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Michigan shucks Cornhuskers, 45-17, in inaugural Big Ten meeting

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 19, 2011

The only thing weaker than the Nebraska offense on Saturday was Michigan Stadium.

A power outage left the Big House blacked out for most of the afternoon. Once the game got underway, the No. 20 Michigan football team’s defense knocked the lights out of the 17th-ranked Cornhuskers in the Wolverines’ 45-17 victory.

“This is a big win — huge — I can’t stress that enough,” said redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs. “I think that this is the best win that we’ve had since I’ve been on the team, just because it’s so late in the year. I don’t think that we’ve ever had a game this late in November that really meant as much as this one.”

Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead entered the contest ranked third in the Big Ten, averaging 107 rushing yards through the first 10 games of the season. In the first half against Michigan, he was held to four yards.

Four yards.

Burkhead finished with 36 yards, well short of his previous season low of 55.

“I thought we were awful on offense,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. “We didn’t execute. We took ourselves out of drives. It was not a good day for us on offense.”

It was another notch in Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s belt, and another step closer to the full resurgence of a Michigan defense. Yet the defense's performances are getting more convincing.

After holding a weak Illinois offense to 14 points last Saturday, the Wolverines stifled Nebraska (4-3, 8-3) — a team ranked second in the Big Ten, scoring an average of 32.9 points per game.

“Coming into the game, we knew it was gonna be a big game, both (teams) coming in 8-2,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Martin. “We want to make a statement every time we take the field.”

The game began with some flash and some flair. The flash was four F-16 jets performing a flyover over the stadium. The flair was the 65,000-person card stunt combining to form a massive American flag during the flyover.

After kickoff, it went more flash and bang.

That flash was junior quarterback Denard Robinson, who found his stride against the Cornhuskers, rushing for 83 yards. Robinson also burned Nebraska through the air, going 11-of-18 in the passing game for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

Redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was deadly on the ground, running for 138 yards and a pair of scores on 29 carries.

That bang was Michigan’s defense and special teams unit. The Wolverines forced and recovered two fumbles on second-half kickoffs and blocked a punt. Michigan also pulled off a fake field goal that went for a red-zone first down.

On defense, the Wolverines forced and recovered another fumble.

It was a long day for Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was hounded by Michigan’s veteran defensive line to the tune of three sacks. Martinez forced passes and came up empty. His final line of 9-of-23 passing for 122 yards hardly complimented the defense enough.

The only real chink in the Michigan defense’s armor was a 54-yard pass from Martinez to wide receiver Brandon Kinnie late in the first quarter to pull the Cornhuskers within a score of the Wolverines, 10-7.

After that, the Nebraska scores consisted of a field goal — afforded only by a Robinson interception — and a third-quarter touchdown. The touchdown drive, however, began well inside Michigan territory.

Hoke credited the Wolverine offense for keeping the defense prepared and rested. Michigan thumped the Cornhuskers is time of possession, churning up over 41 minutes off the game clock, compared to Nebraska’s 18:47.

“You play really good defense when you get to watch your offense,” Hoke joked. “One of our best defensive calls is having (the offense) on the field.”

The crowd of 113,718 at Michigan Stadium began a “Beat Ohio” chant with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Wolverines leading 45-17. Michigan plays Ohio State next Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

“We’ve won two in a row, right?” Hoke said. “There’s another one to go win.”

Michigan’s victory, coupled with a 55-3 Michigan State win over hapless Indiana in East Lansing, gave the Spartans the Big Ten Legends division title, but the Wolverines don’t mind taking the conceding that prize for now.

Because in the Cornhuskers’ first visit to the Big House as a member of the Big Ten, Michigan left Nebraska in the dark.