ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The tougher team will win.
Nebraska's defenders practiced and prepared all week while their coaches ingrained that concept into their minds, reinforcing what the unit proved to itself during a comeback win at Northwestern.
It would take guts and grit to beat Michigan. Play after play. The Huskers had to be the ones dictating from the start, never relenting or exhaling because they knew that was when the Wolverines would pounce.
Conference wins on the road, in November, can't be earned any other way, defensive coordinator John Papuchis told his group.
The NU players listened well Saturday. The Huskers controlled the line of scrimmage for four quarters, bottling up Michigan's disjointed ground attack and disrupting the passing game enough to carry Nebraska to a 17-13 win Saturday. And it was all a credit to their attitude, according to Papuchis.
“That was our thought: We have to go into their house and we have to impose our will on them,” Papuchis said. “I thought our guys did a nice job of that.”
Nebraska finished with 15 tackles for loss, the most for NU since the Big 12 title game in 2009. Seven of those stops were sacks. The Huskers generated plenty more pressure and created tons of havoc at the point of attack.
They stiffened at the most critical moments and bounced back from a mistake-filled start to the second half — mostly because they followed their coaches' advice. Saturday wasn't really about Nebraska's talent, its plan or ways Michigan tried to scheme against NU.
To the Huskers' defense, it was a game of heart. And willpower. And mental fortitude. Whoever wanted it more.
“This is Michigan. That's enough said,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “You've got to come out here, in an away game, and create your own energy, create your own atmosphere in somebody else's home.”
That's what happened early. The Wolverines went backward on their first two drives, forced to punt after three plays both times. They had minus-19 yards on those possessions, exactly what Ankrah and his teammates wanted.
He didn't even remember those specific sequences after the game — because he was so hyped up during the moment. Senior Ciante Evans said the same thing.
It was the start that set the tone, fueling Nebraska's confidence and perhaps placing a bit of doubt within the Michigan huddle. The Wolverines had been pummeled for four quarters during a 29-6 loss at rival Michigan State a week earlier, giving up seven sacks and struggling to establish any sort of running game.
The Huskers wanted to follow that blueprint.
“Just try to rattle them,” Evans said. “Get them off the game. Kill the momentum.”
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It helped that Michigan didn't surprise Nebraska's players with new wrinkles or unconventional tactics.
The Wolverines managed just 22 rushing yards on 29 carries (not counting sacks) because the Huskers recognized the Michigan alignments and correctly predicted the plays their opponent was calling out of them.
“Whatever formation they came out in, we knew what they were going to throw at us,” sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory said.
Give the NU coaches credit, Ankrah said. Their plan was the reason Nebraska's players felt like they were one step ahead.
“We came out prepared,” Ankrah said. “We knew what they were going to do right before they did it.”
It was evident on Michigan's final drive, too.
The Wolverines ran a third down play that the Huskers had worked on all week. The secondary smothered a couple of short routes and forced quarterback Devin Gardner to improvise. Gregory wiped him out for one of his three sacks.
The next play was a quick slant that fell incomplete, sealing the win. Wasn't a surprise. NU's coaches brought pressure, telling their defensive backs not to make assignment mistakes as they matched up with the potential receiving options.
“We knew beforehand, we could play with them … that they couldn't really move the ball on us,” Evans said. “What they did wasn't because of them. It was because of us.”
Even when the Wolverines had some success Saturday, Evans said, he and his teammates weren't dejected. Rather, they eagerly awaited the next opportunity to get a stop.
Michigan's 10-play, 75-yard drive to begin the second half, resulting in a game-tying touchdown, was an example of that, according to Evans. The Huskers gave up a 25-yard throwback screen, Stanley Jean-Baptiste missed an open-field tackle on third down and Devin Funchess was left wide open in the end zone for an easy score.
But Nebraska wasn't aligned properly on several plays. The defensive backs didn't switch off their assignments during plays in pass coverage, what's often a lack of communication. Tackling wasn't great, either.
The mistakes were corrected, and the Huskers' mindset didn't change. Said Papuchis: “They knew when they took the field, they were going to get stops.”
Even after starting in their own territory.
Senior Quincy Enunwa fumbled with 42 seconds left in the third quarter, giving Michigan the ball 33 yards away from the goal line. But the Wolverines lost 2 yards on three plays, then missed a potential go-ahead field goal from 52 yards out.
Five minutes later, redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp muffed a punt at the NU 26-yard line. Yet Michigan managed just 3 yards. The Wolverines did take a 13-10 lead on a 40-yard field goal, but that didn't cause the Huskers to waver.
They'd been talking about those exact scenarios all week. They finished that Northwestern win not with some elaborate scheme. They believed it was their effort and their tenacity that held the Wildcats to three points in the second half, forcing seven punts and recording a pick-six to set the stage for a miracle finish.
The Huskers carried it over to Saturday.
“The challenge was to be the tougher group,” Papuchis said. “That was the challenge all week. We wanted to be the tougher team. My opinion was, we were.”
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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: