ANN ARBOR — Devin Gardner stepped back and looked straight to the middle of the field, in search of that one open receiver. Drew Dileo rushed up the middle and appeared to be in space to complete the play and continue a late-game drive for the Michigan football team.
Instead, Gardner’s fourth-down pass with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter skidded past Dileo, who had a defender clinging to him, and ended Michigan’s bid for its 20th consecutive win at home.
That was the least of Michigan’s concerns in the wake of Saturday’s 17-13 loss to Nebraska.
Michigan’s third loss in four games likely drove a stake through any hopes the Wolverines (6-3, 2-3 Big Ten) had of playing for the Big Ten championship, hopes that were already distant after last weekend’s loss at Michigan State.
If Dileo had snagged that pass, it would have at least continued the drive. Instead, Ameer Abdullah’s five-yard touchdown catch with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left boosted the Huskers (7-2, 4-1).
A handful of plays separated the Wolverines from turning the tide on their season.
Late in the second, the Wolverines’ defense forced Nebraska to punt from its own 3 and began at Nebraska’s 42-yard line. They advanced six yards on three plays.
With less than a minute left in the third, Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley recovered Quincy Enunwa’s fumble at the Huskers 33. Four plays later, Matt Wile’s 52-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
Then in the fourth, Dennis Norfleet recovered Jordan Westerkamp’s muffed punt inside the Nebraska 30. Four plays later, Brendan Gibbons kicked his second field goal, not enough for the Wolverines in the long run.
“The character on that football team showed, they just fought until the end,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “The way they played, they played with passion. And how about that defense? They stood up time after time. I think they had three short fields in the second half and one short field to end the first half. A lot of situations that could have changed that football game. Guys rose to the occasion.”
Nebraska will host Michigan State on Saturday in a game that could decide the Legends Division champion. The Wolverines sit fifth in the six-team Legends Division, behind Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.
“We’ve got three opportunities left,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose team plays Saturday at sixth-place Northwestern. “Would we have liked to have played better? Yes. Would we have liked to have run better? Yes. Would we have liked to have converted better on third down? Yes.”
Hindsight doesn’t help Hoke. UM finished with minus-21 yards rushing, and Nebraska sacked Gardner seven times. The Wolverines finished 3 of 15 on third-down conversions and 1 of 3 on fourth-down conversions — including Gardner’s final pass attempt in the fourth.
“I’m the quarterback,” a somber Gardner said. “I’m trusted to make plays. I didn’t make enough plays to help this football team win.”
Gardner then considered what adjustments the Wolverines needed to make as a team in their final three games.
“Everything,” said Gardner, who finished 18-for-27 passing for 196 yards and a touchdown. “We didn’t compete well enough as a team.”
Pat Smith’s 21-yard field goal seven minutes into the game and Abdullah’s eight-yard touchdown gave Nebraska a 10-0 lead with 2:50 left in the first.
On a drive that bridged the first and second quarters, Gardner found Devin Funchess on fourth-and-2 from the Nebraska 26 to continue a 13-play drive. But UM couldn’t convert three plays later on third-and-2 from the Nebraska 10, which set up Gibbons’ 27-yard field goal to cut the Huskers’ lead to 10-3 three minutes into the second.
Michigan tied the game at 10-10 five minutes into the third when Funchess (six catches for 66 yards) caught Gardner’s five-yard pass in the back of the end zone.
Six minutes after Gibbons’ second field goal gave Michigan a 13-10 lead, Abdullah scored his second touchdown on a five-yard pass from Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., a play that began as an option pitch.
“Tommy did a good job of faking and coming back to me,” said Abdullah, who stretched into the end zone to give Nebraska its final lead. “Coach [Ron] Brown always says, stay with the option, stay with the pitch. That’s why we practice that.”