ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he put the challenge to his group all week: Be tougher than Michigan.
“We wanted to be the tougher team, and in my opinion, we were,” Papuchis said Saturday.
There should be no arguing it, considering the way NU’s defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in the 17-13 win.
Senior defensive tackle Thad Randle was impressive over the ball, winning his battles most of the day, and recording two of Nebraska’s 15 tackles for loss.
“I liked T. He was active. He was into it,” said defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. “And he’s just a tough guy. He got his knee banged up. I said, ‘Hey bro, you need a blow.’ He said, ‘I’m not coming out of this, Coach.’ That’s the type of kid he is.”
Randle said the attention to detail by Husker defenders throughout the week was a big reason for Saturday’s dominance.
“We took it back to technique and fundamentals this week, like staying after practice just working on the bag drills, just doing the little things,” Randle said. “And I think that helped us today.”
Consider that Nebraska did not allow one rushing first down, and the longest Michigan run was 7 yards.
Throw in all the tackles behind the line of scrimmage and Michigan ended up with minus 21 rushing yards.
Randle also wasn't surprised by how the Husker defense responded to tough situations, only allowing three points on three possessions in which the Wolverines began series in Nebraska territory.
“We've been through a lot of adversity in my career, and this year here,” Randle said. “We just embrace the grind. We knew it was going to be on us and we were ready for it.”
Nebraska’s game-winning 5-yard touchdown technically goes in the books as a pass completion from Tommy Armstrong to Ameer Abdullah.
But it was, of course, option football at its finest, with Armstrong pulling the trigger at just the right time.
Running backs coach Ron Brown said Michigan’s defender actually played the option really well, making it a tough decision for Armstrong.
“The kid on defense gave a tough read,” Brown said. “It wasn't an easy one to figure out.”
Abdullah praised the freshman quarterback for keeping with the play.
"Really, it was just Tommy doing a great job staying poised,” Abdullah said. “We ran the option a fair amount, and they were starting to catch on. Coach Brown always said stay with the offense, stay with the pitch, and it paid off. That's why you practice that.”
What also shouldn't be lost was some great blocking in the end zone by freshman wide receiver Alonzo Moore.
“The most important thing was Alonzo Moore,” Abdullah said. “It's going to go unnoticed, but he had a heck of a block. He stayed on that guy for, like, six seconds. That's a long stock block, so I tip my hat to Alonzo Moore."
Abdullah had some strong praise for Armstrong’s overall demeanor, as he kept his cool on the game-winning drive that went 75 yards on 14 plays and took more than six minutes.
Armstrong made the biggest throw of his young career on fourth-and-2 from the Michigan 31-yard line, when he hit Kenny Bell for 26 yards to set up the touchdown.
The quarterback accounted for 66 yards of offense on the final drive.
“He's a natural leader, and you guys will see that with more games to come,” Abdullah said. “Both him and Ron (Kellogg), they handle themselves really well, especially at a venue like this, it's really reassuring."
Just when you thought the Huskers couldn't have any more injuries on offense, especially on the O-line, senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down late in the second quarter.
Bo Pelini said after the game the injury is a knee sprain similar to the one suffered by Jake Cotton last week. There’s hope Cotton could be back next week against Michigan State, though that remains to be seen.
Sirles is the third starting offensive lineman to go down with injury.
“I was starting to look into the stands for someone who might have some eligibility left,” said offensive line coach John Garrison.
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp suffered a hip injury in the first half, though he did return later.
“He’ll be OK,” Pelini said. “He’s going to be sore tomorrow, but he’s going to be fine.
Coaches and teammates are quick to say Westerkamp has the best hands on the team, which is what made his muff of a fourth-quarter punt in Husker territory all the more surprising.
As you might guess, no one was more crushed about it than the redshirt freshman.
“Poor Westy. He dropped that ball and he was crushed,” Pelini said. “The defense picked him up and then the offense rallied behind. That's what a team is all about.”
Among the changes the Huskers made on the offensive line was moving Mark Pelini to center on the third series and shifting Cole Pensick to guard.
“Our best chance to win was getting Mark in there at center and getting Cole at the guard position. It’s because of continuity and how they work together,” Garrison said. “I thought Mike Moudy did a nice job for us, too. I was impressed overall with how the guys stuck with it. I thought we moved the line of scrimmage early in the game and really set the tone in the first quarter. Then there was a lull, because we only had 11 plays in the third quarter.”
This and that
Michigan's loss, its first in 19 home games, was also the first loss at home for the Wolverines under Brady Hoke. … The crowd of 112,204 marked the second-largest crowd to watch a Nebraska game. The biggest was in 2011 at Michigan Stadium when 113,718 attended. … The Huskers are now 18-4 in November under Pelini and 16-7 in road conference games under the coach. … Abdullah’s 105 rushing yards put him at 1,213 for the season. That’s the sixth-most yards for a Nebraska back in nine games. It was the eighth time in nine games Abdullah broke the century mark. … Before Michigan scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, the Husker defense had a streak of 17 straight opponent drives without surrendering a touchdown. … The 15 tackles for loss are the most by Nebraska since it had 15 against Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game in 2009. … The seven sacks were also a season high.