The good: I have to choose?
The Michigan football team (1-0 Big Ten, 3-1 overall) was as dominant as it has ever been in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure on Saturday — almost everything that could have gone well in the Wolverines’ 56-10 win over Nebraska (0-1, 0-3), did. Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost acknowledged it was rock bottom for his squad and that they got “whipped,” a stark contrast from Frost claiming his UCF team “outhit” Michigan in a 37-point loss in 2016.
Shea Patterson once again gave Wolverine fans every reason to keep smiling. The junior quarterback completed 15 of 22 passes for 120 yards and spearheaded the efficient offense with an easy touchdown throw to redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry. Perhaps more reassuring was the performance of backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, who replaced Patterson with 5:23 left in the third quarter.
On his first snap, McCaffrey flashed his wheels for a near 75-yard touchdown run, if not for a holding call on Oliver Martin. McCaffrey, later in the drive, had a 17-yard run and 15-yard toss to Martin. The redshirt freshman also threw a dime into the hands of freshman Ronnie Bell for a 56-yard score — his first career reception. The resounding performances were in part due to a stable showing by the offensive line, which only surrendered one sack and one hurry the whole afternoon.
In the blowout, the offense reached far into the depth chart; Harbaugh mentioned that 78 players saw the field Saturday. After senior running back Karan Higdon finished his business — 12 carries, 136 yards and a touchdown — fullback Ben Mason got three touchdowns on six carries, and No. 3, 4 and 5 backs Tru Wilson, O’Maury Samuels and Christian Turner combined for 22 carries and 121 yards.
This depth wasn’t just help to the offense, however. Senior VIPER Jordan Glasgow, who replaced Khaleke Hudson in the first half because of a targeting call last week, impressed with a sack and hurry. The whole defensive line got to Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez at will to collect four sacks and four hurries. Overall, 27 defensemen recorded tackles and kept the Cornhuskers out of the endzone until the end of garbage time.
“I thought our team played very physical, in all phases,” Harbaugh said. “Offensively, defensively, special teams. Showed up in a lot of the one-on-one matchups, showed up in the goal-line, short yardage football on both sides.”
That plainly sums it up.
The bad: it doesn’t really mean anything.
Michigan hasn’t won against a team in the top 70 of the S&P+ Ratings — a metric that quantifies explosiveness, efficiency, field position and finishing drives. It has, however, lost to Notre Dame, which ranks 11th — a better indicator of the Wolverines’ future that features four Top-20 teams.
So yes, Michigan has played masterfully the past three weeks. But expectations over the weaker slate were only slightly below what the Wolverines have shown on the field.
Thus, the question remains: can Jim Harbaugh win a big game with Michigan? The loss to the Fighting Irish says more about that possibility than wins against Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska combined.
The coachspeak continues, and Harbaugh will list all of his players’ accomplishments as usual. One question about Higdon and Chris Evans evolved into praise for Wilson, Turner, Mason, Bell, McCaffrey, kicker Quinn Nordin and punter Will Hart.
“Good to see those other guys getting play,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know if this is a record or whatever, we played 78 guys today. And not only good for the morale of the team, but it’s good for the progress of the team.”
Oh, and can I critique Donovan Peoples-Jones’ 60-yard punt return touchdown? He spun way too early around the Nebraska defender in pursuit.
The ugly: targeting … again.
It’s clear why junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson was given a go in a foregone game in the third quarter. After missing the first half of Saturday’s game because of a targeting call last week, Hudson could afford a few drives so as to not be any bit rusty on the road at Northwestern next week.
But up 56-3 with seven minutes remaining, Hudson was inexplicably still on the field. And again, the junior was ejected for a clear targeting on Nebraska quarterback Andrew Bunch. If you’re Hudson, you claim you never really look at the scoreboard. But if you’re Harbaugh, there is no good reason to keep not only a starter, but one of your best defenders on the field.
Hudson will now miss the first half of next week’s game. His absence against the Wildcats again shouldn’t prove to be crucial, but it’s another deficient element of the Wolverines’ defense that has persisted.
Nordin also missed an extra point Saturday. He made a 50-yard field goal and five other extra points, too, but any coach would rather not put one thought into the extra point.