OFFENSE AGAIN STRUGGLES TO SCORE TOUCHDOWNS
Michigan’s football team visited the unfriendly confines of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium Saturday, carrying in a 3-0 Big Ten record, and intent on wresting control of the Big Ten’s Legends Division race from the grasping and capable hands of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. They had the same goal in mind. The evening belonged to the Huskers as the Wolverines played their worst offensive game of the year, lost the services of Denard Robinson during the second quarter, got some goofy calls, perpetrated some foolish penalties, and could not manage a TD for six consecutive quarters, even with Denard at the helm. Additionally, they went without TDs for two more quarters with a besieged redshirt Freshman Russell Bellomy at the helm. Bellomy threw 27 times for 43-yards, and was intercepted 3 times. He made a nice tackle after one of the interceptions which prevented a score.
TEAM COMPARABILITIES: The teams were comparable in many respects. Both are storied football powers. Both have hordes of dedicated and loyal fans. Both have won multiple National Championships the latest being shared in 1997 by both. Both have had storied Coaches such as Tom Osborne and Bo Schembechler, with Nebraska sporting a Bo of its own in current Coach Bo Pelini.
They both play in major stadiums with Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium holding over 81,000. They both had offenses directed by mobile quarterbacks, both with prolific offensive capabilities. It was Denard Robinson at the helm of the Wolverines and Taylor Martinez leading the Huskers. Denard’s accomplishments are well known and oft repeated to Wolverine fans, and Taylor Martinez has led the Nebraska offense to Big Ten leadership prior to this game, with a total offense of 512 -yards, a rushing offense of 279-yards, and a scoring offense 41.6 points. And at that point some divergence is evident.
SOME TEAM DIFFERENCES:
Michigan has primarily been a running team this season, with Denard’s legs the main weapon. Running back success has been scattered. They have not had an overly effective red zone offense. Their primary scoring device lately has been the field goal. Coach Borges stuck with a basic offense against Michigan State, one reason the Wolverine’s total offensive statistics were far less gaudy than the Huskers’. Nebraska’s was in 3rd place in the Big Ten, passing for 293-yards a game. Michigan’s 10th place in passing was far less spectacular, but sometime the passing game has been highly effective in winning. As when needed in last Saturday’s MSU contest. Nebraska had run back a punt for a TD, the Wolverines hadn’t. Michigan was undefeated in the Big Ten owning 3 victories and Nebraska 2-1, having endured a 63-38 pasting by Ohio. Now they are both 3-1 in the Big Ten, but Nebraska’s path to the Championship game now seems less foggy than that of the Wolverines.
WHAT WAS AT STAKE:
No less than the driver’s seat in the Legend’s Division. The winner has the tiebreaker, and thus if similar Legend’s records happen, the winner has a leg up toward the title game. All year Coach Hoke has preached that every game is a Championship game and this one was just that in all aspects. A win was a big step toward controlling one’s own championship destiny.
That edge now belongs to Nebraska. The road to the championship game now may include a must win in Columbus. Since Ohio scored 63 points on Nebraska and we scored 9, how do you expect that to go now? It seems its going to be tough, very tough, to sled through the rest of the schedule any way but downhill, but anything is possible, especially if Denard is soon serviceable again. We are still 3 and 1 in the Big Ten.
- Would the Wolverines offense be able to take advantage of the defense of Nebraska to win in case this game turned into a shoot-out? Actuality: This game did not turn into a shootout as I expected. Again whether Denard was in or out, the only Wolverine scoring consisted of field goals. Russell Bellomy got a rough introduction to the big time. 3 interceptions and sacked twice. The offensive line did not help him by controlling the Husker blitz the Huskers had been careful not to throw at Denard, and the backs didn’t pick it up effectively. The receivers helped precious little on a number of occasions, dropping critical passes, although they made some nice catches. It was obvious that Russell and his teammates were not ready for a circumstance that was well anticipated to arrive sometime in a long, rough season, Denard’s injury. Denard did not get the ball into the end zone, but had 46-yards rushing and 55 yards passing. The game was effectively over when Denard left the field of play.
- The book on the Huskers was that they were vulnerable to pressure defensively. Acuality: The defense did make a number of stops, sacked the Husker QB, but the offense was so inept a win kept moving just out of reach. ould the Wolverine defense create turn overs? Actuality: they did create some turnovers but one was fumbled back, and M’s drives stalled. Wolverine Keith Heitzman recovered a fumble near the end of the second quarter to stop a Husker threat. Desmond Morgan deflected a Martinez pass into the hands of Mario Ojemudia on a great play by both. But the Huskers balanced this, owning three interceptions.
- Nebraska had a great fleet of receivers, and Martinez owned an astounding completion percentage, really improving from last year. Actuality: The Wolverines had one interception, but Taylor Martinez didn’t do anything to hurt his completion percentage Saturday night. Taylor was the most effective QB on the field throwing 24, and completing 14 for 166-yards, and an interception. Jake Ryan sacked him once.
- Which team would stop big plays? Or produce them. Actuality: Both teams limited long scoring plays fairly effectively.
- Would the offense be able to produce enough points to stay in the game, and adjust to a more open game without turnovers or penalties blunting the effort? Actuality: No. Denard’s injury did not help.
- Could special teams contribute by effectively stopping punt returns and KOs, and produce some significant yardage of their own. Actuality: They did OK. Jeremy Gallon let a 1st half punt, a low liner slip through his hands inside the M 10, but Denard and the offense recovered from it. Could Norfleet contribute? Actuality: He did not break one, but made respectable yardage returning.. Would Denard again hang out some on special teams? Actuality: Injury probably prevented any of that. Could the FG kickers hit their attempts in front of a hostile crowd? Actuality: Matt Wile missed one, but Brendan Gibbons hit three, with a long one of 52-yards among them.
- Could M get ahead early and hold the lead against a team that had recently produced come-back victories against Wisconsin and Northwestern? Actuality: M went up three, but they were held to another three late, before the half, and by that time the Husker had 7 points to the Wolverine’s 6.
- The biggest question of all was whether M could finally produce a win over a good team on foreign territory, with the same kind of winning elan and effort they have produced under Hoke at home? Actuality: They played their worst offensive game of year in a very high stakes game, and that included the time that Denard was in the game as they scored no TDs. That is the most obvious problem an offense can have. They have now gone 8 quarters without a TD. Four quarters against a great defense and four quarters against an ordinary Big Ten defense. The onus belongs to the Offensive Coordinator to fix this situation. He has vast experience, so maybe he can. I have to wonder whether or not this hyper conservative offense is a function of the hurts Denard has piled up over the course of the season. The hand has been an issue before. Russell Bellomy was not ready, and one wonders why he did not get more seasoning against the likes of Massachusetts etc. The whole world knows what the Wolverines are going to do on first down, and even if it has failed the last 15 times, here it comes again. As a result they are often in the position of third and long, facing a blitz. The OL and backs can’t handle blitzers. All that falls into the lap of Offensive Coordinator Borges.
BRIEF SCORING RECAP:
It is easy to recap the 1st quarter. M received, punted, and then M and N traded punches with N held to around 34 yards, and a first down. Not a fast start, but the defense looked solid. The quarter was not without dramatics. A Matt Wile FG was missed after a replay reversed a stunning 55-yard apparent catch by Roy Roundtree.
Nebraska’s offense showed life in the passing game to begin the second quarter producing a 6-play, 72-yard drive for six, and M was playing from behind. M- 0, N-7. Coach did not let the defense off the hook in his after game comments.
The Wolverines answered with two Bandon Gibbons FGs, one for 52-yards, and one for 24-yards, and the half ended 6-7.
Nebraska received to open the third quarter. Mario Ojemudia spoiled the drive by intercepting a tipped pass at the Michigan 46. But Russell Bellomy returned the favor tossing a pass intercepted at the Michigan 43, and returned 53-yards to the Michigan 4. The defense held, but N converted a 19-yard FG. M-6, N 10.
The Wolverines offense was stagnant, and a 15-yard personal foul penalty enabled a 51-yard Big Red field goal. Now hopes are descending faster than a hot air balloon with a hole in the top, and it seems over. M-6, N-13. Then came a 31-yarder and it was M-6 ,N 16.
Finally the Wolverine offense showed a little life. Bellomy drove them
58-yards on 8 plays. With an assist from Husker penalties. A 15-yard Nebraska personal foul and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike were the big plays. Naturally a field goal resulted, but Russell completed some passes. One passing 1st down, 3 TO’s, and 0 for 4 third down attempts, tells the Wolverine story for the quarter. M-9, N-16.
Nebraska put the game away early in the 4th quarter with a final drive for 6 over the tiring M defense. 3 plays and 47-yards capped a victory in a game with a strange feel to it. M-9, N-23.
WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?
The Wolverines are still in the Big Ten race, but Nebraska rightfully will be considered the front runner, having disposed of Michigan. They are a decent, but not a great team, and I think that they will probably lose another game, as they play away form home. It is notable that they lost their poise for thirty yards of penalties. That could hurt in a competitive game.
The down side is that now the Wolverines might have to win out. Perhaps they could beat emerging Minnesota without Denard, perhaps not, but from there on, if they do not have his full services, they certainly could lose to Iowa, Northwestern, and Ohio.
It will be interesting to see how they approach next week if Denard is in dry dock. Bellomy or Gardner? I think it will be Russell. At a recent press conference I asked Coach Hoke how many snaps Gardner was getting, and he said some, and made it very clear that Russell, not Devin was the backup. I think Denard will probably play next Saturday, but who knows.
The Wolverines can suffer fisherman’s remorse for a little while as a big one got away, but it will soon be back to business for them. They won’t quit, but they will have to deal with adversity, as it is at the door. Hopefully, there will be some coaching innovation.
Whatever the situation next Saturday, they will be journeying up to Minnesota, to harass the pesky Gophers, while keeping an eye on that Little Brown Jug.