ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In Nebraska, in the fall, a state bathed in red leans forward for football. Grandmas make elaborate relish trays. Hunters carry radios. Doctors and lawyers and teachers and mechanics and homemakers and computer programmers and students and poets pool their money for bleary-eyed road trips and three hours in the Big House at Michigan.
It's in the blood now. This is what the state does — what Nebraskans do — and what the lot of them expect in return for their investment is top-end stewardship from the coaches, trickling down to the players. They expect it to look like good football. Not great. Hear this: Great is more befitting of individual efforts. “Good” is the proper aspiration for a team. There is an abiding depth to “good.” It speaks to longevity.
The best praise I can give Nebraska is that coach Bo Pelini, his staff and their players rose to that standard Saturday. This 17-13 win at Michigan was good. Damn good. NU performed as if it would commit itself to playing smart-but-aggressive until the final hand of cards, to see which team had the flush. Even two turnovers were borne of mistakes more than a flawed vision.
Aside from a handful of plays, the Huskers, their offense bruised like fruit in summer, settled into themselves. A final drive was not a high-wire act or a fire drill of narrow escapes. It was a calm, powerful thing. Some of that is quarterback Tommy Armstrong. And some of that was offensive coordinator Tim Beck's stewardship.
Beck delivered the early option game fans wanted, and the early power game Nebraska's line — however bedraggled it is — needed. And when he felt he had to switch in the fourth quarter to a strategy that might gain more than 20 yards, he did, even after a headset talk with Pelini.
Get back to what you were doing, Pelini said at some point in the second half.
Beck explained Michigan's defense had changed to take away some of the successful first-half runs.
Pelini: “What would you do?”
Beck: “You gotta throw it.”
Pelini: “Then throw it.”
“You can't block every guy,” Beck said. NU ran for 39 yards in the second half on 20 carries, which is anemic. “No matter how good we can be up front, (Michigan) had free guys. Either Ameer (Abdullah) has to make them miss — and sometimes he did — or he didn't, and he got hit, and we got 1 or 2 yards.”
His plan tipped too far to the pass at Minnesota in the first half — which allowed the Gophers to take charge and churn clock — but at Michigan, he held off. More than one-third of Armstong's passes in the game occurred on the final drive. Save an ill-timed pass on third-and-4, Beck called a sharp one. There wasn't much fat to trim.
You found stewardship with the defense. Nebraska was ready, locked in. Excellent except one touchdown drive to start the second half. It's one thing to be solid in a most basic scheme. But Pelini took risk after risk with blitzes. At Minnesota three weeks ago, he said NU couldn't handle many blitzes. Now he's emptying the playbook.
The pressure did. It's there, it's real. I'm not here to bemoan or befriend it. But Pelini works well under pressure. Nebraska is at its best after it has bumbled and been humbled. Pelini's staff is, too. They recruit better in January — right up against the signing day deadline — than they do at any other time of year. They coach better — and their players play better — under the gun. Has safety Corey Cooper ever arrived at the point of contact like he did Saturday? Has Thad Randle ever played that well in his career?
Pressure clarifies their focus. Pelini's decision-making improves. The fourth-down call Saturday. The choice to put Rex Burkhead in the game at Iowa last year. The decision to ditch his defensive gameplan halfway through the Northwestern game because the players wanted it. Gutsy, almost selfless decisions.
It shouldn't take an annual scramble to produce this kind of stewardship. The fire burns so hot that it tends to burn Nebraska out by season's end. But Bo delivered late in 2008 and 2009. He did it in 2012. If not for peculiar officiating in College Station, he would have done it in 2010. And here, after the manna from Hail Mary heaven, Nebraska is again playing to its potential, with verve.
Imagine if the Huskers coached and played like this for an entire season. A run to Indy — no pies in the face once there — would suit most fans. What they really want is good football and all it entails. They want those three hours at Michigan. How it looked. What it meant. On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Abdullah: He's making a serious case to be an All-America running back. That's serious. His season — with this line, with all these injuries — has been that good.
» Linebacker Zaire Anderson: A blitzing, on-the-attack defense is his kind of party.
» Armstrong: Tough-minded. I've seen his shoulders really slump only once this year — after that last interception against Northwestern. He didn't like the message that sent, and his demeanor at Michigan proved it. An offensive struggle gave way to something special.
» Cooper: That's how you provide run support.
» Nickel Ciante Evans: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon never got loose. Evans and NU's other cornerbacks — Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Joshua Mitchell — were a big reason.
» Linebacker Nate Gerry: Made a big tackle of Gallon on a punt return. Gallon caught the ball at the Husker 41. Gerry drove him back a yard. Four plays later, the Wolverines turned it over on downs, no chance at a field goal.
» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Puma. Gets better in the second half. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski wants him to use his speed more, not less.
» Linebacker Michael Rose: Directed traffic nicely in NU's base defense. Against the spread, Josh Banderas is a better middle linebacker for now, but Rose's physicality suits the Big Ten.
» Michigan linebacker Cam Gordon: Played a great game with eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
» Michigan tight end Devin Funchess: The Huskers will not miss following him all over the field for the next two years.
» Borges: Nebraska needs to send Michigan's offensive coordinator a fruit basket for some of his play-calling. The Wolverines' offense is painfully slow-developing. Everything takes a long time.
» Offensive line depth: Another starter — tackle Jeremiah Sirles — appears out. That's three regular starters, with the nastiest defense north of Tuscaloosa heading to town. Here comes Zach Sterup's crucible by fire. Or perhaps Andrew Rodriguez slides back out to tackle from guard. It's too late to burn Chongo Kondolo's redshirt. Has to be. Besides — Ryne Reeves or Givens Price should be ready to play some snaps at guard, right?
» Bad own-goal offense: When Nebraska's offense is backed up, it blows a gasket. The safety vs. Illinois. A disastrous three plays against Michigan. Armstrong narrowly avoided a safety after nearly colliding with tight end Sam Cotton. The Huskers' apparent lack of a decent-running fullback doesn't help. As it is, NU looked like a covered wagon trying to traverse a mountain turn.
» Fatigue: Mental and physical. The defense has had to come along at light speed; injuries on offense have made it necessary. It takes a toll, the annual scramble. Serendipity — and Taylor Martinez — helped deliver an unlikely six-game winning streak last year. NU's younger and more banged up in 2013. If Pelini and his crew pull off another run and get to Indy, it's a statement.
» 63.6 percent: Armstrong's completion percentage when Nebraska is behind. He's connected on 14 of 22 passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's 8 yards per attempt — 1 yard better than his overall average yards per attempt.
» 106: Carries by Abdullah on first down. That's 57 percent of his total carries. And 67.7 percent of his rushing yards have come on first-down carries. By contrast, 57.2 percent of Rex Burkhead's 1,357 yards in 2011 came on first down. Burkhead averaged 21 carries per game in 2011. Abdullah is averaging 20.4 carries.
» 27.12 percent: Opponents' third-down conversion rate against Nebraska. The Huskers are now third nationally. Michigan State's No. 1 at 26.12 percent. The Huskers have moved to 12th in tackles for loss per game with 7.67. They're 10th in sacks per game with 3.22. Both of those numbers are on pace to surpass the per-game totals of the 2009 defense.
» Minus-3: Nebraska's turnover margin this season. That's 85th nationally. NU's now ninth in the Big Ten after leading the league earlier in the season. One of the Huskers' final three opponents, Penn State, is last in the Big Ten and 108th nationally.
» 303: Yards Nebraska's defense has given up its last 25 drives against Northwestern and Michigan. That's 12.12 yards per drive — a single first down and a cloud of dust. During that same span, the Huskers have given up 16 points — and six of those points came off field goals set up by Nebraska turnovers.
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I ask fans to submit comments after each game and post responses here.
“I know fans (like me sometimes) want to have all the games like the glory days and blowouts over everyone. But isn't it fun to have close, exciting games? The kind you remember being at? Sure I had fun watching us put 70 on the board against Idaho State, but I love having exciting games. And we win close games. Can't remember a close game we lost lately.” — Jack Sheard
“The defense is coming on. There's a big boy game next weekend. I wonder if the offense can find a way to score some points.” — Dan Warner
“The way the Blackshirts played yesterday was some much needed chicken soup for the Husker fan's soul.” — Kord Brashear
“Armstrong has that IT leadership factor that you can't teach. Abdullah is the pulse of this team with his effort. He also kind of reminds me of a smaller Mike Rozier in how he runs.” — Nathan Habe
It was bound to happen to Penn State, this malaise of inconsistency after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA's scholarship sanctions, lightened as they may be, made sure of it. The mediocrity officially set in during a 24-10 loss at Minnesota, when PSU dominated the early downs before losing completely on third down. The Nittany Lions' offense converted 1 of 9 third downs, while Minnesota was 9 of 17. Third down football's about focus and consistent, go-to playmakers. Penn State's offense has a few, but it's 114th nationally in third down conversions. Hard to win that way.
Hopefully a cold, raw wind blows through. Nebraska/Michigan State seems fit for that.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:
Video: Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong after the game:
Video: Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah after the game:
Video: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory after the game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: