For about 25 minutes on Saturday, Michigan remained in prime position to sieze control of the Big Ten Legends division. The Wolverine defense had held Nebraska’s high-powered offense to just seven points and 113 total yards of offense and was marching down the field to take the lead with time running short in the first half. On 2nd-and-7 from the Nebraska 15, Denard Robinson rushed to his left, cut back to his right just before the sideline, and picked up a first down inside the ‘Husker 10-yard line setting up a 1st-and-goal. And then the world stopped.
Denard injured a nerve in his elbow on this play (AP photo)
Like he has done so often in his career, Denard didn’t get right back up, and Michigan fans across the country held their collective breaths. This time, however, he stayed down and when backup Russell Bellomy took over, Denard didn’t come right back in after a few plays. Bellomy proceeded to run for one yard and throw two incomplete passes, leading to a 24-yard field goal to pull within one. It was the closest Michigan would get.
The second half became a show of offensive ineptitude as Bellomy threw an interception that was returned to the Michigan four on Michigan’s first possession. The defense held strong, forcing a field goal. Two straight Michigan three-and-outs led to two more Nebraska field goals and Michigan’s chances were slipping away. Michigan’s lone scoring drive of the second half included 45 yards of Nebraska penalties - a personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct, and pass interference – while the Wolverines gained just 17.
Michigan’s defense held strong, forcing a punt and giving the ball back to the offense with a chance to tie the game, but Bellomy responded with another interception that led to Nebraska’s final, game-sealing touchdown.
In the immediate, it puts Nebraska in the driver’s seat for the Legends division. Both teams have one loss in conference, but Nebraska holds the current tie-breaker because of their head-to-head win. If the ‘Huskers win out, they’ll advance to the Big Ten Championship game against the winner of the Leaders division. Michigan almost certainly has to win all of its remaining games against Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, and Ohio State and needs Nebraska to drop one of its remaining contests.
In the broader context, this won’t go down in history as a classic Michigan-Nebraska contest. The chances for that went out the window the moment Denard went down. As Katie discussed last week, the previous seven meetings between the two teams turned in some close contests including a 6-6 tie in 1911 and a 27-23 Michigan victory in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. This one had the makings of an epic showdown until Denard went down, but Bellomy wasn’t ready for primetime. His 3-for-16, 38-yard, three-interception performance was perhaps one of the worst in Michigan history.
Taylor Lewan tried to settle Bellomy down after he was thrown into the fire (photo by the Ann Arbor News)
So who is to blame for the letdown in Lincoln? Many are calling for Al Borges’ firing and many others are pounding Bellomy for not being ready. In reality, it’s a little of both, but not to that degree. There’s not a team in the nation that has both the playmaking ability of Denard from its starter and a backup that could pick up right where he left off when thrown into the fire. Ohio State would be in trouble if Braxton Miller went down against a competent defense (read: not Purdue). Much has been made about how the only thing that could keep Alabama from running the table is losing A.J. McCarron. The list goes on.
Many are blasting the coaching staff for not having Devin Gardner ready, but they’re also the same ones that were clamoring for moving Gardner to receiver before the season started. The simple fact of the matter is that while Michigan has improved since Hoke took over, the roster is still thin at certain positions. Receiver is one of them, necessitating Gardner’s move, and quarterback is the other since Tate Forcier flamed out.
Hoke and Borges felt that Bellomy was the team’s second best option at quarterback and Gardner’s athleticism was too good to keep off the field. While Gardner hasn’t exactly had a game-changing impact, he does lead the team with four touchdown catches, and the passing game as a whole is pretty bad. How much worse would it be without him? Bellomy, on the other hand, is likely better than his performance showed on Saturday, but like I mentioned above, he was thrown into about the worse possible scenario. As Chris discussed in his MMQ segment yesterday, once Bellomy came in, the Nebraska coaching staff unleashed the defense on him and Borges didn’t adjust the game plan to sufficiently counter it. There was a fantastic diary on MGoBlog that broke down why Michigan’s quarterback situation is the way it is, and I couldn’t agree more.
Of course the loss hurt and it leaves Michigan without control of its own destiny in its pursuit of winning the Big Ten. But let’s be realistic. Most thought this was an 8-4 or 9-3 team before the season started. In fact, it has played out exactly how I thought it would so far, even though I changed my pick against both Notre Dame and Nebraska. There’s a very good chance Michigan would have beaten Nebraska if Denard hadn’t gotten hurt, but we’ll never know. But don’t give up on this team. We have four games and a bowl left to witness a player the likes of which we’ll never see again in a winged helmet. Relish it. And then we can talk about who should be Michigan’s next quarterback.
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