LINCOLN — Roman Wilson doesn’t usually need much help.
The senior wide receiver entered Saturday’s game against Nebraska tied for the most touchdown receptions in the nation by using his speed to create separation. He doesn’t usually need to help himself out by making a physical play on the ball, rather he opts to just dust his defender.
Junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy thought Wilson had done that yet again in the No. 2 Michigan football team’s opening drive against Nebraska. With his eyes downfield, McCarthy saw Wilson open in the endzone. Little did McCarthy know, Cornhuskers defensive back Isaac Gifford has impressive closing speed.
Little did Gifford know, he was about to be put on a poster.
Gifford was draped all over Wilson by the time the ball got to him, an unusual sight for a receiver usually a step or two ahead. But facing Wilson and not the ball, Gifford gave Wilson a chance. So he leapt up and broke character — he got himself some help.
He got that help from the defender trying to stop him. Skillfully pinning the ball on Gifford’s helmet as he came down, Wilson somehow held on for a miraculous catch to open the 45-7 onslaught’s scoring. In the process, he showed he can get it done in more ways than one. Sure, Wilson can use his speed and get free. But just ask Gifford — if Wilson needs to make a physical catch on a well-defended play, he can do that too.
“I saw Roman like wide open, so I just threw it to him,” McCarthy said. “And then I see number two running and getting over there and I’m like, ‘oh shoot.’ I thought it was (pass interference) at first, I didn’t even know he caught the ball. And then when I saw him running, and Karsen (Barnhart) threw his arms up, I was just like, ‘man, that was god (helping) right there. And Roman Wilson.”
Maybe Wilson got a little help from divine intervention too, as McCarthy quipped, but whatever happened — however it happened — it showed Wilson coming to form as an all-around receiver and Michigan’s no-doubt No. 1 option. Yes, he can get open through his speed. Sure, that speed can keep him separated for plenty of yards after the catch. All of it looks flashy on the field, it looks nice. But if he needs to get gritty too, he can.
And that looks nice too. So nice, it had people thinking twice.
“I just saw the ball go up in the air, and I was like, ‘There’s no way he caught that,’ ” senior running back Kalel Mullings said. “But Roman makes plays like that all the time. It’s just a tribute to how good of a player he is. … Week by week he’ll keep making crazy plays, you’ll see.”
It’s “crazy plays” like that one that keeps defenses scratching their heads with Wilson. Achieving the difficult task of catching up to the speedster isn’t enough to stop him. If he needs help, he’ll make sure he gets it, even if that means exploiting a defender to get it.
Most of the time, however, Wilson is helping others out. After the play, he helped McCarthy process the play and celebrate it by jumping into his arms in elation. By nature, his success with receptions helps diversify the offense McCarthy leads.
But just because Wilson pulled out a new trick on that touchdown doesn’t mean he can’t rely on the plethora of old ones already in his bag. As the game progressed, it was still Wilson’s quickness that put him ahead en route to his team-leading 58-yard, two touchdown outing.
When McCarthy needed help as his pocket broke down in the second quarter, it was Wilson who got ahead of his defender streaking across the flat. He got so much space that the only time Nebraska surrounded him on that route was when his momentum after the catch sent him into the Cornhuskers’ sideline. Later that drive, Wilson got free running across the back of the endzone, and McCarthy found him to cash in for six and boost Wilson’s touchdown mark on the season to eight.
Getting free with his legs, he didn’t need to do anything fancy; he did the hard part already. When the ball came his way, he certainly didn’t need any help. And Nebraska didn’t have any help coming to stop him.
The only thing Wilson needed assistance with there was answering questions from his teammates on the sidelines.
“I talked to (Wilson) after the catch, in the third quarter,” senior edge rusher Braiden McGregor said. “I said, ‘good job, good catch.’ (He replied), ‘which one?’ ”
A valid question from Wilson, because he got it done in multiple ways, and that led to multiple highlight-reel plays. One of those plays may stick out more than the rest — an absurd helmet catch doesn’t happen every day — but with another strong showing, Wilson started showing just how versatile his skill set can be.
It’s one that keeps leaving defenses asking for help.