Michigan Wolverines Football 32, Nebraska 29: Notes, Quotes & Observations
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Michigan Wolverines Football 32, Nebraska 29: Notes, Quotes & Observations

It was a weird one, this sixth game of the 2021 season, from the moment they kicked off to the last seconds, when Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines went to shotgun victory formation (which still makes some of us nervous) in a 32-29 victory at Nebraska.

But make no mistake — this was a big win for a U-M team that found a way to victory where, in the recent past, they probably wouldn’t have. They gave away a comfortable lead in a matter of a few minutes in a terrible third quarter, overcame significant adversity in an incredibly hostile environment — one of the sound men for the radio broadcast called it one of the loudest from start to finish he’d heard in his decades on the job — and found a way.

Veterans might liken it to the 1988 Ohio State game, when the Wolverines dominated and led 20-0 at the break only to fall behind, come back and then hang on for dear life against what looked like a totally different team in the second half. Credit the Cornhuskers for punching back, but U-M had one more bullet in the chamber in what Harbaugh called a “Clint Eastwood type win” for his team.

A defense that had been shredded for 29 points — 29 — in the second half alone came up with a huge turnover courtesy of fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins after clutch, Jake Moody field goal that tied it at 29, setting up his even more clutch 38-yarder. They allowed Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez and Co. to get to midfield before stiffening on four consecutive plays to escape Lincoln with the victory.

Harbaugh will have time to dissect what went wrong over the next several days, but he was all about savoring the victorying the aftermath.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Cade McNamara are 6-0
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Cade McNamara are 6-0 (USA TODAY Sports Images)

“The atmosphere, the environment — it just showed a lot of poise and moxie by our guys,” he said with a proud papa type grin. “There’s no doubt that they [Nebraska fans] wanted to storm the field, tear down the goalposts … not on our guys’ watch tonight. That was pretty cool. Pretty cool. Proud of them.

“It was a great football fight. Incredible plays made by incredible athletes on both teams, and the fight for the win. Fighting for down after down after down. It was tremendous. Tremendous game, great … incredible, really. We’re enjoying it. We’re enjoying the incredible.”

And there was plenty. Dax Hill’s amazing interception in the first half set up what would be a huge field goal from Moody from 35 yards out. Receiver Mike Sainristil’s 48-yard diving grab would set up another — that would qualify as one of the ‘incredible’ plays Harbaugh mentioned — though the Wolverines missed a chance to go up 10-0 in the second quarter with more poor play inside the five, and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins’ 50-yard gallop with a leap over a defensive back was flat out sensational, setting up Moody’s game-tying 31-yarder.

They needed every bit of it against a desperate team that pulled out all the stops, including some poor gamesmanship in which they replicated Michigan’s snaps with claps to get the offense to jump. It worked two or three times and the Cornhuskers were only flagged once in what Harbaugh called clear “intent to deceive” motivation.

They overcame it all, leaving Nebraska head coach Scott Frost in tears and his future as the Cornhuskers’ head coach possibly in serious jeopardy. This was his opportunity for a signature win to help get his program on track — instead, it will go down as one of the most enjoyable losses of his coaching career.

“That was as much fun as I have ever had coaching a football game with the fans, the way they were in the stadium and the way we responded,” he said. “And they are a damn good football team. I give them a lot of credit.”

Damn good in spots, truthfully, but one that played some poor defense in the second half and still has holes in the roster. They blew a coverage on a third quarter touchdown that allowed the Cornhuskers to get back in the game, though Harbaugh insisted it was an illegal formation (and he was right), gave up 186 yards in the third quarter alone and weren’t set on a five-yard Martinez touchdown run that relinquished the lead after the offense had gotten it back on a 29-yard, Blake Corum touchdown run.

The offense, too, left several points on the board … points they’ll need to win in State College, East Lansing and home against Ohio State. Daylen Baldwin continues to be hit or miss — he dropped a sure touchdown on a first and goal play, but still finished with six receptions for 64 yards, targeted 14 times — and center Andrew Vastardis was blown up on a third and goal play, tripping his quarterback and forcing a short field goal on what appeared to be a Haskins touchdown run.

This team doesn’t have room for those kinds of mistakes against better teams, nor the blown coverages throughout the second half that led to easy Cornhuskers touchdowns.

At the same time, this was a squad that went through five players at the guard position after starters Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter, who hadn’t practiced all week according to sources, tried to play but struggled and needed to be replaced early. The Wolverines were down two receivers in Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson, who missed the game with what we’ve heard is a hand injury, but got enough from the rest to help McNamara to 255 yards passing.

The tight ends helped in catching five balls on their most productive day of the year.

And while some in the fan base continue to call for backup J.J. McCarthy, McNamara did enough to lead the Wolverines to a sixth win against no losses, insisting this team is ‘different’ because it decided to be.

“The grit they have,” Harbaugh said in explaining what his quarterback meant. “The fight they have. The mindset of not being denied. The way they prepare, and they have fun doing it. It’s in the eyes. Practice and games.

“… [McNamara] made some spectacular throws. He stood in the pocket, knows he’s going to release it and get hit and still put those throws on the money. Just pretty sharp the entire night. The way he was seeing the field, just kind of cold blooded back there in the pocket … somebody’s trying to hit you and you’re still throwing to the right spot and not flinching. That says a lot. He’s really doing a heck of a job.”

They’ll continue to work McCarthy in, but McNamara is the leader of this group, and he was instrumental in the win regardless of what the ‘he’s not good enough’ faction who believes this team somehow wins despite him thinks.

Now, he and his teammates get a well-deserved week of rest before facing Northwestern at home, a game the Wolverines should win easily, before facing a much-improved MSU team. The floor appears to be nine wins should they take care of business — for all the griping some naysayers will provide after this one, even they’d acknowledge that’s about as good as they’d have hoped heading into the season.

More Michigan Football Observations

• Frost’s defense mimicking the snap count was one of the more bush league moves we’ve seen of a Michigan opponent this year, and it’s something the Big Ten needs to address. Harbaugh acknowledged as much in the postgame.

“We’re saying it. We’re talking [to the Big Ten],” Harbaugh said. “One time it got called, but they were definitely trying to clap and replicate the snap.

“… That clap kind of stuff … that should really be an intent to deceive foul, which is in the rule book and 15 yards. But hey … all that – I’m just going to enjoy the incredible. That was awesome. It’s going to be a happy flight, I can tell you that.”

Both schools had reasons to gripe about the officiating, which was poor throughout. Nebraska appeared to be clearly offsides on McNamara’s first career interception, and Harbaugh was right that the Cornhuskers were lined up illegally on their first touchdown.

“It was an illegal formation from what I saw on the field,” he said. “I was wondering, who were they putting on the line of scrimmage when they had five in the backfield? They told me the guy they put on the line of scrimmage … I said, well he released on a pass. That’s the way I saw it.

“It was either illegal that he was not on the line of scrimmage, or if that’s who they put the No. 3 receiver on the line of scrimmage, he can’t release downfield on a pass.”

They also ruled Haskins down a yard short on an obvious first down in the first half that he’d picked up by three yards. Harbaugh had to beg for a review.

“I’ve never seen one spotted nine feet short of the spot. That was the first time I’ve seen that,” he said. “Maybe that was … he’s incredible in terms of the way he keeps his balance, so maybe they just weren’t even believing it or seeing it. But I just challenged it … I know that spot was way short. I finally was able to get him to blow the whistle to challenge it.”

• Moody has been as clutch as any Michigan kicker in recent memory. His two, fourth quarter kicks under intense pressure were clutch.

“The Northville kid,” Harbaugh said with a grin. “It’s been the confidence, the preparation. Brad Robbins is a huge part of it. Not just because he’s the holder, but his just mental fortitude and positive daily infusion on our entire team, especially that snap, hold, kick battery. He’s as rock solid a leader as I’ve ever been around. He’s huge with that.

“Moody’s just a straight calm, cool, collected kind of guy. [Snapper] William Wagner, he’s the same way. All three of those guys are just kind of the ice water in the veins analogy.”

• Michigan finished with an impressive 204 yards rushing, and not a single yard lost by the backs despite shuffling the guards.

“The toughness. The grit … Chuck Filiaga played both guards tonight. Karsen Barnhart came in, had an amazing game,” Harbaugh said. “He played both guards. Reece Atteberry. I think we had five guards play in the game, and not a single negative yard rushing by any of our running backs. Incredible run by Hassan Haskins …”

One negative — bringing McCarthy in for an obvious read option play and a seven-yard loss that made Moody’s kick 38 yards from the right hash. Even a run up the middle makes it a 20-something yard kick in the middle of the field.

Harbaugh was asked if maybe Moody wanted the left hash, but he admitted they were just trying to get a first down. That could have been a huge mistake if not for Moody’s heroics.

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