I'm finding it harder to write about these blowouts.
Best: Birthday Party in the Big House
Long story short - I've given up watching any of these day games when they happen. I've got two small children who apparently have friends selfishly born during football season, so I've gone to a bunch of little kid's parties over the past month or so. It's fine. Kids are great. Totally worth it. Seriously, all you people without children, totally get on the train toward Parentville, population y'all.
Anyway, this particular party featured a pinata, which for small children raised on a steady stream of parental orders not to hit others provides quite a conundrum. On the one hand, you aren't supposed to hit things, both living and not; on the other hand, said adult also handed you a bat, dropped a pikachu-shaped box in front of you filled with candy and toys, and said swing away.
What followed was a rough approximation of the Nebraska-Michigan game. Like the pinata, Nebraska could take a beating without completely crumbling; there was some fight in the Cornhuskers even when they were down big early. At the same time, every series felt like Michigan just hitting a red and white jersey as hard as possible, sometimes with little to no aiming. Martinez probably isn't the savior for Nebraska, but there was no way he was going to look even semi-competent when he was picking Wolverines out of his breastplate on every down. Of his 22 yards passing, 32 happened on a Taylor Martinez special where his receiver basically stopped running and had to come back to pull in a lame duck, "tricking" defenders into believing passes continue downfield and, thus, running themselves out of the play. That play amounted to over half of Nebraska's total yardage in the first 3 quarters of the game, which shouldn't be a surprise considering Nebraska had drives of -13, -3, -20, and -10 (with a safety thrown in) in that first half. They got it going a bit more toward the end of the game, but considering Michigan has playing some deep cuts from the bench, I wouldn't read too much into it. Now, the ferocity on the defense you should absolutely read into, because no good moral victory should go unpunished.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan just hammered the ever-loving soul out of Nebraska. They scored touchdowns on their first 3 drives of the game, punted, then reeled off three more scores (a FG and 2 TDs) before the half. DPJ then tacked on a punt return touchdown, McCaffrey led two more scoring drives, and that was it. And much like the defense, Michigan seemingly made it a point to physically punish the cornhuskers. Ben Mason scored 3 TDs due as much to Newtonian physics and bad blood as any schematic advantage, and the offensive line looked as dominant as they have in years. Just 4 quarters of thumping, an encouraging sign for a team that only a couple of weeks ago seemed out of sorts.
Now, it should be noted that Nebraska isn't 46 points worse than Michigan; sometimes the wheels just come off. Michigan wasn't 29 points worse than PSU last year, nor where the Nittany Lions 39 points worse in 2016. But last week I pointed out that Michigan handily beating a bad SMU team is what good, boring teams do, and pouring gas on tire fires like they did in this game is another sign of a team that will take your mistakes gladly and make you pay for them. Michigan couldn't do that consistently last year, and so it's refreshing to see them correct that a bit these past couple of games.
Meh: Nebraska is Going to Be Annoying
Much has been made about Nebraska's sustained struggles since the 90's
, and while the exact moment when it happened is debatable, what's meaningful is that Nebraska hasn't finished ranked at the end of the year since a 25th-place showing in 2012; since they joined the Big 10 they have won 10 games exactly once (in 2012), a season where they didn't beat a single ranked team and featured a beating in the Big 10 title game that I think it warrants the Nic Cage treatment.
Now, I'm not one to throw stones at a once-perrenial power suffering a downturn as it struggles to adapt to new sport paradigms effectively while still holding true to it's well-honed identity; I root for a team whose fans love to say "Those who stay will be champions" about a team that hasn't won a conference title since 2004. But Nebraska has been, at best, mediocre since they joined the conference (and were trending down a bit in the Big 12 even if Pelini posted some halfway-decent years), and even at their best you saw a ceiling for them that was definitely below the monsters to the East. So like a lot of programs that look at themselves in the mirror and aren't super-excited about what looks back, they have ping-ponged between a bunch of coaches and styles, hoping to find something, anything that will stick. And like most situations where a program is searching for a "who" instead of examining the "why", they never found a match.
There are a myriad of reasons why Nebraska of the Osbourne era won't and can't work today, but like Michigan with Harbaugh, finding some connection to your halycon days is probably an easier sell than starting from whole cloth again, and so it must have been hard to ignore all the buzz that started up with Frost at Oregon and kept building as he took UCF from 0-12 to 13-0 in a season, even if UCF wasn't nearly as bad as your typical defeated team and were probably not quite as good as undefeated would lead you to believe. Still, Scott Frost embodies everything Nebraska used to be as well as a vision of their future, so when they had a chance to get him last year, they jumped at the opportunity. And while Michigan fans have perhaps a more pugnacious view of him than a number of other fanbases, it's hard to argue against the idea that he'll probably get Nebraska back to competing at least for division titles, if not conference titles, sooner rather than later.
I rewatched the first quarter of this game, and what jumped out to me was how close Nebraska was to making it more of a game than it played out those first 15 minutes. Martinez was both hobbled and overwhelmed by a stout Michigan defense; let this be example #9,678,123 of how a guy (with no game tape) being good one week doesn't mean he's suddenly going to set the world on fire. Still, Nebraska had clearly scouted Michigan pretty well and knew where to attack. On that first drive, Michigan probably gives up a TD if the ball wasn't tipped for that pick because there was nobody within 8 yards of Nebraska'a inside receiver, and he would have walked in on that slant. Then on the next drive, Nebraska had called a good screen to their running back that was thrown just a bit short; if Martinez puts some more air under it, that's another big gain. That doesn't mean Nebraska wins this contest; much like that game against PSU in 2016, a 491-132 yardage disparity (and much of that 132 came down 40+ points) points toward an all-encompassing ass kicking.
Still, you can see the seeds of a potent attack in Lincoln; Martinez may have been the best of the guys he had laying around, but Frost's offensive system can work with a lot of misshaped parts, and it's not hard to see him turn it into a buzz-saw with a slightly more competent QB and an upgraded offensive line. It's probably not accurate to evoke Chaos Team for them, but they'll be a version of those Indiana teams; capable of marching down the field in seconds against almost anyone. Of course, there's also a good chance they'll look like those IU teams on defense, with a couple of stars but one that will consistently cede yards in the (hope?) that they'll get just enough turnovers or stops to let their offense stay ahead on the scoreboard. And that follows what UCF looked like under Frost, as his defenses were fine but absolutely struggled to slow down decent offenses (giving up around 30 points and 450 yards to top-50 offenses) and relied on a healthy turnover margin (+17) to make up the difference.
And the thing is, if you recruit like Nebraska has (25th nationally, 4.5th in conference since joining the Big 10) in the past, that's a viable life in the conference's middle class, especially out West. Wisconsin is a good team, but they've feasted on a bunch of also-rans for so long that we as a college football ecosystem just assume they are some juggernaut when my guess is a motivated and well-coached Cornhusker team can make life difficult for them very quickly. So there's hope for them in that division, and then you just have to hope the scheduling gods give you a favorable draw out East and all of a sudden you can stroll into Indianapolis with a chance at a NY6 bowl game against a team that has likely played 3-4 games against top-12 teams plus whatever they signed up for out of conference.
But at the same time, top-25 classes aren't going to get you to where Nebraska sees itself, and it sure feels like there's a ceiling on them pulling in sigificantly better classes on a consistent basis, especially when their favored recruiting grounds in the Southwest and inland California are less welcoming since they no longer play those teams with any consistency. And you absolutely need a certain level of talent to consistently compete against the best in the conference (except if you are MSU, apparently). So many people focused on UCF going 0-12 the year before Frost showed up as some sign that it was a barren program, but in truth UCF was one of the top G5 programs for years and recruited like it (they had 3 top-4 AAC recruiting classes in the 4 years before he arrived). And so, while I'm fairly certain Nebraska isn't going to be your dad's Nebraska with consistent top-5 finishes, they absolutely will be better under Forst than anyone since that era, and that's going to make future matchups the type of white-knuckle affairs, especially on the road, that every game against a halfway-competent West division foe has been for a decade plus.
Best: Defensive Line Domianance
Michigan's defensive line was, weirdly, the big question mark coming into the year on defense. People all sort of assumed Winovich, Gary, and co. would be able to control the edges, but with Mo Hurst off to the Raiders and hyped-but-still-relatively-unknown commodities in Solomon and Dwumfour expected to play prominent roles, the line would be the area the team's performance would "disappoint" compared to expectations. And against Notre Dame, Michigan struggled to keep Wimbush in the pocket, repeatedly allowing him to escape up the middle and run for big gains against a starting duo of Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall, with some rotation by the other tackles. Still, it wasn't the script we were sold during the off-season, and while I think ascribing to the transitive property of depth chart vis-a-vis game performance (e.g. opponent X did Y against starters, so they would have done Y+Z to the guys behind them) on a sample size of 1 isn't very illuminating, "not being able to stop good mobile QBs" has been a bugaboo for Michigan since Teddy Roosevelt was seeing players carried off in body bags during games.
But since giving up 21 points on two 75- and one 96-yard drives to start the year, Michigan's defense has stiffened to the point that they've allowed a total of 33 points over the last 3.5 games while holding two teams to 200 yards or less of total offense and the other barely 300. And much of that has come from the defensive line, which has seemingly solidified itself with a starting duo of Mone and Carlo Kemp at tackle while guys like Dwumfour, Paye, Marshall (who was responsible for the tip on the pick), and others cycle through as necessary. In this game Michigan finished with 14 (!) TFLs for 65 yards, including 4 sacks for 39 yards and at least one reference by the announcers that Frost should replace Martinez with someone else before he was put into traction. Of those 14 TFLs, 6 came from the defensive line as did 2 sacks. And beyond that, a Nebraska team that entered the game averaging 258 yards at 5 yards a clip were held to 39 yards on 30 carries (excluding sacks we're looking at 78 yards on 26 carries, the vast majority of those well into garbage time). Small sample sizes and all that for Nebraska aside, this was still an offense designed to spread you out and try to beat teams on the edges, and that never materialized for the Cornhuskers in large part because the defensive line kept their lanes and would string plays out to the sidelines. One play that in particular that stood out to me was Gary following an attempted rollout by Martinez inside the hash, forcing him to hold onto the ball, then finishing off the play with a TFL. After a week of people (in my opinion, unfiarly) criticizing his play and wondering why he hadn't lived up to some ill-defined (and probably unrealistic) expectation as the #1 recruit, it was nice to see him dominate a team, even though he might have gotten pulled to rest a possible ailing shoulderfor the second half. Neither Mone nor Kemp registered in the box score, but their ability to hold up against a decent Nebraska interior line robbed Martinez of easy escape routes when the outside pressure got past what I can only assume where Nebraska's starting tackles, and we're getting to the point where it's safe to believe that a similar performance is going to be possible anyone on the schedule. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll hold Wisconsin or OSU to under 3 yards a carry, but teams like PSU and MSU thrive on the ground when their QBs can get involved consistently running the ball, and when they can't you can hamstring offenses that are jankier than they probably want to admit.
Best: The Running Back Stable is Pretty Stable
Last week, Michigan struggled a bit to get huge chunk plays against SMU, but were still basically one Chris Evans hamstring being strung from a 250-ish yard, 5.5 ypc day on the ground, and did so without their leading rusher Karan Higdon. This week, Evans was out and Higdon was back, and they proceeded the blast the face off of the Cornhuskers to the tune of 6.8 ypc on 45 rushes, with seemingly a third of those Ben Mason just smashing poor linebackers back 3 yards a pop as he scored 3 TDs on 6 carries. Higdon joined the fray with 136 yards on 12 carries, a tidy 11.3 ypc, and about the only people to complain were fantasy owners who saw a couple TDs vultured away by Mason. And due to how quickly the game got out of hand, both Tru Wilson and O'Maury Samuels got some run, both displaying promise as guys who can help distribute the load this year and, potentially, take on a greater role over the next couple of seasons.
For the first time maybe since Harbaugh got to Michigan, it feels like they have a couple of viable starting running backs as well as situational players who are well-rounded enough that it doesn't scream "run" or "pass" when they step onto the field. I was a bit worried when Walker departed the team over the offseason that Michigan would find usable depth at the spot lacking, especially if one or both of Evans and Higdon went down. But there does seem to be some viable options in the group, and with next year's highly-regarded crop of backs, it's safe to say that if Michigan wants to become the dynamic run outfit we all sort of expected with Harbaugh, he should have the weapons to do so.
Best: Block Party
So yeah, I could get used to this type of offensive line - one that just obliterates people on every down, with extreme prejudice. Yes, Nebraska doesn't have a particular good defense; they sport the 79th-ranked defenses per S&P+ now, and were 110th last year. Still, after picking up 7 sacks against Colorado and 3 more against Troy, Michigan was able to limit the Cornhuskers to 1 sack for 9 yards. And beyond the raw sack numbers, the QBs all seemed to have reasonable amounts of time in the pocket and only had to deal with real pressure a couple of times; it felt, for the first time since maybe 2016, a "normal" amount of QB wear-and-tear given the number of pass attempts and general game progression. Patterson and McCaffrey typically had time to progress through their reads, find guys open, and still had to make some tough throws when guys go thru. Now, some of that is probably due to Nebraska not being particularly creative with this schemes; I don't know if we have any better idea how the line handles your exotic stunts and switches you see from more aggressive defenses. But still, when Nebraska tried to overwhelm the line they held reasonably firm, and my guess is both Runyan and JBB will grade out pretty well in the UFR; PFF certainly liked them.
Michigan's highest-graded players on offense from their win over Nebraska pic.twitter.com/rkYvKYk7lc— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 23, 2018
As for the ground, Michigan's long runs looked so easy in part because Nebraska's defenders were being blocked into eternity on a couple of them, and it was a holistic ass-whooping on that front. On Higdon's big TD run, not only did the left side of the line clear out a gaping hole, but DPJ then rocked the only Cornhusker safety who could have kept that gain to "only" 10 or 15 yards. The line is obviously a work in progress, but it feels like the whole offense is more in sync, and that manifests in more guys getting their blocks right at all levels. Lots of credit should obviously go to Warriner, but both Jay Harbaugh and Jim McElwain should also get kudos for the backs and receivers playing better as well on that front. Yes, Michigan is going to struggle against better defensive lines; for all of Northwestern's issues, they'll be able to put real pressure on Michigan's line this weekend. But I'm upgrading my confidence in this being a slightly below-average offensive line was "nope" to "so you're telling me there's a chance". And this team can go really damn far with that consistent competency at average-ishness.
Worst: Bad Referees Are Still Bad Even if You Win by a Billion
When I saw on Twitter than John O'Neill was the referee for this game, I figured we'd be in for a couple of rough hours. It's not that O'Neill is some monster; he just seems to be "off" a whole hell of a lot for a person hired to officiate a game of football that, I assume, he's seen before. The crowning achievement for the afternoon was, of course, the not a forward pass" to "it was a forward pass in the endzone, so safety" clusterfuck with Hutchinson, but a week after seemingly looking at a player warranted a pass interference flag, multiple Michigan receivers were just sat on by overmatched Nebraska defensive backs with nothing called. And while I get that you want to protect quarterbacks and other defenseless players, you've either gone a bit too far or else Hudson has absolutely lost his mind, because it's now two weeks in a row where he's been called for targetting on plays that I swear happen in every game. And like holding, when you highlight it you can absolutely rationalize the penalty being called, but it happens way more times than it's called and so makes you believe that any particular call is more egregious than it probably is. Hell, last week Hutchinson was basically tackled as the SMU QB tried to escape the endzone and it wasn't called, even though it was so obvious the announcers laughed about it. And that's the problem with bad refs; if they keep calling dumb penalties, it starts to make you think they're right when in fact they're just blind squirrels finding nuts.
Just because Michigan crunched Nebraska doesn't mean shitty calls don't matter; if anything, it papers over their mistakes and, when the game is closer and more meaningful, makes these same mistakes even more damaging. Yes I'm a Michigan homer at times when it comes to officiating, but I've also watched enough college football to say that these past two weeks have featured some pretty terrible crews on any objective scale. The optimist in me wants to believe Michigan has met their quota of goobers and will have games called competently from here on out, but I'm not holding my breath.
Best: Get Back in the Studio, Gavin!
So yeah, Devin Bush had another handful of plays that reminded me how much it's going to suck when he's gone next year. It's like when you watch Peppers just murder a screen and you remembered he was going to be making millions of dollars soon and so you should enjoy watching him clown college kids for however many more week were left in the season. For the day, Bush led the team with 6 solo tackles, 2 for a loss plus a sack, and was his typical whirling dervish sideline to sideline. I remember when he signed with Michigan after being all but suited up for FSU and the buzz was "this guy is going to be special", but I never believed that 3 years later he'd be one of the best linebackers I've seen at Michigan. And yes, we're in that territory with Bush. He's fast enough to stick with receivers, big enough to make running backs stop in their tracks, and disruptive enough to do it all without hurting the rest of the defense.
- I thought Patterson played really well again, and Michigan was smart to not expose him to an excessive number of plays once the game was in hand. At some point he'll be called upon to carry the offense and I am confident he'll be able to perform, but for now it's nice to have a hyper-efficient QB who is able to throw the ball downfield when the situation presents itself.
- I was initially skeptical about the amount of praise being heaped on McCaffrey, especially since most of his play recently came against the 2nd or 3rd-string defenders on some pretty bad defenses, but even with opponent adjustments he had a pretty good day against Nebraska. That long run that was (rightfully) called back was still a promising sign of his athleticism, and he had a couple of nice throws that were either broken up or interferred with that helped obfuscate his accuracy on a 3/8 day. And his ball to Bell was a great throw just a bit beyond the defender and in stride. My only note of caution is that it feels like some people are ignoring context a bit too much in some of these performances. Michigan would be in trouble if Patterson went down, and I'm not sold McCaffrey has the arm strength quite yet to push the ball downfield the way this offense has thus far. And with Peters apparently still recovering from a leg injury (he looked gimpy out there even when he tried to roll out, and you could sorta tell he couldn't get his full strength on that throw that was picked off in the endzone), it's imperative Michigan keeps Patterson healthy.
- I mentioned it earlier, but it's not that I think Hudson isn't guiilty of some level of infraction on his two targetting hits; they definitely are dangerous plays that violate the stated rules. But much like how Clay Matthews keeps getting dinged for questionable roughing the passer penlaties, it feels like Hudson is getting dinged for plays that seem to happen with way more frequency than they are called. At the same time, Hudson can't afford to miss halves of football the deeper the season goes, and even with Glasgow showing some pass-rushing chops and solid run defense, this defense is a step slower without Hudson out there.
- All hail Wendy's fire-breathing Twitter feed. I'm sure in another context I'd like Scott Frost and Nebraska more, but any chance one has to roast him they should. And much like the people at this site who used to complain that "Brian owes us a better experience as people who pay his salary" during the great MGoBlog 3.0 migration, tweeting at a corporate twitter account that people in Nebraska eat fast food (which should be a surprise to exactly no one) is a one-way trip to getting dragged on the internet for an evening.
Next Week: As a Medill Grad
Michigan's got another home game outside Chicago this weekend, and after a promising start to the year that perched them atop the Big Ten West standings, Northwestern has lost a couple games in a row and are reeling. This was the game I was most worried about Michigan stumbling on to start the year, but right now it's hard to see how the Wildcats could hang with Michigan long enough to keep it a slog. They've been solid defensively but are a typical Northwestern offense, which means they should be better than the 96th-rated offense in the country. They'll play up against Michigan, but Nebraska was also "up" for this game and lost by 46. I don't think Michigan runs Northwestern off the field, but another 18+ point line wouldn't surprise me. As always, games like these are all about winning while keeping everyone healthy, so I hope Michigan rolls out as many young players as they can once the game is in hand.