- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
"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.