No longer will the special teams be overlooked. Not if you witnessed how it broke one team’s spirit and charged the other. Not if you’re either Michigan coach Brady Hoke or Nebraska coach Bo Pelini — neither could explain why Saturday’s spotlight was reserved for the unheralded group.
“I think (the special teams) won us the game,“ said redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs.
Attention to special teams usually surfaces amid blunders caused by ho-hum complacency that swallows the transition phase of every game, or, of course, when something extraordinary happens. Hoke was indulged Saturday in Michigan’s 45-17 win. His unit forced two fumbles on kickoff returns, a blocked punt and a successful fake field goal that set up another touchdown.
Maybe it was a reward for the attention Hoke had paid it all season. He cured early-season kickoff coverage problems by working with the unit; he showed faith in holder Drew Dileo, who dropped a costly extra-point snap against Iowa; his emphasis on technique led to picture-perfect tackles on the returns.
“It’s probably as well as we’ve played with all three phases,” Hoke said after the game. Special teams included.
Pelini was beside himself.
“Not locking the ball, not putting the ball away when you’re carrying the football, dropping the punt,” Pelini said. “The punter dropped the punt. You can’t do those things. I don’t know why they happened. I don’t know why we dropped the ball.
“I don’t know.”
Leading up to the game, Hoke praised Nebraska’s return game — Ameer Abdullah was the nation’s fifth-best kick returner (31 yards per return) and 34th-ranked punt returner (nine yards per return). Hoke warned against neglecting the “hidden yardage” won and lost on special teams.
It was still a 17-10 game when Michigan kicked off to start the second half. It was just like any other kickoff. Freshman kicker Matt Wile drove the ball to the goal line and backup wide receiver Terrence Robinson manned his lane. Nebraska returner Kenny Bell found some open space and cut back toward Robinson, who had squared his shoulders waiting for Lane to come to him.
Robinson exploded toward Bell, who never saw the 5-foot-9, 179-pound Robinson until he got blindsided by him.
“And he fumbled the ball!” the press box announcer shouted, sounding surprised. “Michigan’s got it at the 33.”
“I’ll take it any day of the week,” said fifth-year senior right tackle Mark Huyge. “Great field position for an offense.”
Eight plays later, junior quarterback Denard Robinson ran into the endzone. 24-10.
It was still a two-touchdown game when Nebraska lined up to punt on its next possession. The ball was at midfield. There was plenty of time left for a comeback, and a good punt from Nebraska’s Brett Maher could bury the Wolverines deep. Maher dropped the snap. Josh Furman, a safety who only sees the field on special teams, burst through the line and blocked Maher’s late punt attempt.
“It’s huge,” Pelini said. “You’re just talking about giving away possessions and giving them short fields and field position changes. It hurt us.”
On the ensuing drive, Michigan stalled inside the five-yard line. Hoke sent his field-goal team onto the field. With a make, Nebraska would only have to overcome three additional points.
But Hoke called a fake. Dileo caught the snap, hopped up and had plenty of room to pick up the first down.
“It was the one that Penn State used against us in ’95,” Hoke said of the fake. “Drew Dileo, having him as a holder, he’s such a smart football player and did a tremendous job with it. If (you’ve) got it, you might as well use it.”
“We had it covered,” he said. “We actually practiced that fake. … Somebody didn’t do their job.”
The next play, redshirt sophomore running back Fitz Toussasint scored a touchdown. 31-10.
It was again a 14-point game, 31-17, early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska stopped Michigan again on third down.
But after Will Hagerup punted it, a flag came flying in. Nebraska special teamer Wil Richards was one of eight rushers Pelini sent to try and create some magic of his own. Richards couldn’t block the kick, and he landed underneath Hagerup as his foot came down, causing the punter to fall. The game’s momentum hung in the balance — a “running into the kicker” call only gave Michigan five yards, but a “roughing the kicker” call would give them a first down.
It was the latter.
“After that happened it pretty much just shut everything off with us,” Pelini said.
Eight plays later Michigan scored again. 38-17.
Of course, Nebraska fumbled the ensuing kickoff.
“Another special teams blunder, as the Huskers are coughing it up and giving Michigan the game,” the TV announcer roared.
Hoke said he didn’t emphasize anything new in practice. There was no new strategy. He simply challenged his special teams to out-compete the guys the lined up against — as he always does.
“They were what they’re supposed to be: special,” Hoke said.