LINCOLN — There were few positives to be found in the Michigan football team’s 23-9 loss to Nebraska. One bright spot under the Memorial Stadium lights, though, hit like a freight train.
It was senior defensive end Craig Roh, who sprang out of his stance on a crucial third down early in the fourth quarter and plowed straight through his blocker until the stunned lineman fell backward into Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.
The sack put the Cornhuskers out of field-goal range and gave redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy and the fledgling Michigan offense the ball back facing just a seven-point deficit.
On the next play from scrimmage, Bellomy reared back and lofted a pass nearly 30 yards downfield that fell neatly into the arms of Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford.
That scenario repeated itself over and over again at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The matchup not only pitted the Big Ten Legends division favorites against each other, it set up a faceoff between what are arguably the conference’s top offense and defense.
Facing a Nebraska offense that averaged 41.6 points per game, the Michigan defense did enough to slow it down, nearly splitting that scoring average in half. It bent but didn’t break.
The Nebraska offense posted season-low totals in points, passing yards, rushing yards and first downs.
No defense in the first seven weeks of the season held the Cornhuskers to less than 29 points. Martinez and Co. averaged 279 passing yards and 233 rushing yards before Saturday; Michigan held them to 160 yards on the ground and 166 more through the air.
But that wasn’t enough.
There were lapses, of course. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and senior safety Jordan Kovacs pointed out the same faults. Miscommunication led to the Cornhuskers’ first touchdown of the day, a 32-yard pick route to wide receiver Kenny Bell. Nebraska struck with big plays. Michigan’s tackling was inconsistent.
They had myriad excuses if they wanted them.
Three Bellomy interceptions rushed the defense back onto the field and into quick-change situations. Nebraska started drives in Michigan territory, including one on the four-yard line. There’s a good excuse.
“No,” Kovacs said. “We take pride in that. Our motto is: ‘Spot the ball.’ It doesn’t matter where the ball’s at, just put the ball on the field and we’re going to go play defense and not let them get any yards.”
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson went to the turf with a right-arm injury in the second quarter and never returned to the game. And the offense, for the second consecutive week, didn’t score a single touchdown, putting the defense in an almost-impossible position. There’s an excuse.
“No,” Kovacs said.
Not at all?
How can that be? Because the expectation is zeroes. Hoke and Kovacs both stressed the simple point that if the Cornhuskers don’t score, they don’t win. Makes perfect sense.
“If we’re giving up points, we’ve got to play better,” Hoke said.
It’s just not so easy to do against one of the best offenses in the nation. Though the players and coaches won’t budge off the company line that says that any points on the board are a disappointment, there were promising signs from the defense.
There were the six tackles for loss, the Roh sack, the forced fumble and the interception from freshman defensive end Mario Ojemudia. The defense held Nebraska — an offense with a 45.1-percent completion rate on third downs — to 4-of-12 on third downs. No defense had held Nebraska beneath 200 rushing yards or 179 passing yards. Michigan did both.
The secondary still has more interceptions (7) than passing touchdowns allowed (5).
Still, Kovacs repeated, “We just didn’t do enough.”
“We didn’t play well enough tonight, but we’ll watch the film, make corrections and we’ll get better for next week,” he continued. “It’s a tough loss, but as I said in the Alabama game, you can’t let Nebraska beat you twice.”