Michigan moved to 5-0 on the season with a 45-7 win over a Nebraska football program that is still trying to move on from the history of close and painful losses under old head coach Scott Frost.
Fortunately under new head coach Matt Rhule, Nebraska no longer plays enough close games to have close losses.
Michigan led 28-0 at the half and 35-0 late in the third. Nebraska scored the final touchdown of the game on a 74-yard run by Josh Fleeks with just over four minutes left in the game.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh called off the dogs in the third quarter, but then just put different dogs on the field to bury the dead.
The Michigan defense has now allowed just three touchdowns in five games this year, and two of those touchdowns have come in the final minutes of blowouts. The only touchdown allowed by the starting defense came in week four against Rutgers on a fluke touchdown catch-and-run featuring a slip by nickel back Mike Sainristil and a bad angle by safety Rod Moore, who was just seeing his first action of the year.
Michigan’s schedule has been incredibly easy to this point, but on Saturday they finally showed the kind of gumption befitting the No. 2 team in the nation.
And, yes, I said gumption. You can’t tell me Jim Harbaugh doesn’t use this word at least four times per day.
“I like the gumption of that toaster. Did you see the way those slices popped out of there? Now that’s toasting!”
Given the way this game went and the way Georgia struggled at Auburn, I finally found myself openly asking if Michigan was the best team in the country.
But then I had a Snickers and went back to hatin’.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 249 yards on 51 carries, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Blake Corum went for 74 yards on 16 attempts. Donovan Edwards continues to struggle, posting 48 yards rushing on 14 attempts. Only three of his 14 rushes had a positive success rate (50% of yards needed on first down, 70% of yards needed on second down, 100% of yards needed on third/fourth down).
The Wolverines got good work from Kalel Mullings, who went for 43 yards on five carries, including a 20-yard run.
Mullings’ 20-yarder and quarterback JJ McCarthy’s 21-yard touchdown scramble were the Wolverines’ longest runs of the day. The home runs aren’t coming as often as they did last year, which may or may not be a concern. It’s not ideal, however.
The short-yardage is still solid. Michigan was 6-of-8 converting short-yardage situations on the ground on third or fourth down. One of the two failures came in the fourth quarter with a backup backup running back. The other came on third-and-three when Corum picked up two yards, then picked up the first down on fourth down.
Corum and Mullings were the main short-yardage guys through the first three quarters.
The running game isn’t pretty, but it’s effective. And it continues to be made more effective by McCarthy’s ability to run. He only carried the ball twice in this one, and that was all that was needed. He has the ability to put 100 yards on the ground if it was ever necessary. If there is ever a game this year that isn’t working offensively for Michigan, McCarthy’s running ability could be the thing that keeps them on schedule.
But with the way he is throwing the ball — and the way that Blake Corum continues to run it — it would seem like their bases are pretty well covered. McCarthy completed 12-of-16 passes for 156 yards against the Huskers, throwing two touchdowns.
Both touchdowns went to receiver Roman Wilson. The first was a heave into the end zone that Wilson caught against a defender’s helmet. It would have been an embarrassing moment for the Nebraska defender if he had actually been able to see what happened.
The other touchdown pass was a dart thrown during a scramble to the left that showcased McCarthy’s arm strength. Wilson now has eight touchdown catches in five games. He only has 19 receptions total, so 42% of his catches are going for touchdowns.
For comparison’s sake, if 42% of Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s catches went for touchdowns in 2021, he would have scored 40 times.
Over the last 15 years, only two Wolverines have had more TD catches in a season than Wilson’s eight. Jehu Chesson (’15) and Jeremy Gallon (’13) both had nine.
LaDarius Henderson started at left tackle this week. Karsen Barnhart moved to right tackle. Typical starting right tackle Myles Hinton missed the game. He’s been dealing with an injury. Based on how things went in this game, he may have finally given up his starting role. Previously, Barnhart started at left tackle, but would also move to right tackle to get Henderson some snaps.
This may have been the best overall performance for the offensive line, so they’ll want to build on that moving forward.
When Michigan Was On Defense
I like to think of Michigan’s schedule as a sixth-grade spelling bee. The words they have to spell all come by luck of the draw. But while some schools are getting five-syllable words with Greek origins, Michigan is spelling four-letter words with no need for origins and none of the letters are silent.
“Easy. E-A-S-Y. Easy.”
Meanwhile, the parents in the auditorium keep getting more and more annoyed with each Wolverine word.
But Michigan keeps spelling the words they are given, and there’s nothing in the spelling bee rules that say you have to apologize for the words you are given.
Sure, they haven’t always spelled the words quickly this season, and sometimes they would ask to have “Bored” used in a sentence.
“Bored. I am bored watching this game against Bowling Green. Bored.”
“Hmm. Can you give me the language of origin?”
“Yes, it was my language that I used while watching the Bowling Green game.”
The Michigan defense has yet to be bored this year, however. They have been dominant.
Nebraska rushed for 106 yards on 21 attempts, but that includes a 74-yarder at the end of the game.
Coming into the game, I wanted to see how the running ability of quarterback Heinrich Haarberg would impact Nebraska’s offense He had rushed for 255 yards on 40 attempts in his previous two games, but managed just 29 yards on five carries in this game. The four sacks that he suffered actually took him down to a final total of -2 yards rushing.
Michigan held him completely in check, and if you hadn’t seen him the previous two weeks, you would have never known that he was a decent running threat.
Haarberg completed 14-of-25 passes for 199 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Amazingly, he may have been the best quarterback that Michigan has faced this year — and he opened the season at tight end.
This has not been a murderer’s row of quarterbacks so far. It’s not even been a jaywalker’s row of quarterbacks.
The list below contains all eight of the quarterbacks Michigan’s defense has played against this year. How many of those eight can you match up to their team?
I created the graphic and I’m not sure I’d get more than six.
The Wolverines are currently No. 17 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, holding QBs to a 108.00 rating. When you remove the Michigan performances from those same quarterbacks, the rating only increases to 110.51.
In other words, there isn’t much of a difference between how these quarterbacks have fared through the air against Michigan and how they’ve fared against the likes of Ohio, Northern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, or Hawaii.
And since I’ve already had somebody ask me to remove the fourth quarter from the Michigan stats, I can tell you that the rating drops to 105.97, which isn’t materially different.
The quarterbacks that Michigan has faced have produced the following numbers this season: 281-514 passing (54.7%) 3,196 yds, 15 TDs, 17 INTs. In the 25 games that UM’s opponents have played, only two quarterbacks have thrown for more than 200 yards in a game. None have thrown for more than 261 yards.
There has been no test at all for the Michigan pass defense yet, and it’s going to be at least another month before one might show up.
What about Ohio State, you say?
The Buckeyes have faced three FBS teams so far, and they have played a total of 16 games. The quarterbacks in those 16 games have thrown for 200 yards 11 times. Their totals overall this season look like this: 396-617 (64.2%) 4,837 yds, 35 TDs, 7 INTs.
Removing the Ohio State performances, those quarterbacks have produced a 155.76 rating. Against the Buckeyes, however, that mark falls to 104.20. A much more dramatic difference than what Michigan has done relative to other opponents’ opponents.
I will readily admit that all of this may just be proof that Michigan hasn’t had to show anything special on defense this year. Just let bad offenses be bad and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your own offense will get the ball back.
It’s likely also an indication that Michigan has gone through some injuries in the secondary. What they’ve put out there, however, has still performed relatively well.
As far as the run defense is concerned, however, they definitely stand out over what their opponents have seen previously. Nebraska’s low game of the year was 181 yards rushing in the season opener. They had 20 carries for 32 yards against the Wolverines until their final rush of the day.
Rutgers came into their game against Michigan having rushed for 254 and 256 yards in their previous two games. They managed 77 against Michigan, and 25 of that came on two carries in the first quarter.
The Wolverines are doing no wrong defensively, and they’re getting an immense amount of help from bad opposing offenses. Both of these things can be true. It’s okay.
The Michigan Special Teams
Michigan punted just once in this game, and didn’t attempt a field goal until the fourth quarter when they were up 35-0. James Turner banged in the 30-yarder to make it 38-0, and Tommy Doman’s 65-yard punt was a very acceptable touchback.
Receiver Tyler Morris muffed a punt return but recovered it quickly and returned it for 30 yards. It’s the kind of play that makes the coaches wonder if they should keep him there, while also proving their notions correct on why they put him there in the first place.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Jim Harbaugh played so many guys in this game that you’d think he was having a going-out-of-business sale on Varsity letters.
Everything Must Go!
We’ve got to get the ’23 models out of here to make room for the ’24s.
There were guys that got into this game that I’m pretty confident were roofers for Harbaugh and this was just a way to say thanks for doing such a great job. I think a fantasy camp guy even got to catch a touchdown pass.
I shudder to think how many guys would have played if this game was at home.
It also means this was Michigan’s most dominating game of the year. They ended this game in the first quarter, and then only extended it past that because their plane needed to refuel.
This Michigan spelling bee is showing no signs of slowing down.
Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan State are next up, and they are the No. 8, 13, and 11 scoring offenses in the Big Ten, respectively. Nebraska is now No. 14 thanks in part to Saturday’s game.
The Wolverines may not allow two touchdowns in a game this year until November or December.
And those might just be pick sixes.
The Road To The Game
Sept 2 – Michigan 30 – East Carolina 3
Sept 9 – Michigan 35 – UNLV 7
Sept 16 – Michigan 31 – Bowling Green 6
Sept 23 – Michigan 31 – Rutgers 7
Sept 30 – Michigan 45 – Nebraska 7
Oct 7 – at Minnesota
Oct 14 – Indiana
Oct 21 – at Michigan State
Oct 28 OPEN
Nov 4 – Purdue
Nov 11 – at Penn State
Nov 18 – at Maryland
Nov 25 – Ohio State