Published Sunday, November 10, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:43 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: A big win for Bo; big steps for QB, defense

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — I'd love to put this one into perspective for you. But the season won't stand still.

Something's happening here. The plot just took another interesting twist, and if you leave now for popcorn, you're going to regret it.

Last weekend it was Jordan Westerkamp's Hail Mary. It was a moment in time, but what did it mean? Matt Davison and Mike Stuntz-to-Eric Crouch, those were in the middle of championship chases. What did the Hail Jordan lead to?

Maybe it was its own brilliant moment in time. Or would it be a bridge to something bigger? Would it lead to breathing room for Bo Pelini, perhaps to come back in 2014, and then lead the program to glory?

The Hail Mary still lives. What it did was provide room for Pelini's signature win, his most timely win, most satisfying win.

Best win.

That's what we saw here on Saturday, in this outdoor museum called Michigan Stadium, under gray skies and November gusts and with all the ghosts of the Big House dancing all over the hallowed field. Including Bob Devaney and Thunder Thornton.

Fifty-one years ago, Devaney and Thunder won here, in the second game of Devaney's first season, and it was hailed as the sign of a new era. That hail was correct.

Did we just see Pelini's version? Don't know. Ask again next Saturday, when mighty Michigan State comes to Lincoln for the Legends Division Championship Game. Go ahead and put that on a T-shirt.

What I do know is that, as big of a clunker as they had two weeks ago in Minnesota (and the Gophers aren't exactly making it look bad), this one was that good.

After that loss to Goldy, I wrote that Pelini and Co. were on the clock. On Saturday, they punched the clock.

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They were seven-point underdogs, to a Michigan team that hadn't lost at home in three years. The Huskers won.

Two weeks ago, they were pushed all over the field by Minnesota. On Saturday, they did the pushing and crunching and smashing against Michigan, in a game that could be politely called an ugly, unwatchable scrum. Or a Big Ten football game.

Nebraska came into Michigan's Big House and won the Big Ten way. It felt like a Big Ten initiation.

How about that? The secret handshake is a forearm shiver.

And as lost as offensive coordinator Tim Beck looked at Minnesota, he was found here, with an overall game plan that relied more on the sure legs of Ameer Abdullah and less on the arm of redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong.

But Beck wasn't afraid to call on Armstrong's arm, on the first of two stone-cold calls on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to remember. A pass to Kenny Bell on fourth-and-two that went for 26 yards to the 5. And then an option on third-and-goal that went for the touchdown when he saw Michigan's defensive end lined up wide.

Both plays were checks, last-second changes by Beck based on what he saw, based on gut feeling and instinct.

“That was a big-time call by coach Beck,” Pelini said of Armstrong's option pitch to Abdullah for the game-winner.

There were guts written all over this one. NU lost senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles late in the second quarter, and the next man up was a Sterup. That's Zach Sterup, who came in and slugged away next to the other fighters on this line. The fourth line?

“We're a bunch of grinders,” said offensive line coach John Garrison. “We're like the fourth line of a hockey team.”

Well, this is close to Hockeytown. And you have to wonder if Pelini wasn't a lock-down defenseman or coach of the Broad Street Bullies in a previous life.

We shouldn't be surprised by these anymore. This is what Bo does. This is what his teams do. It's become their identity. Dig a hole, climb out. Place back against wall, punch your way out against the media and fans calling them out. They hung in there when things weren't pretty against Northwestern, and were rewarded with a gift that fell out of the sky.

They'll take it. And they don't care if Michigan has forgotten how to block and quarterback Devin Gardner looks shell-shocked. This time of year, everyone's hurt, everyone's got problems.

Nebraska just went into the Big House and won with a young defense and a redshirt freshman quarterback. Pelini, his staff and players did Nebraska proud.

But that defense and Armstrong bring up an interesting twist to this story. That is, hope. That is, potential.

This looked like a coming-of-age game for Armstrong and that defense. These Big Ten chess matches, played with pieces of granite, aren't beautiful. But they are tests of manhood. Especially on this green, blue and gold grid.

Armstrong nearly gave the game away last weekend with a bad throw against Northwestern. He shrugged it off and made the play of the game with his arm.

Then he made an option move that stirred the imagination in those of us who remember Thomas Lott, Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier.

On the other side was a completely re-energized defense, a defensive line with a push, safeties coming up to crack and wrap up, linebackers flowing naturally to the ball. Pelini said the light is coming on, the communication is coming easily, the game slowing down. He says they're right on schedule.

There were only 175 yards by Michigan and, oh, those seven sacks. From an offense that had put up 41 on Notre Dame, 42 on Minnesota, 40 on Penn State and 63 on Indiana. Forget the scores. Watch the game. They were good.

“I like what this defense is going to be down the road,” Pelini said. “The future's bright.”

If Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst is thinking about that future, and we assume he is, then that was a message for the boss. Nobody knows what the man is thinking, or what his standard is, but this one has to grab his attention. The timing, the performance, the stakes, the stadium.

And that quarterback and that defense.

The immediate future is big and mean and green. Michigan State is coming to town and you wonder how Garrison's hockey line is going to block the Spartans' big, bad defense. This will be fun. MSU was in first place two years ago and didn't show much in Lincoln. After last year's fourth-quarter comeback, Sparty might think it owes NU one. Or two.

If Michigan State wins, it will essentially clinch the division, with a two-game lead over NU and the tiebreaker with two to play. And the last two weeks will have more context.

If the Huskers can extend again, it's all tied up and it's onto the next thrill rides, at Penn State and against Iowa.

We have a season, and it's more of a season than we thought we had last week, and certainly more than two weeks ago. This team limps ahead, but now there's a quarterback, and defense, quickly gathering steam.

Whatever this is that we're watching, it marches on.

* * *

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:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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