Michigan Wolverines: Sean Fisher


LINCOLN, Neb. -- After Nebraska forced 10 three-and-outs and held Northwestern's offense in check last week, coach Bo Pelini made his defenders an offer.

It was an offer they could refuse. And they did. The Huskers turned down their coveted blackshirts.

"They didn't want them," Pelini said. "They didn't think they'd earned them yet. It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have. They said they hadn't earned them, and [that] we'll revisit it after the Michigan game.

"I think they earned them."

Nebraska's defenders donned the blackshirts in a joyous locker room late Saturday night following a 23-9 win against Michigan. The Huskers earned them by keeping Michigan in check before Denard Robinson left the game with a right elbow injury, and they earned them by slamming the door on backup signal caller Russell Bellomy in the second half. Nebraska held Michigan to just 44 yards after Robinson's injury.

It received big performances from linebacker Sean Fisher (7 tackles, 2 TFLs), linebacker David Santos (10 tackles, 1 TFL), nickel back Ciante Evans (2 TFLs, 1 sack), safety Daimion Stafford (interception, tackle for loss), safety P.J. Smith (53-yard interception return) and many others.

The blackshirts, while meaningful, aren't Nebraska's garb of choice this fall. Five weeks from Saturday, they want to be donning Big Ten championship T-shirts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten is a weak league that actually seemed to get weaker in Week 9, but some team is going to wear those shirts in Indiana. Some coach is going to hoist the championship trophy. Some group of players will celebrate on the field with roses in their mouths.

Why not Nebraska? Three weeks after getting pounded by Ohio State, the Huskers (6-2, 3-1) have steadied themselves and regained control in the Legends Division.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDavid Santos and the Nebraska defense earned its blackshirts against Michigan.
"With the Big Ten standings, [Saturday's game] was kind of a must-have," Fisher said. "Not that it wasn't still possible to get to the Big Ten championship, but it was out of our control if we lost.

"We want to control our own future, and winning tonight took us one step closer to that."

After getting pummeled in Columbus, Pelini challenged his team to win out. A cross-division loss, as painful as it was, wouldn't hurt if Nebraska ran the table in the Legends Division. Following an off week, the Huskers rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern by a point last Saturday.

They never truly lost control against Michigan, keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone and capitalizing against Bellomy, a freshman who misfired on his first 11 pass attempts and had three interceptions. Pelini made a few defensive calls he didn't expect with Robinson out of the game, but Nebraska didn't change much schematically. It loaded up at the line and made Bellomy make throws he couldn't deliver.

"Obviously, you notice," Fisher said of Robinson's absence. "He's such a threat. I hope he's OK, I don't know what happened, and obviously, you don't want to see anybody get injured. But we weren't upset about it."

Robinson aggravated a nerve in his throwing elbow that he initially hurt Oct. 13 against Illinois. He only missed about a quarter against the Illini but didn't return Saturday, as he had trouble gripping the ball.

Coach Brady Hoke is optimistic the senior will return soon, possibly next week against Minnesota, and Michigan's hopes to challenge Nebraska in the division could hinge on it.

The Robinson injury was among several key developments in the Big Ten, a league no eligible team seems to want to win.

Wisconsin lost starting quarterback Joel Stave early in the third quarter of Saturday's overtime loss to Michigan State. Stave reportedly has a broken collarbone, which would cost him his season. A Badgers team that had regained its mojo after early-season struggles, now has a murky future on offense, as backup Danny O'Brien struggled mightily against Michigan State. Who could challenge the Badgers in the Leaders? How about Indiana, a team that has been in every game this season and finally got over the hump Saturday at Illinois.

Iowa has tumbled out of the race after consecutive blowout losses, while Northwestern, like Nebraska, has new life after a strong performance. Michigan State is in position to shape the race after the win in Madison, but with three league losses already, Mark Dantonio's squad must win out and get a lot of help to return to Indy.

Ohio State separated itself as the Big Ten's best team Saturday, but the Buckeyes won't be going to Indy because of NCAA sanctions. Neither will Penn State, a good team, but one that didn't measure up against Urban Meyer's squad.

The Big Ten has become the league of second chances. Michigan might get one. The Huskers certainly have theirs, and they don't intend to squander it.

"This is a big step for us," Pelini said. "I told the team, when you're winning, as the season goes on, the stakes get higher and higher every week."

Huskers players have embraced the urgency of the league race as they chase their first conference title since 1999. Claiming the tiebreakers against both Michigan and Northwestern could loom large in the coming weeks.

"In the end, it may be a big deal, but we have to make sure we take care of us the rest of the way, or none of that's going to matter," tight end Ben Cotton said. "We know we've got to stay in control."

To do so, Nebraska must win next week in East Lansing, where Michigan State already has lost three times, but returns with some confidence. Control has been fleeting in this league.

Don't tell Pelini about being in the driver's seat for Indianapolis.

"I don't buy into all that crap," he said.

His players didn't buy into the blackshirt offer, either. And in a few weeks, the Huskers might have the look of a champion.
The Big Ten still is a mostly muddled mess after the first Saturday of league play. While Penn State made a statement and Iowa showed it shouldn't be counted out, few other squads looked truly impressive in Week 5. Wisconsin looked better than it has but still fell at Nebraska, and while Michigan State came close against Ohio State, the Spartans still haven't turned the corner on offense.

There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.

3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.

4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.

5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.

6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.

7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.

8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.

11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.

12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.

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