It was a situation in which Michigan hadn’t yet found itself this season. Through its first five games, things hadn’t always been easy for Michigan, nor had they always been pretty. But while it may not have always been smooth sailing, the Wolverines had never trailed and were rarely challenged. They’d faced some difficult moments, but nothing like Saturday night against Nebraska, when Michigan not only found itself on the wrong end of the scoreboard for the first time all season, but on the verge of being run out of the building.
But before we get there…
On just its third trip to Lincoln, Michigan started strong. Over the game’s first 30 minutes, Michigan’s offense was very workman-like. Very methodical. Efficient, if not explosive, the Wolverines scored on their final three drives of the half. On defense, Michigan held the Huskers largely in check. On the occasions when its defense bent, it didn’t break, and Michigan went into the locker room with a 13-0 lead.
The second half, however, was another story. Nebraska came out hot and quickly changed the tenor of the game. “We made a few adjustments (at halftime),” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said after the game, “that I think helped.” Helped they did. After being held to just 133 yards and six first downs over the game’s first 30 minutes, quarterback Adrian Martinez and the Husker offense had the Michigan defense on its heels for the final 30. Martinez adroitly led the Huskers on three touchdown drives in the third quarter, the third of which staked Nebraska to a 22-17 lead. It was Nebraska’s first lead of the game and Michigan’s first deficit of the season.
Three touchdowns in one quarter. Two in less than a minute. The Wolverines were in freefall. And in front of a frenzied crowd of 87,000 - a home crowd that was as loud as any in recent memory, many would say - momentum was clearly on the side of the home team as the fourth quarter began. If ever there was time for Michigan to collapse, this was it.
Michigan, however, didn’t flinch. With the game suddenly on the line, quarterback Cade McNamara and the Wolverines countered, scoring on three consecutive fourth quarter drives of their own. The first a touchdown to re-take the lead, the second a field goal to tie the game (after Nebraska had surged ahead) with 3:00 to play.
Yet, despite Michigan’s fourth quarter counter attack, with the game tied at 29, Nebraska had the ball and the game in its hands. And the way Martinez and the Husker offense had been picking apart the Wolverine defense in the second half, things didn’t look good for the road team. But in the game’s biggest moment, Michigan’s defense made the game’s biggest play, when Brad Hawkins stripped the ball from Martinez on a quarterback-keeper, recovering the fumble himself for good measure. Seven plays later, Michigan’s Jake Moody connected on his fourth field goal of the night (on four chances), this one providing the final margin of victory.
After the game, McNamara said this was the kind of game that past Michigan teams probably wouldn’t have won, and McNamara is probably right. All season long, Michigan’s players, particularly its senior leaders, have stressed how this team is different than past teams. We saw evidence of that Saturday night in Lincoln.
Michigan has played well defensively all season. And led by Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross and Dax Hill, that was the case again Saturday. But while Michigan’s defense played well and ultimately saved the day with Hawkins’ heroics, Michigan was in the position it was in because for the second week in a row, the Wolverines succeeded in mounting a balanced offensive attack against a tough defense. A defense that has excelled at stopping the run.
Facing the same Nebraska team that just two weeks earlier held the nation’s leading rusher, Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, to just 61 yards (and to fewer yards than carries in the second half), Michigan found success on the ground. Despite working through injuries on the offensive line, the Wolverines rushed for 204 yards on 42 carries for a healthy 4.9 yards per carry - gaining 95 yards in the decisive fourth quarter alone.
Michigan was successful running the football not because of its big bursts, but because of its consistency. Sure, Hassan Haskins had a highlight-reel-worthy fourth quarter run in which he hurdled a Nebraska defender en route to a 50-yard gain, and Blake Corum scored on a nifty 29-yard scamper earlier in the quarter, but the secret to Michigan’s success this night was the pair’s hard running between the tackles.
Even when holes weren’t apparent, Haskins and Corum battled their way to three or four yards on most carries, allowing the Wolverine offense to stay ahead of the chains and stay out of third-and-long situations. This was critical, not only to keep the chains moving, but also to keep the pressure off McNamara and the passing game.
Michigan’s passing game is still a work in progress. McNamara still struggles at times with timing and accuracy, resulting in the occasional missed receiver and missed opportunity. But if not dynamic, Michigan’s passing attack has proven effective - and relatively mistake-free (McNamara’s interception against Nebraska was his first of the season). Most importantly, McNamara has emerged as the unquestioned leader of Michigan’s offense, and has shown composure even when things aren’t breaking Michigan’s way. That composure was on display Saturday night in Lincoln, and was a big reason that Michigan emerged victorious.
Michigan’s victory extended its season of redemption - and extended Nebraska’s season of near misses. So while there was jubilation in one locker room, there was disappointment in the other.
“I feel terrible,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said after the game. “I feel sick for our guys (who played so hard).” It was another strong performance for Frost’s Huskers, who have gotten better as the season has progressed, but also another performance in which they came up just short. “They’re a damn good football team,” Frost said of Michigan, “but so are we.” In lamenting the game’s outcome, Frost said, “It really came down to them hitting one more play than we did.” And he wasn’t wrong.
Ultimately, it was Michigan - and Hawkins - that made that play and left Lincoln with a hard-earned victory. A victory in which Michigan showed a grittiness that it hasn’t always shown.