LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Nebraska has given itself a shot to get back to the Big Ten championship game with two straight wins on late touchdown passes.
The Cornhuskers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) host Legends Division-leading Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) on Saturday with a shot to control their championship chances.
“We’ll have a whole new challenge next week,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “That defense we’re going against is awfully good.”
If Nebraska hands the Spartans their first Big Ten loss, it will move into a first-place tie in the division and would win the tiebreaker if both teams finish the regular season with two more wins.
Ameer Abdullah knows it won’t be easy to move the ball and score against one of the nation’s best defenses.
“They’re always physical,” Abdullah said. “They were physical last year and they are better this year.
“We know what we have to do.”
Michigan, meanwhile, is relegated to playing for bowl positioning this month.
The Wolverines (6-3, 2-3) lost hope of ending the school’s Big Ten title drought at nine years by losing three of the last four games. They play at Northwestern and at Iowa before hosting archrival and potentially undefeated Ohio State with only pride at stake.
“The season isn’t over,” fifth-year senior linebacker Cam Gordon said. “There’s things still out there to be won.”
Tommy Armstrong Jr. made what proved to be the game-winning play Saturday, a left-handed, 5-yard shovel pass to Abdullah on a patient play that was designed for an option pitch with 2:03 left in a 17-13 victory to silence the Big House.
“I was hoping he would pitch the ball to me,” Abdullah said. “It was called a pass, so I guess I got a touchdown reception instead of a touchdown run.”
Pelini was glad Armstrong made the right decision.
“We’re not afraid to put the ball in his hands to win a football game,” he said. “His future is bright, he’s a leader.”
The previous week, Ron Kellogg III’s 49-yard desperation heave was tipped and caught by Jordan Westerkamp to lift the Cornhuskers to a last-play win against Northwestern.
Michigan didn’t respond well to its previous setback, a 29-6 loss to the Spartans.
The Wolverines were held to negative yards rushing for the second straight week as they allowed Devin Gardner to get sacked seven times in consecutive games.
“We can only go forward,” Gardner said. “We have to get back in here (Sunday), watch the film and practice and fix the things we need to fix. I feel like the team understands that and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Hoke insisted it’s not too late for his reeling team to get better.
“We’ve got three opportunities left: two of them on the road, one here,” he said. “Would we have liked to have played better? Yes. Would we like to have run the ball better? Yes. Would we like to have done a better job on third downs? Yes. We’ve just got to go to work and keep working at it.”
Gardner said those who think the Wolverines aren’t tough can “shove it,” as he showed a flash of anger following the Nebraska game.
“I look in those guys’ eyes in the huddle and they’re tough guys and they’re going out and fighting for me,” he said. “So, I don’t care what any of you or whoever said that says.”
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