It was a performance so dominant, the game’s second half was rendered moot. Hyperbole? Hardly. It wasn’t just that Michigan outscored Nebraska 39-0 over the game’s first 30 minutes, or that the Wolverines outgained the Huskers 305-17 (including 190 to six on the ground), but the way in which the Wolverines so thoroughly and so physically dominated the Huskers that made it clear to even the most ardent of Nebraska fans that there would be no comeback this day. Michigan had more first half touchdowns (five) than Nebraska had first downs (three), but if there’s a statistic that truly illustrated the Wolverines’ dominance, consider this: It took Nebraska more than three quarters to match the yardage Michigan’s Karan Higdon gained on his first three carries … and it took the Huskers nearly 50 plays from scrimmage to do so.
But they did play the second half, and any chance of a second-half comeback disappeared quickly. By the end of the third quarter, Michigan had built a 49-3 lead (and upped its total yard advantage to 388-61). It was as if the Huskers had given up, and if you believe what some of Michigan players said after the game, they all but had. Several Michigan players said that it seemed to them that the Nebraska players lost their will to fight, and did so early on. Josh Metellus said that, “After that first series … we just knew they wanted to give up. You could just see it in their eyes.” Chase Winovich echoed Metellus’s sentiments, adding, “It just seemed like they (Nebraska) didn’t want to be out there.” Sensing Nebraska’s reticence, Michigan doubled-down, and the rout was on.
As the game progressed, Michigan rotated in subs, but didn’t call off the dogs. On defense, Kwitty Paye and Adian Hutchinson picked up where Rashan Gary and Winovich left off, constantly harassing whichever quarterback happened to be in the game for Nebraska. On the day, the Michigan defense recorded four sacks, and 14 tackles-for-loss. On the offensive side of the ball, Higdon led the way with 139 yards on just 12 carries, and quarterback Shea Patterson was efficient, if unspectacular. When Michigan turned to its back-ups, quarterback Dylan McCaffrey and whichever tailback Michigan called on continued to thrive behind an energized – and motivated – offensive line.
Did I say tailback? There were multiple occasions when fullback Ben Mason lined up in a single-back set for the Wolverines. Mason tallied three touchdowns on the day, and if there was a disappointment for Michigan fans, it’s that when Mason carries the ball, fans are cheated out of seeing him block. If ever there was a player who sought out contact, it’s Mason, who doesn’t block, but rather wrecks defenders.
Mason is no less subtle when carrying the ball. Mason was virtually untouched on at least two of his touchdown runs, and you got the sense that was due to Nebraska defenders not wanting any part of him as much as it was the result of Michigan’s offensive line creating gaping holes. And can you blame the Huskers? Jim Harbaugh referred to the “inertia” created when Mason gets going, adding that, “When he gets going, he’s thunder.” What is Newton’s First Law? That a body in motion stays in motion? Well, that’s even more true when that body is a 258-pound wrecking ball of a human being.
The physicality displayed by Mason, and virtually the entire Michigan team for that matter, speaks to the evolution of this Michigan football team. Michigan struggled last season, and in particular, had difficulty imposing its will, especially against quality opponents. But people seem to forget that Michigan fielded one of the youngest teams in the country last season. Michigan’s maturation, both physical and mental, is starting to show.
This was just one game, of course, and one against a team in its first year under a new coaching staff. The real test for Michigan will come when the Wolverines play the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. But there were plenty of positives to take away from Saturday’s performance, particularly Michigan’s physical play and its success at the point of attack. So while Saturday’s performance doesn’t signal that Michigan’s issues up front have been solved, it does suggest that things might be headed in the right direction. And for one week, at least, all is well in Ann Arbor.