By Tony Gerdeman
Michigan's 23-9 loss to Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) Saturday night dropped the Wolverines to 5-3 on the season and 3-1 in the Big Ten. It also exposed the Maize and Blue's depth at quarterback.
When Denard Robinson went down with a nerve injury to his right arm late in the second quarter, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy stepped in and looked like he had spent as much time practicing at quarterback this season as you had.
Bellomy looked completely nerve-wracked and his receivers did nothing to ease those nerves. He finished 3-16 for 38 yards and several drops. He threw three interceptions and was sacked twice. He was shell-shocked before the first bomb ever went off.
The Wolverines had seven possessions with Bellomy at the helm. He managed to lead them to just 43 total yards, which also happened to be the number of yards Michigan's final drive netted.
You can't fault a team for losing a road conference game when their starting quarterback goes down. The same thing happened to Ohio State in Lincoln last year.
Where there is fault with Michigan, however, is with the lack of any prepared and developed quarterback depth. Ohio State ran into it last year with all three of their quarterbacks. Joe Bauserman started because they didn't want to throw a true freshman Braxton Miller on the field – don't forget, Miller didn't even play in a close win over Toledo.
When Urban Meyer and his coaches got to Columbus last year and talked about Miller and his backup Kenny Guiton, they routinely had to mind their words when talking about how ill-prepared these quarterbacks were.
That's what I saw on Saturday as Russell Bellomy attempted to go out on the field and not screw things up. He had no business being out there, and Nebraska knew it. They blitzed constantly. They never let him get comfortable, though I'm not sure he ever would have been comfortable even without the blitzing.
During Bellomy's struggles, several observers were calling for Devin Gardner to get some snaps given that he is still somewhat of a quarterback. Without the necessary work in practice, however, that just wasn't going to happen. Let's not forget that walk-on quarterback Jack Kennedy has a pass for Michigan this season and Gardner does not.
Saturday's debacle brought back the topic of whether moving Gardner from quarterback was smart or not. Keep in mind, however, that if Gardner actually was clearly the second-best quarterback on this team throughout the spring and summer he never would have been moved to receiver.
The only thing that Gardner has shown as a college quarterback to warrant people wanting him to get snaps on Saturday was the fact that he has never gone 3-16 for 38 yards with three interceptions and two sacks.
The one thing that this game did show, however, is that Gardner will be back at quarterback in the offseason, because a program like Michigan can't simply leave their quarterback battle up to Bellomy and 2013 true freshman Shane Morris next season.
Since Gardner's grand experiment at receiver has led to five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown through four Big Ten games, I can't see any way they would miss that type of production if he provided a better option at quarterback.
Denard Robinson is expected back this coming week against Minnesota, and I don't think Bellomy could play any worse than he did in Lincoln, so things aren't as bad as they may seem right at this moment.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Despite his struggles, we shouldn't put all of Michigan's offensive failures on Bellomy. While he was healthy, Denard Robinson led five drives and Michigan averaged 29 yards of total offense on those drives, which lead to six total points.
Those numbers with Robinson throughout an entire game probably would have been enough to get the win for the Wolverines, because they likely wouldn't have included three interceptions.
Robinson finished 6-11 passing for 55 yards. He also rushed for 46 yards on ten carries.
Nebraska basically rushed three or four against him while he was in there and then just dropped everybody back in coverage. Robinson's long carry was just seven yards because he didn't have anywhere to go. The Huskers hit him hard repeatedly. It was a very effective defensive game plan. It was also a stark contrast from the blitzing that occurred when Bellomy took the field.
Michigan rushed for 95 yards, which was the second time this season they have been held under 100 yards rushing (Alabama). The Wolverines' long carry of the night was actually a 15-yard scramble by Bellomy.
Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 38 yards on 15 carries as his struggles continue. On a positive note, he only lost two yards rushing on the night. Still, 12 of his 15 carries went for three yards or under. The offensive line is getting zero push for him, but I'm not sure how much it would matter at this point. Right now, he is making people miss about as well as a sparring dummy. Every carry by Toussaint feels like it would be better in somebody else's hands – even Vincent Smith's. Though Smith carried it four times for -6 yards, so I may be exaggerating on that last point.
Slot receiver Jeremy Gallon continues to be the most effective ground gainer not named Robinson, picking up 17 yards on three carries. Thomas Rawls was again absent because he has not yet reached the level of trust to do whatever it is that Toussaint and Smith do.
In Michigan's first two Big Ten games (Purdue, Illinois) they rushed for an average of 328.5 yards per game. In their last two (Michigan State, Nebraska), however, they have averaged just 129 yards rushing per game. That number is obviously skewed by missing Robinson for over a half of game, but it's still notable.
The passing game was a disaster, so we don't really need to talk too much about it. However, the throwback screen to Gallon that I've been calling for was a bad call by me, because Nebraska routinely blew that play up whenever they saw it. Turns out it's only effective against idiots.
Though one quick thing about the passing game, if Al Borges knows that Bellomy can only throw the ball about 40 yards, why is he calling a play that requires a 60-yard throw? That's some pretty poor math on Borges' part.
The Wolverines were 5-15 on third down. One reason for that was because they only had three third downs of three yards or less. They just didn't get enough yards on first and second down to keep drives alive, and whatever blame for that doesn't get heaped on Bellomy goes to Borges.
Watching the game, I found myself thinking that the offensive talent for Michigan limits what Borges could do, but I don't know how much it limits what he's actually doing.
When Michigan Was On Defense
It was another pretty stellar defensive performance by the Wolverines as they held Nebraska to 326 yards of total offense. For comparison's sake, the Huskers put up 437 yards of offense on the Buckeyes.
Nebraska rushed for 160 yards on 41 attempts (3.9 ypc) and threw for 166. It was the first time they were held under 200 yards rushing or 4.5 yards per carry all season.
Michigan did have a bit of trouble when Nebraska went to the hurry-up offense, which will be something they see against Ohio State as well. A couple of times the Wolverines weren't quite ready for the snap, and it resulted in some receivers who were fairly open.
Michigan did give up 101 yards rushing to Ameer Abdullah, who was able to get the ball outside a few times. Taylor Martinez rushed for 58 yards on 14 carries, with half of those yards coming on one carry. Other than that, however, they held Martinez in check on the ground.
Middle linebacker Kenny Demens led the Wolverines with ten tackles, weakside backer Desmond Morgan added nine, as well as a tipped pass which ended up being intercepted by defensive end Mario Ojemudia.
Interestingly, Jibreel Black got the start at defensive tackle with Quinton Washington, instead of normal starter Will Campbell. I assume it was done to get Black's quickness on the field against Nebraska's spread offense. It has me wondering what the Wolverines will do against Ohio State's spread, which is also a power running game.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the game for the Wolverine defense was Nebraska's last drive, which started with 6:54 left on the clock. The Huskers ran out the rest of the clock, and probably could have run off another three or four minutes because they were still only at the Michigan 34-yard line when the game ended.
They ran eleven plays on that drive, and all eleven were on the ground. Michigan knew the run was coming, and the Huskers still only faced one third down. Linebacker Jake Ryan wasn't on the field for the drive, but they still should have been able to put up a better fight than what they did.
It wasn't the best night for the secondary, either, as safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon both let receivers get behind them.
Overall, however, the defense did enough to win this game. Two of Nebraska's scoring drives (both field goals) were all of two and five yards, and the Huskers' fourth-quarter touchdown drive was only 47 yards.
They simply had no help from the other side of the ball.
The Special Teams
The return game was not a good one for the Wolverines. Jeremy Gallon returned two punts for -3 yards, including a nine-yard loss on a muff of a line-drive punt. Dennis Norfleet has remained quiet on kickoff returns for the last month or so as well. Their best field position following a kick in the first half was their own 29-yard line, and twice they started at the 15-yard line or worse.
Long-range kicking specialist Matt Wile may have lost his job on Saturday, missing a 53-yard field goal attempt in the same half that regular kicker Brendan Gibbons hit a 52-yarder.
What Does It All Mean
It means that without Denard Robinson, this isn't just a completely different team, it's a much less talented one. Robinson makes those around him better. No other quarterback on this roster does that.
It also means that for as often as Robinson has been knocked out of a game in his career, he's never been gone for long.
Next week at Minnesota shouldn't be too much of a problem, but if it is, then things are as bad as they looked during Saturday night's snapshot.
It also means that this was just one game, and it didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know, namely that Russell Bellomy isn't Denard Robinson.
You can't expect Robinson to miss as much time as he did last week, so you can't expect to run into such an anemic Michigan offense again. However, it has now been two consecutive games without a touchdown for the Michigan offense, so even with Robinson, the offense has had its issues.
The bottom line is that this is not a dynamic offense right now and big plays are sorely needed.
Can we just chalk it up to Robinson's injury, as well as facing two quality opponents like Michigan State and Nebraska?
Which is the real Michigan offense? The one against Illinois and Purdue, or the one against Michigan State? The answer is neither. The real Michigan offense is Denard Robinson, and how well he performs depends solely upon how good the defense is that he is facing that given week.
There is no "Michigan offense". It's just "Denard". For better or for worse.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Michigan 31 - Air Force 26 (1-1)
Sept 15 Michigan 63 - Massachusetts 13 (2-1)
Sept 22 Notre Dame 13 - Michigan 6 (2-2)
Sept 29 Bye
Oct 6 Michigan 44 - Purdue 13 (3-2, 1-0)
Oct 13 Michigan 45 - Illinois 0 (4-2, 2-0)
Oct 20 Michigan 12 - Michigan State 10 (5-2, 3-0)
Oct 27 Nebraska 23 - Michigan 9 (5-3, 3-1)
Nov 3 at Minnesota
Nov 10 Northwestern
Nov 17 Iowa
Nov 24 at Ohio State
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