Michigan Monday: Win Over Huskers Keeps Wolverines “Perfect”

For the first time all season, Michigan actually trailed in a football game. But more impressive is the fact that they lost the momentum in a hostile road environment and were able to get it back twice on the way to a 32-29 win over a Nebraska team that has now lost four games this season by a combined 21 points.

The Huskers had been close before. Three weeks earlier they went to Oklahoma and lost by seven. The week after that, Michigan State did them in 23-20 in East Lansing. Nebraska now has four losses and three of them have come against undefeated teams all now ranked in the top 10.

This was a perfect opportunity for the Wolverines to revert back to what they’ve been in the past, but they didn’t. They stood firm, directed their own narrative, and walked out of Lincoln with a 6-0 record and more confidence than they’ve had at this point in the season since 2016. That also happens to be the last time they began a season 6-0.

If September is for pretenders and November is for contenders, October is for “just don’t screw it up,” and that’s where the Wolverines are right now.

But business will pick up for them on October 30 when they play at Michigan State with much more at stake than the usual spoils of the Paul Bunyan Trophy and Shaggy 2 Dope’s undying love for a year.

When Michigan Was On Offense

For just the sixth time since Jim Harbaugh took over the Michigan job in 2015, the Wolverines rushed and passed for over 200 yards against a Big Ten opponent. Four of those games have come against teams in the Big Ten West, while the other two came against Indiana and Maryland. Michigan has run it and thrown it for 200 yards more times against Florida (2) since 2015 than they’ve done it against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Rutgers combined (0).

(Ohio State has accomplished the feat in six of their last eight regular season conference games, if anybody is counting.)

But we are starting to see some necessary balance coming to the Michigan offense. Balance doesn’t mean 50/50 in the stats, but rather the ability to throw the ball well when the run is being taken away, or vice versa with the run when the pass is taken away. Basically, can you succeed with either the run or the pass if one is hard to come by?

Early in the season, it didn’t look like Michigan could survive without the running game, then we saw them get held to 112 yards on the ground against both Rutgers and Wisconsin and still win. The passing game helped them out considerably, even though there wasn’t really anything special about it. The Wolverines just found enough offense to get the job done however it had to happen.

This past Saturday at Nebraska, Michigan ran the ball 42 times for 204 yards (4.9 ypc), which isn’t a great performance, but it was a great finish. The Huskers held them to just 109 yards rushing through three quarters on 27 attempts (4.0 ypc). In the fourth quarter, however, the Wolverines went for 95 yards on 15 attempts.

It wasn’t exactly domination, though. Blake Corum had a 29-yard touchdown run in that quarter and Hassan Haskins had a tremendous 50-yard run that included a hurdle and spot-on landing. The other 11 carries in the fourth quarter, however, went for 22 yards.

But they did enough and they did it effectively enough to win on the road. Haskins led the team with 123 yards rushing on 21 carries. This game was made for him. There were no easy runs. Everything was difficult, which is how he seems to like it. He’s arguably the hardest runner in the Big Ten and he doesn’t quit. He’s relentless. I’m assuming when he’s not in class or at practice he’s calling people to let them know their car warranty is expiring.

Corum was Robin to Haskins’ Batman this week, but they switch costumes from week to week.

This week Corum went for 89 yards on 13 carries and also caught five passes for 37 yards. He provided exactly the kind of change-of-pace punching that Michigan needed.

Quarterback Cade McNamara completed 22-of-38 passes for 255 yards with no touchdowns and his first career interception. He was also sacked once. The 38 attempts were a career high and this was the first time all season he actually reached 30 pass attempts.

It was not a great performance and some of his throws were pretty far off from their respective targets. McNamara targeted receiver Daylen Baldwin 14 times, for instance, and only completed six passes to him. McNamara took some shots, but he’s definitely got some work to do with his downfield accuracy.

Slot receiver Mike Sainristil made an incredible diving catch on a deep pass down the middle, but had McNamara hit him in stride, the drive would have ended in a touchdown instead of a field goal.

The Wolverines’ final drive of the first half was a two-minute drill that featured a bunch of passing, but it was still very much “five yards and a cloud of dust” with McNamara’s short passing game. Faced with a third-and-10 in Nebraska territory, Michigan ran the ball with Blake Corum, who went 26 yards to get the ball down to the Nebraska 15-yard line. The Wolverines scored a touchdown a couple of plays later.

Michigan is winning right now, but there are still some things they need to tighten up once the talent gets equated in some of these upcoming games.

When Michigan Was On Defense

Coming into this game, I saw Nebraska with a 10-point win if Adrian Martinez didn’t do anything to jeopardize the Huskers. I was, of course, asking too much of Martinez, but I also knew it was going to take a relatively perfect game from Martinez to keep Nebraska from beating themselves.

But Michigan also beat them plenty.

The Huskers’ playcalling was a bit wonky. They had success with misdirection, but kept trying to hit it up the gut against Michigan and there just wasn’t much happening early on.

For the game, the Wolverines held Nebraska to 140 yards rushing on 32 attempts (4.4 ypc). Martinez completed 18-of-28 passes for 291 yards with three touchdowns, one interception, and one sack. Martinez completed some very nice passes to some wide open receivers, but when it came to fitting the ball into tight windows, his passes were bouncing off walls and cabinets, breaking nary a pane in the process.

Adrian Martinez is like those barbers who trim hair by using flames. Sure, it can work, but it’s unnecessarily dangerous and even when it’s done correctly it still smells like burnt hair.

I wanted to see what the Michigan defense did against a quarterback who could run and throw, and it turns out they did okay. Martinez made them pay on some throws, but that wasn’t because of any running that he did. He only ran the ball seven times for 41 yards. Scott Frost could have used three times that number of attempts and things would have been better.

I think it can be safer and more productive to ask more of Martinez’s legs than his arm, but it was his fumble on a third-down carry that gave Michigan the ball in the red zone in a tie game with under two minutes remaining in the game.

Two turnovers by Martinez was about what was expected. Had it only been one, then maybe Nebraska finally gets a signature win under Scott Frost.

Michigan’s defense is rounding into form but I still think depth is a concern. Defensive tackles Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton were very effective early in the game. Nebraska rushed for just 29 yards on 17 carries in the first half. In the second half, however, the Huskers went for 101 yards on 15 carries. Was this just an adjustment by Frost, or did the constant pounding up the middle finally wear a bit on the Wolverines?

The outside rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were again very good. Hutchinson went TFL-less for the first time this season, but still recorded six tackles beyond the line of scrimmage. Ojabo only had one tackle — which was a sack — but you can see him more and more involved in creating chaos for the defense. He’s a guy who can go up against a tackle on one play and then the next sprint out wide and tackle a screener. Ojabo began his career as an athlete, now he’s turning into an edge guy who is very athletic. Is his ceiling a Jayson Oweh, but with sacks? We’ll see.

The linebackers continue to play really well went pointed straight ahead, as Josh Ross and Nikhai Hill-Green were very solid in run support between the tackles. When it comes to spreading them out and making them chase the ball, there can be opportunities for the offense.

Safety Daxton Hill had an incredible interception in coverage when he batted a pass in the air and caught it after falling to the ground. He’s a natural and may be the first sure thing Michigan has had in the secondary since Marlin Jackson.

The Michigan Special Teams

Place-kicker Jake Moody hit all four of his field goals in this one, ranging from 21 to 39 yards. He was never put to the test in terms of distance, but his last two field goals tied the game at 29-29 with 3:00 remaining and then won it 32-29 with 1:24 remaining.

Receiver AJ Henning muffed a punt deep in Michigan territory and was fortunate to retain possession as Wolverine defensive back German Green held on for dear life and was awarded simultaneous possession with a Husker defender. Michigan then made the most of that possession by driving 93 yards for a touchdown to make it 19-7 late in the third.

Punter Brad Robbins had a pretty good night, averaging 50.8 yards on his four punts, putting three inside the 20-yard line.

Michigan’s special teams continues to be very good with periods of greatness.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that Michigan is finding winning ways to win games, if that makes sense. Or maybe I should say they’re finding ways to keep from losing games.

Coming into this season, the Wolverines were 18-22 under Jim Harbaugh when their offense averaged under 5.7 yards per play in a game. This year, however, they’re 4-0 when averaging under 5.7 yards per play.

Michigan’s yards per play has taken a 2-yard drop from September to October. That’s the biggest drop from September to October in the Jim Harbaugh era (as well as the Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez eras). There are still two games this month yet to play, but that’s a concerning trend. Especially against two opponents with losing records. And only two other Octobers since 2015 have the Wolverines had a lower yard-per-play average than their current 5.32 yards.

The defense clearly looks better than it’s been, so that’s going to allow for more leniency when it comes to the offense and any kind of struggling. It would be wise for the Wolverines to get better on offense over the open week, but I think the last couple of weeks have been a step in that direction.

This is never going to be a passing offense, but the pass does need to be able to make defenses pay for any lack of respect.

So even though it looks like the offense is becoming more balanced, the ceiling still feels pretty low.

It also means Michigan’s defense found some flaws to work on and fix before they play Michigan State in a few weeks.

They’re off this week and then host Northwestern, so they basically have two open weeks to address their issues. Nebraska did them a favor by exposing some of their blind spots with the misdirection and deception. I’m going to assume Mike Macdonald was aware of the possible issues, but now it’s on tape for the players to see and learn from it.

The Michigan defense has continued to find answers this season, but pretty soon the questions are going to start changing.

How well the Wolverines respond will determine how successful this year ends up being.

The Road To The Game

Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 – Michigan 38 – Wisconsin 17 (5-0, 2-0)
Oct 9 – Michigan 32 – Nebraska 29 (6-0, 3-0)
Oct 23 vs Northwestern
Oct 30 at Michigan State
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State