There is little to separate Michigan, now 6-0, and Nebraska, now 3-4.
That’s my read, at least. You have to factor in home field advantage. And you have to give the Wolverines credit. They won more plays—44.4% to 39.7%–and the turnover battle, but lost the yards per play battle, 5.7 to 7.2, while running 21 more plays.
“They’re a damn good football team,” Scott Frost said, “and so are we.”
It was close enough that the real difference was probably this: Michigan converted all seven of its scoring opportunities—those drives that include a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line—and the Huskers converted four of five.
Nebraska did more with its five opportunities, 5.8 points per trip to 4.6, but quantity matters, too.
Needing to pick up a vital third-and-1 with the game tied in the fourth quarter, the Huskers turned where they should turn—Adrian Martinez. He picked it up, but fumbled while fighting for more yards, which has been the double-edged sword with Nebraska’s best weapon. He’ll cut so easy you’ll be amazed, but if you’re not careful it’s very easy to cut yourself.
“I’m not going to stand up here and make excuses for myself, can’t be careless with the football,” Martinez said. “I thought the play was over. I’m standing as I’m standing here now, and I thought it was done.”
None of which is to put this on Martinez. He was excellent in the second half––he was 13-for-17 with three touchdowns and added another rushing––after the Huskers punted, sometimes literally, on much of the first half. Nebraska appeared to know it couldn’t just drop back against a fearsome Michigan pass rush, and so it didn’t.
It tried to run, and averaged 2.3 yards per carry on its first four drives. Down 13-0 with one drive left in the first half, Nebraska attempted to throw on five straight plays and that’s when you knew Nebraska knew it had to open things up.
Once the Huskers did, things got better. They got so good that you can, again, point to one key mistake—or the decision not to kick a field goal on the first drive in a game in which Nebraska lost by three—and say that’s the difference.
But the broader view should be that Nebraska played even with No. 9 Michigan. In a vacuum, that looks pretty good
In context, it stings like hell. One of these days, Nebraska has to win one of these, right? By my informal count, the Huskers have lost seven games they should’ve won most of the time based on the stats. Frost is 15-24 as Nebraska’s head coach, and 22-17, given the context, would look and feel a lot better.
That’s not reality right now, however. At some point, the Huskers need to win a game exactly like this, one in which you don’t have the best of it most of the time, the opponent dominates the first half and Nebraska finds a way to get it done anyway.
That night was not Saturday. Close, but not tonight. Eventually the Huskers do have to turn that corner and eventually, if you haven’t gotten there already, you have to ask if these kind of failings in one-score games—Nebraska is now 5-21 in such games––are somehow baked in.
In fact, the Wolverines and their head coach, 6-0 and headed for the top five, might be the perfect counterexample for Nebraska’s slow, frustrating progress. Jim Harbaugh coached last year without a contract extension. That’s almost unheard of and most assumed he’d leave Michigan for the NFL after a 2-4 season in 2020, but neither side had a ton of options. (https://www.freep.com/story/sports/college/university-michigan/wolverines/2021/01/08/michigan-football-jim-harbaugh-contract-extension/6601787002/) Harbaugh restructured his deal, taking a significant pay cut, and the Michigan brass signed off on it.
It made for a high-stakes set up in 2021, the kind the national media note, and not much was expected of the Wolverines. The annual de facto poll of conference media picked Michigan to finish fourth behind Indiana. (https://www.cleveland.com/osu/2021/07/ohio-state-football-voted-unanimous-2021-big-ten-favorite-in-clevelandcom-preseason-poll.html)
Yet here Harbaugh’s team sits, 6-0, as something of a referendum on the typical hire-and-fire cycle. The Wolverines have run, literally, to six wins by playing really solid football. That’s what it amounts to—Michigan has an identity, unsexy as it may be, and halfway through the 2021 season it’s executing it.
Nebraska, hoping for the best, tried to avoid the Wolverines’ strengths for 30 minutes before having no option but to be itself. And it was, in all of good ways and bad as it turned out.
But nothing from this game should change your opinion of how “good” Nebraska is here in 2021. It’s good. It lost to a top-10 team in familiar ways and there are key decisions to point to if you’re strictly about the bottom line—win or lose. Eventually, that will be Frost and Nebraska’s bottom line, too.
The Huskers are closer now, however, to winning these kind of games than they ever have been under this staff.
“I’m having a lot of fun coaching these guys this year,” Frost said. “I’m hurting for them, but I’m so happy for them and proud of how far they’ve come.”
That’s a luxury afforded a coach. For them, it’s only about improving. Your mileage may vary after another loss.
Does it still sting? Absolutely. But if you’re not of the “wake me up when Nebraska’s good again” tribe, if you’re actually interested in the Huskers’ progress, yet another close loss to another ranked team offered no contradictory evidence.
Michigan will rise in the rankings, as it should, and Nebraska will remain unranked, whispered about as quietly getting better by those that have to have a standout take on any team at any given moment.
Nebraska had a great chance to jump out of that good-or-not-good gray area this week. It didn’t get there on the scoreboard. Almost did, but not quite. Again.
But after a three-point loss to a Michigan team that has, based on the available evidence, seemingly cleared that particularly high hurdle when everyone assumed it never would under its current coach, it’s worth noting that the Wolverines are doing it. Also, how they are doing it.
“We’re a good football team,” Frost said.
It’s easier to believe that now than it has been at any point since 2018.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.