ANN ARBOR, Mich. - In a game Nebraska had to win in order to keep its Big Ten Conference title hopes alive, the Huskers could only watch their hopes slip away in what ended as a blowout loss to Michigan on Saturday.
Despite trailing by just seven at halftime, a flurry of devastating special teams miscues turned the game into a 45-17 route in front of 113,718 fans, the largest crowd ever to watch Nebraska play.
In all, the Huskers fumbled two kickoff returns, had a punt blocked, committed a crucial roughing the punter penalty and gave up a fake field goal to extend an eventual touchdown drive, all of which coming in the second half.
"We can't play that way on the road and expect to win a football game," head coach Bo Pelini said. "The penalties, the turnovers, all the things that we preach and what we were doing well we weren't doing today. There's your result."
Michigan struck first on the arm of quarterback Denard Robinson. With the help of a 46-yard pass from Robinson to receiver Roy Roundtree and a personal foul on Nebraska that moved the ball down the NU 2, Robinson capped the drive off by hitting Jeremy Gallon over the middle for a touchdown pass with 8:17 left in the first quarter.
Surprisingly, it was Husker senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard who was beaten for both big passes on the drive.
The Wolverines added to their lead on their next possession, as kicker Brendan Gibbons nailed a 42-yard field goal into the wind to make it 10-0 with a little more than two minutes left in the opening quarter.
The field goal actually ended up a positive for Nebraska, as Michigan had marched all the way inside the NU 20 before Robinson was sacked by safety Daimion Stafford for a 14-yard loss on third down.
Just when it seemed Michigan was rolling with all the momentum, Nebraska came right back with a big pass of its own. After two runs by Burkhead, Martinez hit senior receiver Brandon Kinnie on a deep post over the middle for a 54-yard touchdown.
The pass was Kinnie's first touchdown of the season and the longest pass play allowed by Michigan's defense all season.
That momentum carried over into the second quarter for the Huskers, as they came up with the first big defensive play of the game on Michigan's next drive. Senior defensive tackle Terrence Moore made an impressive individual effort by batting a Robinson pass in the air and then hauling it in for an interception.
Moore returned the ball down to the UM 34, giving Nebraska its best starting field position of the day to that point.
The Huskers converted that play into three points to tie the game, as junior kicker Brett Maher drilled a 51-yarder into the wind to tie it up at 10-10 with 12 minutes left in the first half.
Michigan bounced right back on its ensuing possession, though, as Robinson worked a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ate up six minutes and featured three third-down conversion runs by Robinson.
The junior signal caller finished off the drive with a 14-yard keeper for a touchdown to reclaim the lead at 17-10 with 6:05 left in the half. Overall, the Wolverines were 5-of-7 on third down conversions in the second quarter, while Nebraska didn't convert a single third down in the first half.
Robinson finished the game 263 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns.
"He's a good player," Pelini said. "He made us miss a couple of times. We made him look good throwing the ball. We had a few balls in our hands that we could've intercepted. Like I said, we had opportunities to make plays and we didn't do it."
Both teams had chances to add to the score in the final minutes of the half, but Michigan's seven-point lead held into halftime. The Huskers were almost doubled up in total yardage in the first half, 230-125, and the one long pass to Kinnie stood as their only time even moving the ball past the UM 20-yard line.
The most surprising stat line of the first half came from Burkhead, who rushed just four times for four yards. After ranking third in the Big Ten with 107 rushing yards per game coming into the game, he ended up with a season-low 36 yards on 10 carries.
The second half couldn't have gotten off to a worse start for Nebraska. Redshirt freshman Kenny Bell fumbled the kickoff return to open the third quarter, and Michigan recovered at the NU 33.
A 23-yard pass to Gallon moved the ball to the 7, and the Wolverines finally punched it in six plays later on a 1-yard bootleg run by Robinson around the right end.
Already trailing 24-10, things got even worse for the Huskers on their next drive. After failing to convert on third down, Maher bobbled the snap on a punt and tried to get off a kick at the last second, but Michigan blocked it and took over at midfield.
Maher ended up getting injured on the play and was helped to the sideline by NU trainers, but he returned to the game for the Huskers' next punt.
It looked like Michigan turned the block into a touchdown run by running back Stephen Hopkins, but the score was called back on an offensive facemask penalty at the goal line.
Three plays later, it looked once again like Nebraska had held the Wolverines out of the end zone, as a third-down stop sent UM's field goal unit onto the field. However, Michigan ended up faking the kick and letting holder Drew Dileo keep it for a 4-yard run to set up first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint punched it in on the next play, putting Michigan up by a commanding 31-10 advantage with five minutes to go in the third quarter.
"Unfortunately we just had some stuff snowball on us today," senior safety Austin Cassidy said. "We didn't respond the way that we should've. We had a couple times where we got out there and we had some good stops, but we had other times where we looked like we had no idea what we were doing out there. They were running all over the field on us. That's what's so disappointing."
Maher came back in the game to deliver a huge punt that was downed at the Michigan 5-yard line. A quick three-and-out by the Wolverines and a nice punt return by freshman Ameer Abdullah gave NU the ball at the Michigan 31.
The Huskers pounded their way right up the field and eventually scored on a handoff to Burkhead that turned into an option pitch out to Abdullah for a three-yard touchdown run with a little less than a minute to go in the third quarter.
Things looked like they were starting to go back in Nebraska's favor after stuffing Michigan on three straight runs to force a punt, but Wil Richards was flagged for a questionable roughing the punter penalty to give the Wolverines a new set of downs.
That mistake would prove to be the nail in the coffin for the Huskers. Michigan took full advantage by moving inside the NU 40, and on a third-and-9 play Robinson hit Martavious Odoms for a 38-yard touchdown strike in the back of the end zone.
"I thought the pivotal point of the game was that personal foul for roughing the punter," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "I want to see that play on tape."
Bo Pelini was a little more direct in his opinion on the penalty: "That wasn't the right call on roughing the punter."
The score made it 38-17 with just over 10 minutes to play, and there was no looking back for the Wolverines from there. Nebraska had two defensive backs on Odoms on the pass, but he was somehow able to get behind both of them for the game-clinching touchdown.
Michigan added another touchdown just for good measure on another touchdown run by Toussaint following a fumble by Martinez deep in NU territory.
Martinez ended up taking a big step back after five straight games of solid passing, completing just 9-of-23 passes for 122 yards and getting sacked three times.
Nebraska will close out its first Big Ten regular season on Friday when it plays host to Iowa. With their conference title hopes flying out the window in Ann Arbor, though, the Huskers will merely be playing for bowl position.
"I've been coaching a long time, and I can name those three or four times where - I call them those Murphy's Law games, where anything that can go wrong goes wrong for you," Carl Pelini said. "I mean, how many times if Brett Maher going to drop a snap. How many times is that roughing the punter going to get called in a season? The two kickoff return fumbles? It's just like the wheels came off, and once that happens and you start reeling, boy, it's hard to fight back."
Special teams woes hard to explain
The obvious topic for Nebraska's players and coaches following the game were the many miscues made by the special teams units in Saturday's loss.
As much as the Huskers wanted to give an answer, none of them knew exactly how or why it all went wrong.
"We've been playing well on special teams," Bo Pelini said. "Dropping a punt, not blocking well, you can't do those things. I don't know why we dropped the ball. I thought out guys were ready to play. I don't have the answer why to why we put the ball on the ground twice in the second half."
Special teams coach John Papuchis was equally baffled by the mental errors his kicking and return teams made in the loss. He said the performance was nothing like what he had see all week in practice or at any point during the season for that matter.
"It was a comedy of errors," Papuchis said. "It's obviously uncharacteristic of things that we had done."
The most glaring mistake was the roughing the punter penalty on Richards. Papuchis said Nebraska did call for block from the punt return team on the play, as they wanted to try and come up with a big play with the momentum starting to shift in their favor.
Instead, they got a penalty that all but slammed the door on the game.
"We felt like we wanted to make a play at that point," Papuchis said. "We're down 14, and we debated a little bit of what the better route was, but thought that gave us an opportunity. It was something we had worked on in practice, and it was almost there."
Like Bo and Carl, Papuchis wasn't so sure the officials made the right call on the play.
"I don't know," he said. "I didn't get to see a great replay, but, I don't know. Obviously it's a tough call to make."
As for the two kickoff return fumbles by Bell and Marlowe, Papuchis said they were no one's fault but their own.
"We've got to hang onto the football," Papuchis said. "Any time you return a kickoff, the next play has to be for our offense. That's something that's inexcusable. You can't have turnovers on special teams."