LINCOLN — For a moment, as Cade McNamara walked off the field late in the third quarter, it felt like the same old Michigan.
The junior quarterback had just thrown his first career interception, and as a whole, the ninth-ranked Wolverines were reeling. Moments before, they’d been sitting comfortably with a two-score advantage and a defense that effectively suffocated Nebraska’s dynamic offense. One throw and a two-point conversion later, it became a three-point Cornhuskers lead.
The sudden momentum shift evoked memories of Jim Harbaugh-coached teams of years past. Perhaps it reminded onlookers of Michigan’s 2019 loss against Ohio State, when the Wolverines scored on their first drive, then surrendered a touchdown on the next possession and never led again. Or the 2017 Outback Bowl, where a 16-point lead late in the third quarter devolved into a seven-point loss.
Let’s be frank — the Michigan of years past would have lost Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium. The mistakes that allowed the Wolverines’ advantage to disappear would have compounded into more frustrations, more errors and, ultimately, a humiliating defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
But this isn’t the Michigan of years past. This team — which marched out of Lincoln with a 32-29 win over a much-improved Nebraska team — is different. The Wolverines of the last four years were almost extraordinary at finding ways to lose close games.
This year’s team finds ways to win them.
“I think overall that this team has decided to be different this year,” McNamara said. “And I think it’s not as much what you see football-wise, it’s the atmosphere that we’ve created, and really the mindset that we’ve rebuilt this offseason, and I think it showed today.”
McNamara exemplified that bounce-back mentality. By no means was he extraordinary on Saturday — he missed several open receivers throughout the night and often delivered the ball too late for his receivers to do much with it. The interception itself was ugly, thrown straight to a Cornhuskers defender.
But after that throw, McNamara and the entire offense kept its collective composure. The very next possession, Michigan manufactured a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to regain the lead. When the defense surrendered it moments later, the offense responded again with a field goal to tie the game (Nebraska would never lead again).
During those drives, it never seemed as if McNamara was pressing. He still made mistakes, but rarely were those the product of mental lapses. On plays where his first read wasn’t open, he didn’t force the ball and instead opted to find his tight ends over the middle. He displayed the poise and calmness that any team — especially one that’s certain to be in close games moving forward — needs out of its quarterback.
That’s something the Wolverines haven’t had recently.
“I’ve always thought that that was one of the huge tests for any quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “After you throw an interception, do they have the ability on the next possession to drive the offense for points? Right there, in a nutshell, you can tell so much about any quarterback.”
As with everything new about Michigan’s team, those changes didn’t stop with one player. They were visible in the defense, which somehow pulled out two stops at the end after looking helpless for most of the second half. It permeated throughout the sideline, which exploded with energy during Memorial Stadium’s post-third quarter light show — despite trailing for the first time all season at that point.
And most of all, it shows in the Wolverines’ record midway through the season: 6-0. Say what you want about the competition, the inconsistency, the dumb errors on the road; despite all of that, Michigan’s entering its bye week exceeding all expectations and on the cusp of potentially competing for a Big Ten Championship.
Somehow, the Wolverines are winning games. They’ve chosen to abandon the status quo of the Harbaugh era and embrace a new identity.
For McNamara, the motivations behind that choice are simple:
“We’re tired of losing.”