LINCOLN — Ever try to run with no shoelaces?
It’s probably not easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Michigan after the Wolverines lost their “Shoelace” Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
It looked like Nebraska and Michigan were going to have a good-old fashioned slugfest. But when Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson — A.K.A. “Shoelace” — went out late in the first half, things changed.
With no Robinson to worry about, the Husker defense went for the kill. It took a while, but the Huskers put away the Wolverines 23-9 to stay right in the middle of the race for the Legends Division title.
It was an unfortunate injury for Robinson, who gained 46 yards on 10 carries before going out. You want all the best players on the field in a game like this, but on the other hand, you take any advantage you can get.
“As a coach, it makes you uneasy when No. 16 has the ball in his hands,” Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “When Denard has the ball in his hands he can go at any time, so it’s kind of a relief, but it didn’t change our game plan, it didn’t change what we were doing or what we were calling.”
The Huskers took dead aim on Michigan backup quarterback Russell Bellomy, targeting the redshirt freshman with blitzes from several different angles. Both Kaczenski and defensive coordinator John Papuchis said they didn’t really change their defense much when Robinson left, but both admitted it had an effect.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said many of the same things. Maybe the Huskers were more aggressive, especially on third down.
“(We) got a little bit more of a feel for what they were doing and how they were doing it,” Pelini said. “I thought we had a good mix in the second half of playing base, playing some pressure, keeping them off balance. I thought it was good. I thought our kids executed well.
“We were preparing for Denard, and I called some things in the second half that we didn’t call a lot during the week, so I thought our kids executed well.”
So the truth finally comes out. The Huskers did do somethings differently once Denard came out.
“He doesn’t move as well,” Papuchis said of Bellomy. “If he was going to be in the game — I mean he’s a good player, I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way — you have to be scared to pressure Denard Robinson too much. If we feel we can bring some heat and the guy isn’t the same kind of runner, we’re going to bring the heat.”
Kaczinski was equally as kind to Bellomy, a young player who was thrown into a tough situation on the road.
“That guy is a great athlete, too,” Kaczenski said. “You just have to be smart no matter who you’re playing, especially the way we play coverage and we’re four-man rushing. You have to be smart. It’s not about necessarily getting to the quarterback all the time. It’s about getting them out of rhythm and not letting them get to the scramble lanes.”
Nebraska held Michigan to 188 total yards, including 136 in the first half. That means the Wolverines had just 52 yards of offense in the final two quarters.
But they did put a field goal up on the board.
That came after the Huskers had gone up 16-6 on another Brett Maher field goal. The Wolverines put together a drive of their own, with more than a little help from the guys in the striped shirts.
A very dubious targeting personal foul on Husker DB Josh Mitchell got it started. That was followed immediately but an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Nebraska bench for protesting too vigorously.
Not much doubt that the penalty on Mitchell was a bad call, but the coaches can’t afford to compound it with another 15-yarder. Moments later, NU cornerback Andrew Green was called for pass interference — another dubious call at best.
Michigan ended up kicking a field goal to cap a 58-yard drive — including 45 yards on penalties.
But all’s well that ends well, and this one ended well for the Huskers. They got a win against the second-best defense in the Big Ten.
Now it’s into the fire next week at East Lansing, Mich., to play Michigan State — the best defense in the Big Ten.
But there won’t be a Denard Robinson to worry about.
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.