Wojo: Riled-up Michigan flattens flailing Nebraska
Ann Arbor — We had an inkling the Wolverines were a little frosty about Nebraska and its first-year head coach. But my goodness, this was downright cruel.
It’s hard to tell if this was more illuminating for Michigan and its offensive line, or simply humiliating for the Cornhuskers, who didn’t seem interested in tackling, or blocking, or competing. Whatever it was, the domination was astounding in its completeness.
The Wolverines pummeled Nebraska 56-10 Saturday, punishing the Cornhuskers for sins of the past and present. Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t admit it but his players did — this was a pounding with a purpose.
The Wolverines wanted to make a point about their oft-questioned offensive line and running game, and they punched early and never stopped. They opened holes so big for Karan Higdon, he rushed for 136 yards on a mere 12 carries. On his 44-yard touchdown run, the Cornhuskers practically escorted him to the end zone.
Yes, Nebraska (0-3) is awful right now, and has lost seven straight. But Michigan (3-1) played with impressive physical force, rushing for 285 yards and holding the Cornhuskers to 39.
“It’s a statement game, and there’s more to come,” Higdon said. “I think other people that we play will watch this film and say, wow, those guys upfront are bringing it.”
The Wolverines still have to prove they can bring it when tougher opponents show up, but for the Big Ten opener, the wounded Cornhuskers provided the perfect punching bag. Nebraska has major problems under Scott Frost, the prodigal son who came home to resurrect a wrecked program. Not as easy as it looks, huh? Issues were evident after the Cornhuskers lost to Troy last week, when Frost questioned whether players were all aboard with the new program. It was evident during the week, when players questioned whether the entire team was “buying in.”
And it was evident from the opening snap Saturday, as Michigan mercilessly attacked. The last time Frost stood on the Michigan Stadium sideline, he was the Central Florida coach two years ago. After Michigan beat UCF 51-14 that day, Frost insisted his team “out-hit” the Wolverines and stood up to them physically.
Of course, Frost is never shy about airing his opinion. He was the quarterback of the 1997 Nebraska team that split the national title with Michigan, and he unabashedly campaigned for a share of the prize. Last season, he led UCF to a 13-0 record, and wasn’t pleased the Knights got no consideration for the playoff.
Harbaugh said he didn’t remember the “out-hit” line, but the players sure did. Defensive coordinator Don Brown brought the comments up in meetings, and then right before the game, the offensive line got riled up by reminding themselves.
“We took that to heart,” offensive tackle Jon Runyan said. “We didn’t forget the coach’s comments. All week, coach Harbaugh, (offensive line coach Ed) Warinner talked about out-toughing them, and that’s what we did.”
They did it with ruthless efficiency, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions, and the message was clear. Whether it was a feisty rebuttal to past comments, or just a present-day necessity, the Wolverines pounded. It was no coincidence 254-pound fullback Ben Mason was a focal point, scoring touchdowns on runs of 1, 1 and 4 yards. The sophomore now has 12 career carries, six for touchdowns.
Michigan knew it could run against Nebraska’s 3-4 front, and Mason’s power drives into the end zone were done with emphasis, not empathy. The Cornhuskers caved pretty quickly, so it’s difficult to know exactly what it all means. It could be more a statement on Nebraska’s disarray than Michigan’s revival.
But you certainly can say the Wolverines’ offensive line is getting better, and the running game was so dominant, Shea Patterson didn’t have to do much — 15-for-22 for 120 yards. The lopsidedness was borderline absurd. At halftime, Michigan led 39-0 and had outgained Nebraska 305-17. Even fast-food giant Wendy’s jumped in, sending this Tweet on its official account: “Might need a Scott Frosty to ice down the beating Nebraska is taking."
Frost or Frosty, it didn’t really matter. The Cornhuskers melted.
“It seemed like they didn’t really want to be out there at some points,” said Chase Winovich, who notched one of Michigan’s four sacks. “I know that’s gonna come off as very controversial. … I just didn’t feel like they wanted it as bad as we did. And we wanted it bad, so I don’t blame them.”
Setting the tone
The difference was apparent almost immediately. Did the Wolverines detect they broke Nebraska’s spirit early?
“Most definitely,” Higdon said. “That was one thing we talked about, just bringing it to them, unleashing everything all at once. We did that, and those guys didn’t like it. I mean, I don’t think you’d like to be punched in the face either. … We don’t look back, but I think (Frost) can eat his words.”
Harbaugh insisted he didn’t recall Frost’s words until asked in the postgame news conference. And if he did harbor any ill will, it wasn’t noticeable afterward, as he and Frost shook hands and exchanged back slaps.
Harbaugh wasn’t interested in digging back, but pushing forward. He lauded his offensive line’s improvement, then got to say something he loves to say.
“I thought our team played very physical in all phases, offensively, defensively, special teams,” Harbaugh said. “It showed up in a lot of the one-on-one matchups, goal-line, short-yardage.”
Frost spent more time lamenting the state of his team, and acknowledging how badly it was beaten. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez played with a brace on his injured right knee, but he was battered into submission, finally pulled in the second half.
Nebraska finished with almost as many penalty yards (79) as passing yards (93), and Frost became the first Nebraska coach to start 0-3 since good ol’ Potsy Clark back in 1945.
“Physically, we got whipped,” Frost said. “I think it was pretty clear, we’re not ready to compete against a team like that. Coach Harbaugh has done a great job, he’s been here long enough to get his guys and get it installed. But we’re going to keep fighting.”
Michigan took the fight right to them and never relented. Again, we’ll see where this leads when the road gets rougher, but it’s an encouraging sign for the Wolverines. Getting mad is fine, hitting back is better.