Aside from the way that Greg Mattison’s defense played and some good kicking by Brendan Gibbons, there weren’t a lot of positives to take away from Saturday’s game against Nebraska. The offense without Denard was stale at best and made a much-maligned Nebraska defense look like the Blackshirts of old. Even before Denard went out with an elbow injury, the offensive line looked slow and unable to block effectively against Nebraska’s front seven. Again, as has often been the case this season, there was no running threat aside from Denard in the Wolverine backfield.
The injury to Denard showed just how valuable he is (photo by the Detroit News)
Denard’s injury was unfortunate, especially given the timing. We all knew that losing Denard would have major impacts on the effectiveness of the offense. With the lack of any other major offensive threats on the team, we all got a taste of reality while watching Russell Bellomy struggle through the second half. The reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done to get this Michigan offense back where it needs to be to compete for championships every year.
Quickly, let me say that I don’t fault Bellomy for anything. Yes, he made some poor decisions, but the guy is a redshirt freshman who had thrown all of a handful of passes prior to entering for Denard on Saturday. Also, the Nebraska coaches turned the dogs loose once they saw the wide-eyed Bellomy come in.
Offensive Coordinator Al Borges didn’t do Bellomy any favors either. When the defense is bringing pressure every play, the offense is required to adapt. This means slowing down that pressure through the use of screens and draws and passes to the backs out of the backfield. And no, I don’t mean wide receiver screens. The play must be run to where the pressure is coming from. Nebraska was bringing the blitz from the linebackers, so a screen to Fitz Toussaint or Vincent Smith would have worked. Or how about this? Remember that impressive tight end Michigan has named Devin Funchess – the guy who has barely touched the ball the last few games after looking like a real weapon in the beginning of the season? How about a screen to him right in the spot where the linebackers just vacated? At a time when Bellomy was obviously in over his head, some simple play calls like this would at least have moved the ball and have given Bellomy some confidence. If not in this game, but in future games.
So where does that leave Team 133 in their hopes for a Big Ten Championship? The simple answer is, not in a good spot. In the Legends division, they are now tied with Nebraska with one loss in the conference. However, Nebraska now holds the tiebreaker over Michigan, which means Michigan must win out and hope that Nebraska loses another game.
Brady Hoke has some work to do to achieve his goal of a Big Ten title (photo by the Detroit News)
Nebraska has four more Big Ten games. This coming week’s game at Michigan State may be the best chance for Nebraska to get tripped up. Following that, they have two homes games against Penn State and Minnesota and finish the season at Iowa.
Michigan’s road is tougher. The Wolverines travel to Minnesota for a rivalry game in the battle for the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota may not be much on paper and they are not in the conference title race, but it’s a rivalry and teams play tough in trophy games. Plus, Minnesota is looking for bowl elgibility, so they can’t take this one lightly. After that, come two home games against Northwestern and Iowa. Northwestern is a team who is still in the title hunt with two losses, but they need Nebraska to lose two more. Iowa has had a poor season, yet because of the lack of quality in the Big Ten, they too are still in the title hunt with two losses. And as mentioned above, they still have games against the three teams in front of them: Northwestern (this weekend), Michigan, and Nebraska. Then the Wolverines travel to the all-important Big Game in Columbus. Unlike what I did this past weekend when I changed my preseason pick and called for a Michigan win, I won’t be changing my Ohio State pick. With the way that both teams are playing, and given the fact that this will be OSU’s bowl game, I think Michigan loses by two touchdowns.
So this past weekend’s game was a bad loss. It hurt to witness a Michigan offense without Denard. It hurt to lose ugly. It hurt to lose a big game, one which would have set up the Wolverines nicely in their run for the Big Ten championship. Michigan’s key this weekend will be to not let last week’s opponent beat them twice. The road to Indianapolis begins again this weekend against Minnesota and the team must be focused on winning each of their last four games, one at a time.