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Kevin Raftery: Doubt no more

Marissa McClain/Daily
Senior defensive tackle Mike Martin celebrates after the Wolverine defense suffocated a potent Nebraska offense in Michigan's 45-17 win Saturday. Buy this photo

By Kevin Raftery, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 19, 2011

His No. 32 white throwback jersey covered in grass stains and dirt, Jordan Kovacs stood in a trailer home outside Spartan Stadium. He was beaten and bruised, trying to put the Michigan football team’s fourth straight loss to the rival Spartans into words.

Thirty or so reporters crammed into the trailer, as cameras and bright lights shined in Kovacs's face. Every question stung, each harder to answer than the last.

But Kovacs stood at that podium and spoke the truth.

“They were definitely more physical,” the redshirt junior safety said. “They pounded us. They beat us up.”

That’s like Batman complimenting the Joker — it’s not easy. But Kovacs knew his team was beaten, plain and simple, and he wasn’t going to sugarcoat the loss.

The questions kept coming. Kovacs answered each one as honestly as he could, keeping his head up throughout.

"I think it would be easy to say that this is the same Michigan team from the last two years,” he said. “But I have no doubt in my mind that we're not.”

Kovacs spoke with confidence, but Michigan fans still doubted.

Doubt no more. On Saturday, Kovacs and the 20th-ranked Wolverines proved this year is different.

And they proved it by doing to No. 17 Nebraska exactly what the Spartans did to them.

“We knew that (Nebraska was) gonna be a physical team and that the tougher team, the more physical team, was gonna win this game," Kovacs said.

Michigan won 45-17. You do the math.

The Wolverines dominated the Cornhuskers in every facet of the game. When they sensed Nebraska was down, they pushed them farther down until there was nowhere left to go.

Michigan out-rushed the Cornuskers — a team known for its prowess in the running game — by 100 yards. Redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint out-gained Nebraska on his own with 138 yards on 29 carries.

The defense held star Nebraska running back Rex Burkheard, who averages more than 107 yards per game, to just 36 yards. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was running for his life more often than he was gaining positive yards. No doubt he’ll have nightmares of facing Michigan's senior defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.

And special teams? Well, all they did was force two huge turnovers that changed the fate of the game.

The Wolverines have taken their lumps this year. A loss at Iowa two weeks ago was an opportunity they’d love to have back, and they’d surely love another crack at the Spartans.

But when this teams falls down, it sure doesn’t take long to get right back up.

After the Michigan State loss, Michigan came back home and pounded Purdue. After the Iowa loss, the Wolverines beat up on out of Illinois, a team once thought to be one of the Big Ten's best.

And yet, even after a commanding win in Champaign last Saturday, the doubts still lingered. Michigan had yet to beat a top-25 team. Nebraska needed a win to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten title. This was the perfect opportunity for the Wolverines to blow it.

They didn’t.

And now, Michigan is one win away from a 10-2 season. Be honest, before the season, you said you’d be happy with 8-4.

Not only is 10-2 a possibility, it’s expected.

“I think that is the best win we’ve had since I’ve been on the team, just because it’s so late in the year,” Kovacs said. “I don’t think that we’ve ever had a game this late in November that really meant as much as this one.”

This one meant a lot — now, the next one will mean even more.

Ohio awaits.

—Raftery can be reached at kraftery@umich.edu