ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Their faces wore smiles hardened by a Big House brawl. Knowing smiles. Fifty-yard stares. The ones football players and coaches get when odds were slim, the win was earned and you're filing through the only tunnel out of the brick-encased ring and fans of both colors hang over the wall, pounding the proverbial ropes.
On one of college football's definitive stages, Nebraska delivered a dominating defense, a game-clinching drive, a 17-13 win and finally a rustling hush in Michigan's Big Ten battleship of a stadium, like innumerable leaves sweeping across a yard, except for a thin band of red cheering in one end zone.
The Huskers — who don't come back until 2018 — snapped the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak, longest in the FBS.
“We wanted to quiet 110,000 fans — and that's what we did,” said quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who engineered one of the more memorable drives in coach Bo Pelini's career. “There's nothing like it. It's the best feeling ever.”
“We're short-handed and we're beat up,” said Pelini, referring to an offense that lost yet another starter — tackle Jeremiah Sirles — to injury during the game. “But the character on our football team showed. We just fought until the end.”
“Perfect,” running back Ameer Abdullah said of that silence. He had 110 total yards, two touchdowns and one motivational speech when he gathered his offensive teammates before that final drive to tell them: Make a play for the defense.
That defense notched seven sacks. It held Michigan to 175 total yards, minus-21 rushing yards, just two drives longer than 16 yards and, much like last weekend against Northwestern, a fourth-quarter field goal after a costly turnover. Michigan was set up at the Husker 26 after Jordan Westerkamp — Hail Mary hero — muffed a punt with 10 minutes left in the game. The Wolverines gained 3 yards in three plays.
“Poor Westy,” Pelini said. “He dropped that ball, and he was crushed. You know what? The defense picked him up and the offense rallied behind him.”
That rally was a 14-play, 75-yard march that goes down as Armstrong's first fourth-quarter comeback. He may never have a finer one. After the previous seven drives had gained just 71 yards, Armstrong completed five of seven passes, which included a 26-yard pass to Kenny Bell on fourth-and-2, and a 5-yard touchdown flip to Abdullah.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck intended the play as a shortside option. Armstrong took the snap, approached defensive end Frank Clark, and froze. Armstrong faked to run and froze again. Clark didn't move. By then, Abdullah had drifted beyond Armstrong, but kept waiting.
“Stay with the pitch,” Abdullah said.
Like a point guard feeding his star scorer, Armstrong flipped the ball forward — legal since he was still behind the line of scrimmage — and Abdullah caught it, ran and leaped into the end zone.
“Tommy made a helluva play,” Beck said. “He's got a lot of poise.”
Michigan had 2:03 and all its timeouts for a drive. But the Huskers' pass rush and coverage shut down quarterback Devin Gardner at game's end as it had all afternoon.
Nebraska seemingly spent its week inside the Wolverines' meeting room, diagnosing plays before the snap, blitzing relentlessly, covering up gaps and hitting Gardner on speed dial. Defensive end Randy Gregory had three sacks, including the last one on Michigan's final drive. On third-and-6, Gardner appeared ready to scramble for a first down when Gregory, told to stay home on the play, pounced from behind. Gardner misfired on a pass one play later.
“I could tell: We were getting in his head,” Gregory said of Gardner, who came into the game leading the Big Ten in total offense by nearly 50 yards. “Every now and then, he'd be on the ground longer than he should be. Even after the game, he was just kind of out of it. You take him out of the game, you take their whole offense out of the game.”
Said Pelini: “I thought we'd play well, but I don't know — I was worried. This guy (Gardner), I was happy he didn't get out. We didn't let him out.”
It wasn't because Michigan didn't try.
Said Gardner: “Whoever questions our toughness, they can shove it. I look in those guys' eyes in the huddle and they're tough guys, and they're going out and fighting for me, so I don't care what any of you or whoever said that says.”
Michigan's offense was apparently so predictable that Gregory said the Huskers knew which plays the Wolverines would run by formation alone.
Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis dialed up aggressive blitzes on run and pass plays. Corey Cooper swooped in from safety. Nickel Ciante Evans spiked off the edge. Those blitzers often got home. On one Gregory sack, it appeared no Wolverine wanted to block him — two players essentially passed on the duty — as he ran unabated to Gardner.
“This is rare,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “This'll never happen again. I'll probably be in this another 20 years or so, and I guarantee — that won't happen again. Especially against Michigan. Our guys were in the right spots ... that's the best we've played since I've been a part of Nebraska.”
And yet, until Armstrong, Abdullah and Co. rescued the offense from its own futility, it appeared the defensive effort would be a moral victory. Armstrong hadn't played well to that point. Sirles was out. The run game was shuffling along.
Pelini said he had confidence Armstrong would deliver.
“We're not afraid to put the ball in his hands to win a football game ... he's got that 'it' factor that I love,” Pelini said.
“He's a natural leader,” he said. “You guys see that.”
As Armstrong conducted the drive, he said, he observed the Big House brace for the theater of the moment.
“We kept driving down, getting closer and closer,” he said, “and the crowd kept getting quieter and quieter.”
Drawing down to that unmistakable silence of concession.
"It always feels good to come to somebody's else place — especially a place like Michigan — and shut 'em up,” Gregory said.
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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: