LINCOLN, Neb. — Seven days after the Michigan football team reveled in the Wisconsin tradition of dancing to “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarter, the Wolverines again rocked and rolled to an opponent’s theme song. Lights flashed, cell phones glowed and music blared as coach Jim Harbaugh’s team soaked in the energy of “Thunderstruck” by ACDC and beckoned Nebraska toward the middle of the field, with both sets of players taunting each other.
Had Michigan wilted during the ensuing 15 minutes as its double-digit lead eroded, the between-quarter antics would have looked sophomoric. But this Michigan team is less fallible than the groups Jim Harbaugh has trotted onto the field in recent years. These Wolverines believe in themselves as much as they believe in Harbaugh’s new crop of coaches.
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Faced with their first deficit of the season late in the third quarter, these Wolverines looked within themselves to summon an incredible fourth quarter. Michigan scored on three consecutive drives in the final 11 minutes and generated a game-changing takeaway as Harbaugh’s club refused to yield. Behind a resurgent running game that generated 101 rushing yards in the fourth quarter alone, the Wolverines kept their perfect season alive with a 32-29 victory.
McNamara tosses first INT
So much of Michigan’s success prior to Saturday was the byproduct of ball security. Through five weeks — and five wins — the starting offense never lost a fumble and never tossed an interception. The lone blemish on the stat sheet came late in the win over Wisconsin — long after the game had been decided — when fourth-string quarterback Alan Bowman turned it over on a meaningless pass.
The streak snapped late in the third quarter Saturday when McNamara, who had yet to throw an interception in his Michigan career, attempted to rifle the ball to tight end Erick All over the middle of the field. The throw was inaccurate, the coverage good enough and safety Deontai Williams snatched it out of the air as Memorial Stadium roared.
With the ball on U-M’s 13 following the turnover, Nebraska needed just a single play to double Michigan’s misery: The ensuing pass from Martinez to wide receiver Levi Falck, who leaked out of the formation for an easy score, gave the Wolverines their first deficit of the season. Nebraska stormed in front, 22-19, in the waning seconds of the third.
McNamara provided an immediate answer that surely captured some respect. From his own 25, McNamara orchestrated a flawless 10-play, 75-yard drive that quieted a stadium of more than 87,000 fans. Corum raced 29 yards around the left side of the line of scrimmage for the go-ahead score and then jeered at the Nebraska fans behind the end zone as the Wolverines reclaimed the lead.
Defense carries Michigan early
Perhaps the most impressive narrative from Michigan’s dream-like start to the season is the seismic defensive improvement under first-time coordinator Mike Macdonald, who was plucked by coach Jim Harbaugh from the Baltimore Ravens.
The Wolverines appear reinvigorated as stars Aidan Hutchinson and Daxton Hill anchor a unit exceeding even the most optimistic expectations — especially considering the number of holdovers in the secondary, which was arguably the worst position group last season. Entering Saturday, Michigan ranked seventh in the country in scoring defense, 15th in passing defense and 14th in total defense while allowing only three passing plays of 30 yards or more.
Things began inauspiciously for Macdonald’s unit Saturday when Nebraska gained 43 yards on a screen pass and 24 more on a fade down the right sideline to claw inside the 10. But as Michigan’s defense has done all season, the Wolverines bent without breaking. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins stuffed mobile quarterback Adrian Martinez on a third-down carry up the middle before inside linebacker Josh Ross strung out another carry by Martinez on fourth down to give the ball back to U-M’s offense.
One of the few criticisms of Macdonald’s defense during the first few games of the season was the inability to generate takeaways, a critique the Wolverines have upended in recent weeks. Nickel back Daxton Hill notched his second interception in as many weeks when he made a leaping deflection on a pass intended for tight end Austin Allen over the middle. The ball seemed to float in mid-air, begging for anyone on the U-M defense to intercept it, and Hill obliged when it fell softly into his arms as he lay on his back.
Hill’s interception gave a sputtering Michigan offense excellent field position at the Nebraska 35. The Wolverines gained 18 yards before stalling and settling for a field goal from Jake Moody to open the scoring. For the sixth time in six games, the Wolverines scored first.
Complementary football was critical for U-M on a night when the offense moved in fits and starts. Following the field goal, Macdonald’s group forced Nebraska into a three-and-out that kept momentum tilted in Michigan’s favor and led to quarterback Cade McNamara’s best drive of the first half. An array of short passes chipped away at the Cornhuskers for gains of 9, 5, 5 and 6 yards, lulling them to sleep before a 48-yard heave from McNamara to wide receiver Mike Sainristil, whose diving catch gave the Wolverines first and goal.
Once again, the Wolverines settled for a field goal after center Andrew Vastardis stepped on McNamara’s foot to bring him down on third-and-goal.
Even Michigan’s only touchdown of the first half was the result of a defensive surge. Outside linebacker David Ojabo sacked Martinez as the quarterback stepped up in the pocket on third-and-10 to give the Wolverines one more chance with 1:40 remaining. A 26-yard run from Blake Corum and a questionable pass interference penalty against Nebraska moved U-M into range for a short touchdown run by tailback Hassan Haskins. Michigan took a 13-0 lead into the break.
This story will be updated.
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