On a day that featured the actualization of the Platonic ideal of a Harbaugh-led offense, a legitimate argument can be made for the defense being the most impressive unit on the field. In other words, Scott Frost, so used to disputed titles, couldn't even find one phase of the game to hang his hat on. Michigan outrushed, outpassed, and, yes, outhit Nebraska en route to their most complete game of the young season.
Which Michigan unit was the star of the day is largely a question of aesthetics. Do you prefer drive charts that begin TD, TD, TD, punt, FG, TD, TD before ending on downs despite a gorgeous throw, or ones that begin INT, punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt, safety?
Michigan’s defense allowed a 32-yard reception on the third play of the game, as an overloaded half of the line led to Jordan Glasgow almost chasing down Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez only to see him heave the ball up to Stanley Morgan. Martinez’s pass was tipped on the next play by Lawrence Marshall, and Josh Metellus secured the ball as it looped toward the ground. The yardage of drives allowed by the defense from that point forward: -13, -3, 13, 0 (a fumble by punt returner Tyjon Lindsey that would have been returned for a touchdown if not for an odd rule that disallows advancing the ball on a fumble recovery on punts), 2, –20, –10, and 0. And that was just the first half.
Offensively, Michigan did what they were unable to do last week and put points on the board early. Karan Higdon, returning from injury after a one-game absence, got things going. He caught a seven-yard pass on Michigan’s first offensive play of the game, then juked Nebraska safety Tre Neal to turn an already big gain into a 46-yard run on the second play from scrimmage. Two yards on another Higdon run got Michigan inside Nebraska’s 10-yard line, and Ben Mason took over from there. The fullback dragged defenders on his first carry for six yards, then pushed ahead for two yards and again for one and his second touchdown of the season. Mason finished with three touchdowns on six carries, reliably dragging defenders with him whether he was lined up alone in the backfield or as a fullback.
Michigan’s following drive lasted one play. Higdon got the ball, popped through a lane opened by Ben Bredeson kicking out the end, and jetted 44 yards for the corner of the south end zone. Higdon carried 12 times for 136 yards and was shelved before halftime. Other contributors to the ground game included Tru Wilson, who finished with six carries for 43 yards, and Christian Turner, who took advantage of garbage time snaps to show some wiggle and power in the 10 times he carried the ball for 55 yards. Michigan finished with 294 sacks-removed rushing yards for an average of 6.7 per carry.
The passing game was also reliable, with Shea Patterson shaking off one bad drive at the end of the first quarter to finish 15-of-22 for 120 yards and one touchdown. Patterson played through the first drive of the third quarter before he was removed in favor of getting live reps for Dylan McCaffrey, who has emerged as the clear no. 2. McCaffrey’s conventional stat line doesn’t pop—he finished 3-of-8 for 86 yards and a touchdown—but his passer rating of 169.1 hints at what he showed today. McCaffrey dropped dime after dime, putting passes where only his receiver could make a play on the ball or dropping them into buckets. He also showed good pocket awareness, taking the lanes given him when Nebraska’s rush got too far upfield.
Nebraska’s quarterbacks were all too familiar with upfield rush by the time the clock mercifully hit quadruple zeroes. Michigan finished with four sacks (one each from Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, and Jordan Glasgow), 14 tackles for loss, and four QB hurries (one each for Winovich, Glasgow, Noah Furbush, and Khaleke Hudson [who was ejected again for targeting in the second half]). Michigan’s swarming rush also put Nebraska in untenable third-and-long situations, with Nebraska finishing 3-for-13 on conversions. The only time Nebraska faced third-and-short before the third quarter ended in a loss of ten yards on a sack by Gary.
The defense placed guys in gaps where Nebraska thought there would be none on the regular, and their offensive line subsequently looked downright confused. Michigan held Nebraska to 39 net rushing yards on 30 attempts for a cool 1.3 yards per rush. Michigan’s coverage wasn’t tested often, but they did hold Nebraska to just 93 passing yards on 24 attempts. Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the day defensively is that 80 of Nebraska’s yards came during a fourth-quarter drive during which I was receiving texts from friends who are devoted followers of Michigan football wondering who were some of the players Michigan was fielding on defense.
Michigan’s special teams units didn’t want to be left out of the fun and put on shows of their own. Will Hart continued his dazzling aerial display, coffin-corner punting gems and launching bombs with equal ease. Quinn Nordin showed off his power as well, drilling a 50-yard field goal that would have been good from at least 55. Then there was the aforementioned return by Ambry Thomas on a fumble recovery that would have stood if not for one of college football’s weirder rules, which was followed on the next drive by a 60-yard Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return touchdown that he took near midfield, arced to the right, cut back across, pulled a spin move that I can’t even get to work in video games, and finished on a nearly horizontal angle that was punctuated with a flip into the end zone.
Frost’s offense is going to take a while to install, and his starting quarterback was hobbled by injury. Even so, this was the type of three-phase domination not seen since 2016. Not a bad way to start the Big Ten portion of the schedule.