LINCOLN — If you’re a team with a star quarterback and you have a trip to Lincoln on a future schedule, you might want to rethink it, rub that rabbit foot, throw salt over your shoulder, heck, maybe even start the backup.
If déjà vu is real, it was alive and well in Lincoln again on Saturday.
Michigan’s Denard Robinson found himself injured on the sideline and a less-mobile backup was in the game against a hungry Nebraska defense that teed off for two quarters in NU’s 23-9 win.
It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck now and again, but when Robinson went down in the first half you began to realize how much Nebraska continues to live on the edge in Big Ten play.
There’s no doubt about it, when Robinson was in the game, it put the Husker defense on high alert — staying in rushing lanes rather than attacking at times. Even then, Nebraska shut down Michigan’s running game across the board, limiting the Wolverines to just 95 yards rushing.
Remember Nebraska’s biggest comeback in school history against Ohio State was sparked by an injury to Braxton Miller last year, when the Husker defense pressured the back up all the way back from 21 points down.
Calling it an act of fortune that the Wolverine star went down is by no means meant to be disrespectful. Robinson is a class act and a great player.
Rather it speaks volumes about Nebraska’s struggles with athletic quarterbacks in this second run through a whacky conference.
When asked after the game about whether his team is in the driver’s seat to win the conference, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini replied: “I don’t buy any of that crap.”
And with good reason. It’s a 50-50 proposition nearly every time Nebraska steps on the field against conference foes.
When Robinson went down, it was all over.
It was hard to imagine coming into Saturday’s game that a defensive struggle would even be possible with two explosive offenses and a struggling Nebraska defense.
Maybe that was just what the doctor ordered for NU.
After giving up 63 points to Ohio State two weeks ago, Nebraska defenders were downright salty against the Wolverines, even when Robinson was running the show.
With Robinson at full speed, the Nebraska defense never let him break the big play — instead forcing Michigan’s offense to look for other ways to move the ball.
The Wolverines held a huge time-of-possession edge in the first half — about two-to-one — yet Robinson and that offense averaged just 3.4 yards per play in the first two quarters.
Clearly Nebraska was honed in on the Michigan running game, as NU linebackers Sean Fisher and David Santos shot through the line on a number of occasions to drag down Wolverine backs from behind.
When Michigan turned to backup quarterback freshman Russell Bellomy, Nebraska coaches turned the defense loose. NU got to Bellomy to force a field goal on a crucial third-down play, and later sacked him to close the half.
In the second half, Michigan’s running game hit a brick wall and Bellomy was off the mark throwing the ball. The young guy looked lost against the Nebraska blitz.
The only drive of substance for Michigan in the second half came on a 50-plus-yard drive that ended in a field goal. Save for the help of numerous and generous calls by officials against the Nebraska defense, Michigan likely wouldn’t have seen the Nebraska side of midfield.
I’m not usually one to criticize officials here. But Nebraska defenders were called for targeting Michigan receivers with high hits twice. Yet Husker receiver Kenny Bell was hit high and hard on a play called as pass interference in the fourth quarter, in what was clearly a more dangerous hit.
The Nebraska defense has been rough in 2012. But when there was blood in the water Saturday, Husker defenders responded brilliantly.
Hard to remember the last time coaches didn’t hand out Blackshirts eight games into a season in the Bo Pelini era.
But here we are, four games left in conference for Nebraska. Three of them against drop-back quarterbacks at Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa, and there’s a real shot to win the Big Ten. And Nebraska could conceivably face another drop-back passer in the Big Ten title game in Wisconsin.
With a tough road game ahead at Michigan State, no need to look too far ahead here. The Nebraska offense struggled mightily in the red zone against Michigan and continues to commit way too many penalties.
Yet this conference is a jumbled mess and there are plenty of quarterbacks that Nebraska’s defense matches up well against.
Cross your fingers.