed to play well. There is something there with Nebraska's defensive front, and if the Huskers are going to beat Michigan State next week, holding the Spartans to under 17 points will be critical.
A week after he could have lost his confidence, Tommy Armstrong kept his for the most critical moment. It was alarming to see Armstrong slumping on Nebraska's bench after he almost threw the game away against Northwestern. But after three mediocre to average quarters, Armstrong just about doubled his completions and took the Huskers on a 75-yard drive when their longest drive since the first quarter had been 29 yards. On his “option pass” touchdown, things went off-script, but Armstrong still kept the play alive without risking a turnover.
In spite of his critical error, Jordan Westerkamp made two big plays. The freshman's eyes got the better of him when he saw a field of green in front of him and muffed a punt, but his 27-yard, third-down conversion and his 17-yard punt return were critical in setting up Nebraska's good field position that got them on the board early.
Why has Nebraska's offense stalled in the last three games? Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan all have staffs that have faced Nebraska three years in a row. The Golden Gophers and Wildcats each held Nebraska to about 5.5 yards per play, and Michigan held Nebraska to 4.1. Logically, Michigan State should hold Nebraska to around 3.5, if not less. Throughout Pelini's tenure, either his defense is improving as his offense declines, or his offense improves as the defense declines.
It's not overtly difficult to figure out why Nebraska does not do much on offense: they run basic sweeps and option, they don't put their receivers in motion, and rely on tempo to shock people. This week, Nebraska got enough first downs to give their defense a rest, but it was barely enough. The best thing Tim Beck did with the ball was the tempo on the go-ahead drive. Nebraska got the ball with 8:08 left in the fourth quarter and burned over six minutes with their long touchdown drive, limiting Michigan's comeback attempt.
The Huskers have returned to where they have been in turnover margin. Through Nebraska's first six games, they had fourteen takeaways, and if they stayed on that pace, they would have had their most under Pelini as head coach. The defense gamely pursued strips and picks like they had not since Pelini's year as Nebraska's defensive coordinator in 2003, when they averaged around an eye-popping four takeaways a game. In the last three games, Nebraska has one takeaway, Avery Moss' pick-six against Northwestern. Meanwhile, the Huskers have turned it over eight times, taking Nebraska from +4 to -3. They were -12 a year ago, so they might still improve, but if they couldn't coax a turnover out of the hobbling Devin Gardner, who can they get a pick from?
This team has confidence when it matters. Bo Pelini has won his last seven games decided by one score or fewer. Even if this team is saving itself from its self-inflicted wounds, there is an art to it, and it says something to the team's character. With this win, the fire-Pelini talk can be stayed for another year, barring a horrendous loss. But still, there's the issue of his staff, and whether or not Pelini should hire a veteran coordinator(s) or a former head coach. Which, I would still say he needs to do. Let's not go from shock to trance again.
Saturday reminded me a lot of a game I attended as a teenager, Nebraska's home loss to Texas in 1998, ending a home-winning streak that was twice as long as the one Nebraska ended Saturday. Just as Texas matched a Nebraska field goal with a touchdown late in the fourth, so Nebraska matched a Michigan field goal with a touchdown late in the fourth. For all the grief the Huskers may take or have themselves over their conference switch, they are now 16-6 in Big 10 play. Here's to hoping the magic continues.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.