By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 27, 2012
LINCOLN — This wasn’t supposed to be Russell Bellomy’s game to win.
Sometimes, though, that’s how it goes — the backup is forced into duty and must overcome his lack of experience, must play above any reasonable expectations that could be set for him.
That was Bellomy’s job in Saturday’s game against Nebraska, after senior quarterback Denard Robinson exited with a nerve injury in his throwing elbow. But he and the rest of the Michigan offense couldn’t erase the Cornhuskers’ moderate lead, and the Wolverines fell, 23-9, in their first trip to Lincoln since 1911.
The performance was, at times, ugly. After Bellomy took over the reins on the Nebraska eight-yard line late in the second quarter, No. 20 Michigan (3-1 Big Ten, 5-3 overall) went four straight drives without achieving a first down. The redshirt freshman quarterback went 3-for-16 through the air with three interceptions and the running game generated almost nothing.
“You’ve got one of the (most) dynamic quarterbacks in the NCAA,” fifth-year wide receiver Roy Roundtree said of Robinson. “He breaks all the records. When he went down, yeah it was a big factor, but you can’ t just let that mess up your offense.
“Russ, he probably had some mistakes, but we were getting in the redzone, we were catching the ball … it was just the mistakes.”
Bellomy — also victimized on several occasions by dropped passes — finally got a first down late in the third quarter thanks to a double personal foul call on the Cornhuskers. A third penalty later on the drive helped Michigan to its third field goal of the night, a 38-yarder by redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons that cut the deficit to seven points.
But that would be all the scoring for the Wolverines, who fell into a first-place tie in the Big Ten Legends Division with Nebraska. By virtue of losing the would-be tiebreaker should the teams end up with the same number of losses, Michigan no longer controls its destiny to get to the conference championship game.
The poor offensive effort, amounting to 188 total yards, merely continued a trend — the Wolverines haven't scored a touchdown since the fourth quarter of the Illinois game two weeks ago.
It also overshadowed another strong performance by the team’s defense, which held the Big Ten’s top statistical offense to its lowest point and yardage total of the season.
Only on two long drives did the defense look vulnerable. Both saw Nebraska, which was stymied on the ground most of the night, take to the air with quarterback Taylor Martinez. Also, on both drives the Cornhuskers used a hurry-up attack to keep the Wolverines off balance.
Martinez completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Bell in the opening minutes of the second quarter to put Nebraska up 7-0. The second sustained drive, which came in the middle of the third quarter, stalled, but Brett Maher’s 31-yard field goal helped the Cornhuskers to their biggest lead of the night to that point, 16-6.
The Wolverine defense held strong on several occasions when put in bad position by Michigan’s offense, including just after halftime when Bellomy threw an interception that deflected off fifth-year senior running back Vincent Smith and was returned to the Michigan four-yard line by the Huskers’ P.J. Smith.
But when Bellomy threw another interception in the fourth quarter, the defense promptly gave up the game-sealing touchdown on three Nebraska runs. The poor play on that costly drive was what Michigan coach Brady Hoke dwelled upon after the game, despite the defense's overall success.
“They did (have several big stops), but if (Nebraska) doesn’t score, they don’t win,” said Hoke, who lamented what he saw as poor tackling from the defense. “The expectations for us from a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to play better. If we’re giving up points, we’ve got to play better.”
Meanwhile, the team’s offense could do almost nothing to help out its defense. Though the bulk of the critical playing time fell on Bellomy’s shoulders, the offense couldn’t get much going even when Robinson was in the game. The running backs, particularly redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint, managed little against a Nebraska front seven that had looked vulnerable in previous games.
And though it wasn’t quite as unsightly as Bellomy’s performance, Robinson — who should be back for next week's game at Minnesota, Hoke indicated — couldn’t establish a rhythm in the passing game either.
Roundtree said he had “no clue” why the unit has struggled so much recently.
“We just got to move the ball,” the receiver said. “It starts with the line of scrimmage. … it’s something we got to do better because the defense is doing its job. The offense, we’ve got to turn it up. We got four games left. We got to turn it around and score points.”
In truth, not much changed for the offense after Robinson left injured, which finds itself in its worst funk of the season.
And the Wolverines at large find themselves on more tenuous footing in the Legends Division race.
“We’ve got three losses for the season and we’ve just got to do better, because last year we were 11-2,” Roundtree said. “Our hopes are still high, because we can still get to the Rose Bowl, we can still get to the Big Ten championship, but it’s in our hands. We got to do what we do best.”