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Michigan-Nebraska: The Sick Man of Europe

Michigan made the trip to Lincoln for the first time since 1911 and left with its third loss of the season. The season is far from over, but we are approaching a breaking point. The margin of error is nearly imperceptible on the heels of yet another soul-crushing road loss.

Eric Francis

Michigan 9, Nebraska 23

The red balloons floated upward, little harbingers of doom dotting the night sky. I didn't know what to make of it, but it could not have been anything else but that. Or, maybe they were just balloons.

It was a slow and grinding defeat, not unlike watching the history of an empire's collapse, accelerated and contained within a singular event. Not even the Janissaries can save you now, Sick Man.

Denard went down against Illinois on a run in the red zone, holding his wrist, only to return in the second quarter. On Saturday, the Fates were not so kind. After a 7-yard run that brought Michigan to the Nebraska 7, Denard once again went out. He lay on the ground, clutching his wrist before slowly lowering himself to the earth, slowly, in a painful repose. History does not always present its turning points so clearly, but this one was laid bare. The moment was clear and obvious, stripped of Time's ability to obfuscate and distract. Its skeletal plan was undeniable. This is the moment on which this all turns.

As I frantically searched the Internet for any semblance of positive news regarding Denard's status, the looming sense of dread that took hold as soon as he went down ceased its ominous looming, instead becoming the dominant order of the day. Denard was down, and he would not return.

He stood on the sidelines, an oversized jacket over his shoulders. He didn't even look like Denard at all, as if he was the tower of little aliens in a trench coat from Space Jam, taking in a game at Madison Square Garden. Every time the camera focused on Denard, I saw a picture of frailty, of a person we all deify, all the while forgetting that he is just one man. The burden of being only one man is perhaps the greatest one of all. To know that there are things you cannot do because of this physical and metaphysical reality is a realization that looks sort of like Denard Robinson circa quarters 1.5-4 of this game.

And so the dam broke. Drop by drop, the physical rampart was chipped away. When the dam breaks, there is no second option, no backup, no recourse. When the dam breaks, it just breaks.

The water flooded through without remorse, for it is unfeeling and indifferent to your plight; it simply flows.

We are left here, clinging to pieces of driftwood, trying not to drown in the aftermath. The rushing tide does not care if you can swim. The water issues forth, because it must.

The Offense

Well, I'm glad that I've been doing the offensive section first in these posts. It goes without saying that this was a game of two parts: one with Denard and one without. Analyzing this offensive performance without this line of demarcation in mind is a pointless affair, like wondering why a Michigan team that eviscerated Florida in the Capital One Bowl couldn't do the same less than two months earlier against Wisconsin and Ohio State in 2007.

Part the first (i.e. the one with Denard) wasn't exactly a wondrous display of offensive prowess but it wasn't without its successes. Michigan moved the ball a little bit and challenged the Huskers downfield a couple times, the first being the Revenge of Danny Coale incompletion to Roy Roundtree and then again to Roundtree on a tremendous 32-yard strike--indisputably completed, this time--to start Denard's final drive.

Michigan drove down to the Nebraska 7 before Denard went down on the heels of a successful 7-yard run that brought the Wolverines to a first and goal situation. It was not a stellar performance, especially against a Husker defense that had been fairly leaky against UCLA and Ohio State (particularly on the ground), but Denard had racked up 101 yards of total offense through a quarter and a half of play.

Michigan finished with 188 total yards on the day.

While some will undoubtedly call me a Borges "apologist" (just as people called me such during the RR era), I just don't see how the blame could possibly fall on his shoulders for this loss unless you are entering the discussion with a pre-emptively anti-Borges slant. Like many, I am a bit puzzled at his insistence at running traditional running plays from under center (e.g. the 3rd and 3 near the end of the first quarter), but that is, in my mind, a fairly minuscule portion of the equation.

The unfortunate fact is that, even with Denard in the game, Michigan simply cannot out-talent teams that aren't Illinois or Purdue. When Borges elects to take a shot deep, the receivers have generally shown an inability to adjust to the ball or, more simply, catch the thing when it hits their hands. As such, that sound you hear is Denard Robinson's back creaking under the increasing weight of everything; as we have seen many times before, that weight, like Batman, can break one's back if applied for so long.

Borges has been conservative, sure, but after the Notre Dame game and in light of three straight victories--two blowouts and one win against a very good MSU defense--I don't think that that approach is unwarranted or irrational, even if it isn't fun to watch.

Borges is pretty much in a "damned if you do damned if you don't" situation these days. Throw too much and take too many chances and you get the Notre Dame game and people screaming about how he's not utilizing the quarterback's strengths. Play it close to the vest and you get people wondering why you're not opening up the playbook, even though Borges continues to use Gallon in the run game and take shots deep at appropriate times. When the line can't block and the receivers can't get separation, there aren't very many options.

If I were Al Borges, this is what I would be seeing: an offensive line that cannot block for anyone not named Denard Robinson (a guy who, by virtue of being the quarterback, offers Michigan an extra blocker when he carries the ball); receivers who have fallen near the lower end of the spectrum vis-a-vis preseason expectations; and a quarterback that, no matter how brilliant he has the potential to be at times, is prone to mistakes that lend themselves to an ever increasing mode of conservatism.

At this point, you--and by "you" I mean "Al"-- take all of these things into account and simply do what you can. You run the throw back screen, because it has worked. You line up in the triple stack and send Gallon in motion, but the Husker defenders know what is coming. It goes for a loss. The play that had been easy money all year was stifled like a garden variety iso. Given the Huskers' instantaneously ravenous reaction to this particular play, it was obvious that they knew what was coming, which of course calls to mind the thought of USC players boasting about how Michigan did exactly what they thought they would.

And yet, what else can we do? What do you do when the bread and butter isn't there? Do you eat a sandwich of mud and rocks and cyanide, just to see what it tastes like?

It's 3rd and 4, and it takes the alignment of all the celestial bodies to get Denard to run when acres of space are available. He does, and Michigan gets the first down, but what of all the other times? You can say that that's coaching, but a coach only has so much agency. This is by no means me criticizing Denard (obviously), just that I'm not exactly sure what it is that people want Borges to do.

Yes, juxtaposing Nebraska's box scores from previous games with this one is conducive to apoplexy and the liberal dispensing of expletives...I know. I understand that frustration.

Then you figure in the fact that a redshirt freshman is getting his first meaningful snaps in the second quarter of a road game in Lincoln, and my confusion grows. I am not a so called "insider", but I will say this: it stands to reason that if the coaches thought that Gardner was a better option at quarterback, he would have played the position in this game. Perhaps I am being naive with that whole "trust" thing, but I don't think I am. Let's not forget, also, that Gardner isn't exactly 100% right now. We had to roll with Bellomy, no matter how unappealing that outcome was. If knowing that Denard was out for the rest of the game was a painful notion to you, how do you think Borges and Hoke felt?

You can complain about having to play Bellomy at all, but that is a question of recruiting that is beyond the scope of this game and probably even the Hoke era at large. However, a greater point has been made here, one of the mind-numbingly obvious sort, the sort that often needs a beat-you-over-the-head moment for people to truly understand it: Denard Robinson makes this team go, and, without him, it is nothing but a tragically valiant defense and a withered husk of an offense with about as much hope of forward progress as a car with square wheels on a pothole-filled thoroughfare.

The Defense

Ah, finally, a Coke machine in the desert that was Saturday night. As the offense continues to stumble, the defense continues to be the backbone of this Michigan team, a catalyst for its success. After wandering the wilderness like King Lear for several years, we should be thankful for what this defense has been able to accomplish thus far.

Other than a "oh wide open" touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to Kenny Bell (with the help of a pick that would make Graham Brown proud), the Wolverines held Nebraska to seven points and just 133 yards of offense through the first half. In the face of the distinct possibility that Michigan would be without Denard for the rest of the proceedings, the defense did everything in its power to keep Michigan in the game, just like it did against Notre Dame in a losing effort and against Michigan State last week in a cathartic victory.

Michigan even started the second half with a turnover, intercepting Martinez on a spectacular effort by Desmond Morgan to bat the ball in the air and by Super Mario Ojemudia to reel it in. Unfortunately, on the ensuing 3rd and 3, Bellomy threw a pick that has to rival the Navarre pick early on in the 2004 Rose Bowl as far as ridiculously unlucky interceptions in the annals of Michigan football go.

Once again, Michigan hunkered down when it mattered, forcing the Huskers to kick a field goal after the aforementioned INT had been returned to the Michigan 2. After another Michigan punt and a Brandin Hawthorne personal foul penalty, the Huskers started at the Michigan 39. They only gained five yards before Brett "Don't Call Me Bill" Maher was forced to kick (and convert) a 51-yard field goal. I don't know about you, but I'll take that.

With the score sitting at 13-6, it was still decidedly a game within reach, even with Bellomy at the helm. After yet another Michigan punt, Nebraska drove down the field on via Martinez's arm (yes, that's right...nothing makes sense anymore) before finally getting stonewalled at the Michigan 14. Yes, another field goal. You should be sensing the existence of a trend here, that trend being that this defense is really, really good.

With the help of 45 yards of Nebraska penalties and Bellomy's first completion of the game on his 11th attempt--the least confident looking 12-yard strike of all time to Joe Kerridge--Michigan was able to put three more points on the board, making it 16-9 and a one score game once again. It is truly remarkable that we were still in this game at this juncture with everything that had happened. This defense is literally made of adamantium.

Michigan then forced a Nebraska punt to start the first quarter. Everything was turning up Milhouse as much as things could possibly be turning up Milhouse in a game like this. Naturally, the next play was a Bellomy interception, the final drop of water that broke the levee.

With the score 23-9, Michigan made one last ditch effort. Bellomy connected on a couple of decent gains and even pitched in a 15-yard run. Of course, Michigan's last offensive series could not have ended any other way: another interception at the Nebraska 28. Fin.

The Special Teams

I'm going to keep saying this until it is no longer true or relevant, but: hey, field goals! For the second week in a row, Michigan's kickers provided the only offense of the game, with Gibbons going 3/3 with a long of 52, continuing to shatter the preconceived notion that he is only good up to the 40-43 yard range. Matt Wile did miss one, but it was a 53-yarder, so let's no get too greedy in light of our newly acquired kicking riches. Yes, this is what it has come referring to our kickers as "riches."

Jeremy Gallon had his first egregious special teams derp of the year, mishandling a punt in the first quarter that pinned Michigan back at its own 2-yard line. It was bound to happen eventually, but it fortunately did not matter in this instance.

Will Hagerup had an okay day, booting four punts for an average of 39.8 yards per and a long of 50. Dennis Norfleet had his typically darty day on kick returns. I'm still hoping that he's saving that one return for a touchdown for one of these last four games (if Dennis is taking requests, I'll take it during the OSU game, please).

Nebraska's Jamal Turner did return one kick for 31 yards, but the Nebraska return game as a whole didn't make much of a difference, what with only three kicks and zero punts being returned. This is a good thing. Michigan's special teams have easily been a net positive thus far this season.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • This week in "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" I do remember one missed tackle on the edge from Ryan, and it was a relatively quiet day for him overall. He recorded four total tackles, but did manage a TFL. Per MGoBlue, he has notched a TFL in 13 of his last 14 outings.
  • Injuries. With Frank Clark missing the game with an ankle injury and Mario Ojemudia suffering an injury during the game as well (HT: Zach Helfand), Michigan has taken a pretty huge hit to its WDE depth if either is out for an extended period of time. Brennen Beyer is a solid option to have and I'm sure we will see more of Ryan with his hand in the dirt, but this is certainly not good.
  • Praise for the defense. It's strange to think that Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan's starting spots were supposedly in danger at one point. It was another excellent performance from these two, providing the tough, GRITTY plays to complement Ryan's playmaking and milkshake pilfering abilities. Demens racked up 10 tackles and a TFL while Morgan pitched in 9 and a TFL of his own, plus a PBU that led to an interception and a hit on Martinez near the end of the first half that caused a fumble. Two gold stars for Mssrs. Demens and Morgan. Another defender due for praise: Craig Roh. He has quietly upped his game as the season has gone along. I don't know that he's quite as good as Ryan Van Bergen was, but the gap is not as wide as you might think. He pitched in a pair of tackles for loss, including a big sack for a loss of 10 early in the fourth quarter to take Nebraska out of field goal range (when the score was still 16-9 and the game ostensibly within reach).
  • J.T. Floyd. There were some questionable calls in this game, but one thing is painfully obvious: teams will continue to attack Floyd downfield. Floyd picked up a pass interference penalty during Nebraska's third field goal-yielding drive of the third quarter. Floyd was in press coverage on Kenny Bell on the right side, but Bell easily eluded Floyd's weak attempt at jamming him at the line. This lack of physicality isn't exactly news re: Floyd (who, for the record, I like and think is a decent player).
  • QB CONTROVERSY (!!1!1!!11!!). Not to belabor the point, but I think that the coaches would've rolled with Gardner if he was: a) 100% b) clearly a better option than Bellomy/had been taking practice snaps of late, which I don't think he has in some time and c) if moving him wouldn't debilitate what is already a fairly weak group of receivers. If Denard is out next week--which I don't think he will be, but if--maybe the coaches think about trying Gardner against Minnesota. Maybe. Either way, we're in for more of what we saw on Saturday if we're forced to have a go at it sans Denard. In any case, I don't think that Bellomy is as bad as he played on Saturday. However, even I will be looking for Gardner to get in there at QB if Bellomy struggles like this again. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, simply because that means that Denard is still injured/has gotten dinged up again.
  • Big Ten Title Game watch. With Michigan and Nebraska both sitting at 3-1 in conference play, the Wolverines will of course need a little help if they're going to book a trip to Indianapolis. Assuming that Denard is good to go and/or doesn't get dinged up again, Michigan has a manageable trio of games leading up to The Game (Minnesota on the road and Northwestern and iowa at home). Nebraska has to go to East Lansing before home dates with Penn State and Minnesota and a trip to Iowa City to finish the season. If Michigan takes care of business, the division will likely still be there for the taking, but it's looking like the Wolverines will need to win out. As long as Denard stays healthy, Michigan will have a chance. Then again, that statement kind of strikes at the heart of the problem, doesn't it?