Michigan's J.B. Fitzgerald celebrates his fumble recovery against Nebraska with teammates Josh Furman, left, Brandin Hawthorne (7), and Thomas Gordon in the fourth quarter.
ANN ARBOR -- The biggest blemish on the Michigan football team's 2011 record, and certainly the one the Wolverines take most personally, was inflicted just over a month ago in a 28-14 loss at Michigan State.
UM ran the ball 36 times for a mere 82 net yards, completed just 12-of-31 pass attempts, and went home with 250 yards of total offense. That's a nice round number only when it belongs to the other team.
That was the case Saturday as Nebraska came into the Big House and got punched in the mouth like a tomato can, to borrow boxing lexicon.
Michigan proved it learned its lesson that day in East Lansing. The Wolverines are the bullies now, and the timing could not be better for Michigan fans excited about rolling out the scarlet carpet next Saturday when Ohio State comes to town.
Against a Nebraska team that was expected to make a big splash in its inaugural Big Ten season, Michigan performed a big smash.
The Wolverines had a better than two-to-one advantage in possession time, an 80-54 edge in offensive plays, a 418-260 upper hand in total offense, and a 45-17 rout on the scoreboard.
Michigan State won its game Saturday, too, and clinched the Legends Division berth in the upcoming Big Ten championship game. The Wolverines will finish second, and since there's nothing they can do about it now, they'll worry about other things.
"We had our opportunity," said UM coach Brady Hoke. "That's part of sport, part of competition. You have to take advantage of the opportunities. We've won two in a row, right? Well, there's another one to win."
A year ago, that would have been perceived as only talk, albeit brave talk. The Wolverines saw their recent miseries against Ohio State stretch to seven straight losses, including three straight by a combined tally of 100-24 points under former coach Rich Rodriguez.
A lot has changed, coaches included, for both schools since this time a year ago. The world has seemingly rolled over on the Buckeyes, and the Wolverines have won nine games for the first time since 2007 and, well, almost any other season under Lloyd Carr.
The ex-UM coach was saluted yesterday for his upcoming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. After the game, Carr said the Wolverines had made a "loud statement" that "Michigan football is where we want to be."
Carr, like everyone else, expected Nebraska to be physical and intense, a team that would give no quarter. But with each hit by Michigan, the Cornhuskers shrank a little bit until there just wasn't much left of the fellows wearing red.
Not only did Nebraska struggle moving the ball, they had trouble holding onto it. Two kickoff returns were fumbled away, Michigan blocked a punt after a shaky snap, the Huskers were suckered by a fake field goal that led to a touchdown and guilty of roughing UM's punter at another critical juncture.
The last time Nebraska played Michigan during the regular season was 1962, when Bob Devaney was a rookie head coach. It may be another five decades before the Huskers again want anything to do with the Wolverines.
The Ohio State series, though, is a bit more familiar for Michigan.
"We'll celebrate this win first, then tomorrow we'll get [started] on Ohio," said UM quarterback Denard Robinson, who passed for two touchdowns, ran for two more, and accounted for 263 yards between his arm and his legs. "We know who is next."
The Wolverines seem to be hitting their stride, peaking if you will, at just the right time.
"It's probably as well as we've played in all three phases," Hoke said. "As a group, we played with great toughness."
Ohio State's players and fans may not recognize this opponent. For the last several years, Michigan tried to win with a finesse offense and could not win with a defense softer than a baby's backside.
Michigan learned its lesson a month ago. As the Cornhuskers will attest, these Wolverines have turned the corner to rough and tough.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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