LINCOLN — On Saturday night, deep into the third quarter and amidst a raucous sea of red, the Michigan football team found itself wading in unfamiliar territory.
As Nebraska receiver Levi Falck waltzed down the sideline and into the endzone untouched, the Wolverines looked up to see themselves on the wrong side of the score. For the first time all year, in the season’s sixth game, they trailed.
And yet, in the face of its first genuine bout of adversity, Michigan flashed an unshakable streak of resilience. Propelled by a last-minute field goal by senior kicker Jake Moody, the Wolverines (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) escaped the hostile confines of Memorial Stadium with a victory, edging Nebraska (3-4, 1-2), 32-29.
Moody’s kick, a 39-yard chip shot that split the uprights with 1:24 minutes to go, came off the heels of a pivotal sequence from an embattled defense that surrendered 29 second-half points yet embodied that resiliency. Quarterback Adrian Martinez coughed up the ball on a 3rd-and-1 rushing attempt when fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins punched it free, setting up Michigan’s offense at the Cornhuskers’ 18-yard line.
“The atmosphere, the environment, it just showed a lot of poise and moxie by our guys,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, a smile wrapping his face. “No doubt (the fans) wanted to storm the field, tear down the goalpost — not on our guys’ watch tonight. I’m proud of them.”
Through the first half, it seemed as if the Wolverines wouldn’t need Moody’s heroics to secure a victory; a 13-0 halftime lead certainly had the makings of another blowout, the likes of which Michigan has certainly grown accustomed to. The defense held strong, flummoxing Martinez and the Cornhuskers’ patented rushing attack and, after slogging through the first quarter, the offense found its groove before Nebraska did.
Yet across the third quarter, it looked as if the two teams had spent halftime swapping uniforms.
Michigan’s defense, which has established itself as a consistent, reliable unit under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald, wilted in short order. On the half’s opening possession, a coverage breakdown left tight end Austin Allen alone streaking down the middle of the field; Martinez would find him for a 46-yard touchdown.
The Wolverines countered, with junior quarterback Cade McNamara engineering a 91-yard touchdown drive, putting Michigan up 12 with 3:36 minutes left in the third quarter. But, less than three minutes later, they were staring down that very first deficit.
Martinez found running back Rahmir Johnson wide open on a wheel route for a 41-yard touchdown pass to draw Nebraska within five. After a McNamara interception, Martinez capitalized immediately, finding Falck to put the Cornhuskers in front, 22-19.
More than 87,000 upset-minded fans erupted into a tsunami of red; the imagination had been stirred a step closer towards reality. A marquee victory, absent from the first four years of the underwhelming Scott Frost era, was suddenly within Nebraska’s grasp. Michigan, seemingly overwhelmed and discombobulated, would be the casualty.
That narrative never came to fruition.
“We responded,” fifth-year senior Brad Hawkins said. “We didn’t flinch, like I said. We came prepared and we stayed composed. You can’t look up at the score. You’ve got to just keep playing football. That’s what we did.”
No Power-5 team had lasted longer than Michigan did without facing a deficit. And yet, the Wolverines proved masterful at handling the adversity confronting them; undeterred by the buzz of the crowd and a lightshow between the third and fourth quarter, the players jumped and danced along, spilling onto the field.
“When we get punched, we’ve still got that plan,” junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said, explaining the team’s relentless positivity.
Their off-field actions only resonate because their on-field response spoke volumes. Sophomore running back Blake Corum punctuated a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 29-yard touchdown run, an emphatic answer by a unit that spent the first half sputtering. After Martinez again found the endzone for his fourth touchdown of the game, Michigan remained composed, driving down the field for a game-tying field goal with three minutes to play, setting the stage for the ensuing heroics.
Even after the Moody field goal, Nebraska had a fighter’s chance; a 25-yard pass placed the ball at midfield with a shade over a minute remaining. Once again, though, the Wolverines matched the occasion; when Martinez’s desperation, 4th-and-10 heave fell to the turf untouched, a hush fell over Memorial Stadium.
Michigan had indeed survived, scars and all.
“We’re enjoying the incredible,” Harbaugh said, his eyes lit with enthusiasm, that smile still unshakable. “That was awesome. It’ll be a happy flight, I can tell you that.”
Then, standing at the corner of a cramped, makeshift media room deep inside Memorial Stadium, Harbaugh gestured to the back. He looked towards Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel, sitting in a chair, dressed in khakis and a blue Jordan-brand Michigan polo, vociferously nodding along in accordance.
“It’ll be a happy flight, isn’t it?” Harbaugh said.