'We wanted it bad': Michigan mashes Nebraska in B1G opener
Ann Arbor — Michigan threw a knockout punch against Nebraska in the first half — the Wolverines said it was delivered even earlier than that if they were correctly reading the Cornhuskers’ body language — but the second half had to be played because, well, those are the rules.
No. 19 Michigan pummeled Nebraska, 56-10, in the Big Ten opener Saturday at Michigan Stadium by using three touchdowns from fullback Ben Mason, a punt return for a touchdown and a 50-yard field goal. It was the third straight game the Wolverines scored 45 or more points and the second time in three games they’ve been able to give backups valuable playing time.
Michigan, which has won 12 of their last 13 Big Ten openers, had 491 yards of offense, to Nebraska’s 132. Michigan (3-1, 1-0) heads to Northwestern next week.
Perhaps coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t call off the scoring dogs because he recalled Nebraska coach Scott Frost’s comments from two seasons ago when he was coach at UCF. Michigan won that game, 51-14, but Frost said it was “obvious” they had outhit the Wolverines. Harbaugh had objected to that commentary saying Michigan had taken care of business “physically.”
There also is some history with Frost that goes back even further to the 1997 season when Michigan and Nebraska, the team Frost quarterbacked, were both undefeated. Michigan players believe Frost lobbied voters because coach Tom Osborne was retiring. Nebraska earned the national title from the coaches’ poll, while Michigan earned the Associated Press national title.
Harbaugh said after the game he didn’t remember those comments, but the players said defensive coordinator Don Brown reminded them of the “outhit” remarks before they took the field.
Michigan went up 20-0 with just more than three minutes left in the first quarter, but it was even earlier when the Wolverines sensed the Cornhuskers were checking out. Safety Josh Metellus recorded his second interception in back-to-back games, ending Nebraska’s first possession of the game when he picked off freshman Adrian Martinez. The play before, Martinez connected with Stanley Morgan for a 32-yard gain on a third-and-9.
“After the first series, we went back out there, we just knew they wanted to go back,” Metellus said. “You could just see it in their eyes. It’s not like anything I could put into words. You just tell by the way the receiver is running his route or the way you get blocked or the type of passion they’re playing with. We just sensed that they didn’t have, so we just used that to our advantage.”
Defensive end Chase Winovich, who had one of four sacks on Martinez, like Metellus, said the Cornhuskers looked defeated very early in the game.
“After the first series after we scored the touchdown, it just seemed like they didn’t really want to be out there at some points,” Winovich said. “I know that’s going to come off as very controversial but at some points, I don’t know.
“You just feel it. There’s something about this game, there’s an energy to it you look across at the person across from you and whether it’s their play calling, how they operate, how they move about, I just didn’t feel like they wanted it as bad as we did. We wanted it bad, so I don’t blame them.”
Nebraska had 17 yards of offense in the first half and averaged 2.4 yards a play for the game. The Cornhuskers were 3 of 13 on third down. Michigan averaged 6.5 yards a play, was 7 of 15 on third down and 1 of 2 on fourth down.
Winovich said once they detected the Cornhuskers wilting, the Wolverines were more than willing to pounce.
“It’s pedal to the metal. It’s a great feeling,” Winovich said. “We smell blood, we feed off that and we keep rolling. You saw it in the Notre Dame game when we started picking it up. It was easy once we got to that point. That’s something to strive for. Keep getting to that position fast as possible.”
Lead tailback Karan Higdon, who missed last week’s game while nursing an injury, sparked the 39-0 first-half lead with 136 yards on 12 carries and scored a touchdown, but Mason made the most of his 18 yards with three rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Shea Patterson was steady guiding the offensive ship and finished 15-of-22 for 120 yards with a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Gentry
Quinn Nordin had field goals of 50 and 38 yards and Ronnie Bell caught a 56-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey.
Higdon was back but running back Chris Evans, who was injured against SMU last week, did not play. That made room for Mason to play a bigger role as well as Tru Wilson, the No. 3 running back who had six carries for 43 yards.
“It was really the first time you got to see me as a single back,” Mason said. “I really try to bring the same mindset to every single game. Just come in, attack people and do the best that I can.”
The one glaring flaw was Khaleke Hudson’s second targeting call in two games. He missed the first half against Nebraska and played the second half when he was ejected late in the fourth quarter for targeting. He will miss the first half of next week’s game at Northwestern.
It’s hard to say Michigan built a commanding lead in the second half when Donovan Peoples-Jones scored on a 60-yard punt return to make it 46-0, because the Wolverines were already in complete control. But it was a stunning play that highlighted Michigan’s overall play on offense, defense and special teams.
Peoples-Jones headed down the right sideline, cut left, made a spin move, took off toward the left side of the end zone and somersaulted into the end zone. It was the sophomore’s second punt return for a score.
You know it’s a big first half when the only negative was a missed extra point. The Wolverines built a gaudy lead on 305 yards while holding the Cornhuskers to 17 yards (Martinez took four sacks for 41 yards).
Michigan’s offensive linemen seemed to take personally Brown’s reminder of Frost’s out-hitting comments from two years ago. The line got better push than it had in the previous three games.
“We ran the ball well, protected the passer extremely well and did a good job controlling the line of scrimmage,” Harbaugh said. “In all phases I thought the offensive line played extremely well, maybe their best game.”