Huskers weren’t ‘ready to compete’ with a team like Michigan
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Stanley Morgan paced the sideline. Mick Stoltenberg frowned in silence. A few Husker defensive linemen chatted on the bench, paying little attention to the remains of Nebraska’s 56-10 loss to Michigan even as NU finally, futilely drove for its only touchdown of the game.
NU players are used to these kinds of beatings. Veterans, really. Eight times since 2014 Nebraska has lost by at least three touchdowns, and Saturday’s 46-point loss wasn’t even the worst of them.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost, firm and focused in his postgame comments, said he didn’t know how many times he’d ever been part of a game like this, where a team trails 39-0 at halftime and is outgained by 359 yards overall. He also said he “honestly” believed Saturday would be the low point for his program. A “watershed” moment. Rock bottom at the Big House.
But this is Frost’s first drag though the Big Ten mud. More pertinent: Do his players believe him?
“This is the bottom of the pool,” guard Jerald Foster said. “When you finally touch your feet on the ground, and when you’re at that point, you’re finally able to push off.”
“It’s not a question if it will be or not,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “It has to be.”
If this is bottom, it’s lower-circle-of-Hades material, a loss with all the ugliest, old, ghostly mistakes — porous line play, a gashed run defense, special teams penalties, missed tackles — on garish display for Frost, the man hired to exorcise these demons.
Because football isn’t boxing, there are no first-quarter knockouts, which meant, after Nebraska bumbled around for the first 15 minutes, there were 45 more merely confirming what Frost said he saw in a bad Thursday practice.
The Huskers, 0-3 for the first time since 1945, were “missing details” then and not locked in on just how good No. 19 Michigan (3-1, 1-1 Big Ten) really was.
If they were, perhaps the Huskers (0-1 in the Big Ten) would have spared themselves — and the fans in red all over Michigan Stadium — the full indignity of a beating so thorough and demoralizing that, to save the health of true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, Frost pulled him after he spent a half under siege.
“It’s hard to get ourselves going when we dug ourselves deep,” said Martinez, who had 10 yards of total offense for the game.
Yes, NU brought shovels with it down the single tunnel in and out of Michigan Stadium. On Nebraska’s opening drive, Martinez’s second pass the game — tipped at the line — was intercepted by Michigan safety Josh Metellus. Six plays later, UM was in the end zone and ahead 7-0.
“After that first series, when we went back out there, we just knew they wanted to give up,” Metellus said. “You could just see it in their eyes.”
Frost insisted his team kept trying — “If I had a team that didn’t compete, I’d be really worried right now,” he said — but NU’s performance in the first half left that in question.
Michigan ran the ball at will, including a 44-yard touchdown run from Karan Higdon. UM’s defense sacked Martinez four times, pressured him far more often than that and induced an in-game frenzy so complete that Martinez caught his own batted pass — in his own end zone — and flipped it forward, like a hot baked potato, to avoid the oncoming crash.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what to do in that situation when it got batted up, so I kind of tried patting it forward,” Martinez said. “It is what it is.”
It’s a second pass. It’s a penalty. It’s perhaps the oddest self-induced safety you ever see, and it fit right in with a first half so awful that it may have no parallel in modern Husker history.
The 39-0 deficit surpassed the 38-0 hole the Huskers faced against Oklahoma State in 2007. NU gained 56 total yards. Michigan dropped 305. Nebraska had five first downs and two turnovers. And those were just the numbers.
The visuals — of UM’s linemen plastering Nebraska’s defensive front, punt returner Tyjon Lindsey leisurely fielding a bouncing punt that turned into a muff — suggested one of those Pee-Wee mismatches between the select team and neighborhood kids assembled for fodder.
“I think it’s pretty clear we’re not ready to compete against a team like that,” Frost said, complimenting Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s ability to build a program. “He’s been here long enough to get his guys and get it installed.”
Harbaugh wasn’t shy about letting his backup quarterback throw go routes in the fourth quarter, when Dylan McCaffrey hit Ronnie Bell for a 56-yard touchdown. At that point, Michigan led 56-3 and was threatening to surpass Ohio State’s 62-3 win over NU in 2016 and Texas Tech’s 70-10 whipping in 2004.
But Nebraska rallied for a late touchdown behind backup Andrew Bunch, who had hyperextended his knee in the third quarter but returned to play the majority of the second half. By the time former walk-on running back Wyatt Mazour plunged in for his first career touchdown, at least half of the 111,037 fans at Michigan Stadium had left.
Afterward, Frost had a brisk handshake with Harbaugh. He waited on the field, though, for a word with UM defensive coordinator Don Brown, who dismantled NU’s offense in 2018 and put a decent dent in Central Florida’s offense back in 2016, when Michigan beat UCF 51-14. After that game, Frost told reporters he thought his team had outhit the Wolverines — a statement some Michigan players kept in mind.
Frost made no such comment after Saturday’s loss. It wouldn’t have been true. Nebraska looked in perpetual “mayday” mode at Michigan.
“It’s hard to take a positive away from this type of loss,” Martinez said. “We just need to regroup.”
Nebraska players were bullish about regrouping, resetting and moving forward toward Purdue. Just as they were bullish all last week about buying in. And bullish about mastering details after losing to Troy. And bullish, after the loss to Colorado, about building on the promising-but-mistake-prone opening performance.
Barry had an impassioned speech about hoping doubting teammates show their true colors so they can “exit now.” Foster, a captain, was more pragmatic.
“We’re going to learn from it and push forward,” Foster said. “I don’t know exactly what else to say. I guess that’s what you would expect me to say, because it’s the truth. I feel like everybody wants to say things.”
It’s time, Foster said, to do those things.
Not much doing around Husker football on Saturday.