Mailbag: Who Would Be Nebraska's Best New Rival?
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Last Time Nebraska Met Michigan, Frost Said the Huskers Weren’t Ready; Are They Now?

July 20, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffalo, and Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Northwestern. Michigan is up next.

The Boring Info

Time: A kick time and a TV designation for the Oct. 9 meeting at Memorial Stadium is still to be determined. Notable games that weekend include: Oklahoma-Texas, Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Texas A&M, Penn State-Iowa, and Utah-USC. 

Line: No line has been set yet. FPI gives the Huskers a 47.5% chance to win. SP+ would make the Wolverines a 1.3-point favorite on a neutral field. 

Record: Michigan went 2-4 last season, its worst record in a season since 2008. 

Series history: The Wolverines have the edge in the all-time series, leading 5-4-1. This will be the fifth meeting between the two teams since Nebraska joined the conference in 2011. They played each other in each of Nebraska’s first three years as a member—NU won two of those games—but have only played one time since. 

What This One Means

 Both coaches should want this one badly.

From 2015 to 2019, Michigan’s defense ranked 10th, third, fifth, ninth, and 11th in SP+ rankings. That side of the ball has been a talent factory for the NFL and a unit that has given the Big Ten headaches. The floor for the Wolverines under Jim Harbaugh’s tenure has been rather high because of that fact, even while the offense has struggled to find a constant at quarterback. 

Don Brown was something of an institution at Michigan, serving as the defensive coordinator from 2016 on after Harbaugh hired him away from Boston College. His last year at BC, Brown was named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year, and he was twice a finalist for the Broyles Award at Michigan, given to the top assistant in the country. 

A strong run defense, a heavy-blitz scheme, and coverages that would test quarterbacks’ decision-making were hallmarks. Though hurt for the game, it was a test Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez failed in 2018, the only other time a Harbaugh-led Michigan team has faced the Huskers. Martinez had an interception and a 1.5 yards-per-pass average that day. Nebraska lost 56-10 and trailed 39-0 at the halftime break. 

Things changed in 2020. Teams had answers for Brown’s questions. Michigan’s defense ranked 54th in yards per play allowed, 55th against the run (yards per carry), and 101st in third-down efficiency. In Brown’s first two years, the Wolverines averaged nine tackles for loss per game. In 2020, they averaged four. 

The Wolverines gave up 35 a game and the team went 2-4. It was likely a blessing the annual meeting with Ohio State was canceled; the lasting impression of the team could have been a 50-point loss rather than a 10-point one. 

Harbaugh fired Brown and replaced him with Mike Macdonald, a defensive coach on his brother’s staff with the Baltimore Ravens. 

The argument can be made Michigan underachieved defensively given the talent, as Macdonald enters with something of an expectation that he can return the level of play to what it was pre-2020 fairly quickly, or at least close to it. 

Michigan has a defensive end in Aidan Hutchinson who draft experts think could be a top-10 pick next year. An injury cost him the 2020 season, but a somewhat-unexpected return has UM fans excited for what the fifth-year junior can do in a new scheme with a clean bill of health. He’s got the profile to be the best player on the defense, a guy that could make things easier for others. 

Behind him are blue-chip prospects. Some of them are unproven, but Michigan has recruited well under Harbaugh. Dax Hill, a former 5-star, is another potential star for the defense.

If not a top-15 unit by SP’s standards like they were, Michigan could conceivably rejoin the top 40 or 50 defenses and feel like progress was made defensively. 

Progress as a team though won’t feel real unless the offense looks the part too. A lot of the Harbaugh angst has been rooted in the fact the former standout quarterback hasn’t been able to find the right piece at quarterback yet in his Michigan tenure. Before this year, there was a question as to whether Harbaugh could even recruit the position properly. 

J.J. McCarthy can answer that. Maybe not this year, but McCarthy brings with him a tremendous resume—5-star quarterback prospect from the 2021 class, the fourth-ranked quarterback in the country by 247Sports, and the 24th-ranked player overall. 

He’s got functional athleticism and tremendous arm talent. He might be the most talented quarterback on the roster.

But he’s in a three-way battle this fall for the starting gig. McCarthy, because he’s a first-year player, might find himself sitting at No. 3. 

Cade McNamara, in last year’s quarterback rotation with the departed Joe Milton, exited spring ball as the leader in the clubhouse. He completed 60% of his passes with five touchdowns and no picks in spot duty. McNamara led the comeback win over Rutgers late in the year. 

“Cade is a guy who, I think for everything that people are going to say to criticize him, is going to end up playing 10 years in the NFL,” new QB coach Matt Weiss said on a podcast this spring. “You can say he’s not enough of this or enough of that, but at the end of the day, he’s very smart, he makes great decisions, he processes things very fast and his accuracy and arm strength are more than enough to win with.”

That’s. . . an interesting comment about a team’s likely starting quarterback. Perhaps it is met with applause because it doesn’t go overboard in its praise of a still-somewhat-unproven player, or maybe some consternation that a coach is acknowledging a player has pieces missing and can do just enough to win. 

Just enough isn’t usually good enough over in the East, and the quarterback being “just OK” is what has landed Harbaugh in this land of ever-warm seats. 

The wild card is Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. He’s a gunslinger from one of the gun-slingingest teams in college football of late, but he’s got more experience at the Power Five level than either of his counterparts. Bowman has 5,260 yards in his career, 30 touchdowns (with 17 picks), and a career 67% completion rate. He hasn’t won much, but he can spin the ball and he played in the kind of fast-paced system offensive coordinator Josh Gattis promised when he arrived in Ann Arbor.

Running back should be a position of strength, as should the offensive line. The receiving corps has a few interesting options and a vet in Ronnie Bell. If the defense shows 2020 was a blip on the radar, it’ll all come down to the quarterback. Again. 

And that’ll make this meeting interesting. Scott Frost said his UCF Knights out-hit the Wolverines in a 51-14 loss in 2016. The Wolverines held onto that little soundbite for two years, and then sucker-punched the Frost-led Scarlet and Cream until they were black and blue. 

Michigan defenders went off in the postgame. “It just seemed like they really didn’t want to be out there at some points,” said former Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. One of the Wolverine linemen said they didn’t forget Frost’s comments from 2016, and former linebacker Devin Bush said “we wanted to make a statement.”

The game had Frost talking after about finding guys who loved football. He said it was rock bottom for the program. 

“We’re not ready to beat a team like this yet,” Frost said. “But, the key word is yet.”

Michigan might not be what it was then, and Nebraska surely hopes it’s well beyond what it was. Perhaps this meeting comes down to which offense can make fewer mistakes. Maybe Nebraska wants to exact some revenge. Michigan should want to show last year was not the start of a downward trend.

The Guy to Know

Hassan Haskins is going to Indianapolis this week to represent the Wolverines at Big Ten Media Days. Expect the running back to be featured in 2020. The 6-foot-1 senior has 182 carries in the last two years with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. With the offseason transfer of Zach Charbonnet and the graduation of Chris Evans, the rotation should be simplified; it’s Haskins’ job. 

The Number to Know

Michigan gave up touchdowns on 20 of the 27 defensive trips to the red zone last season, a clip (74.1%) that ranked 114th nationally. Combined with their third-down struggles, that group will have to stiffen in high-yield situations to get back to where it has been. 

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