Final take: Michigan shows Huskers just how far they have to go
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - I thought I'd experienced rock bottom for Nebraska football.
I was the sideline reporter for every game during the 2007 season. I was in Norman in 2004 and 2008, Boulder in 2001, Pasadena for the 2002 Rose Bowl, Lubbock in 2004 and State College in 2017. I've seen them all, and it's hard for me to find a lower moment over the last 20 years than Saturday.
Nebraska was outclassed by Michigan, and it was a sobering reminder of how far things have fallen. Like everyone, I was optimistic that this team had enough pieces to be competitive and make a bowl game in 2018.
After Saturday, it's hard to see this season getting back on track knowing trips to Madison, Columbus and Iowa City still loom on the schedule.
And let me preface, I still fully believe Scott Frost is the right guy for this job and will get things going at Nebraska, but this job is going to be much harder than any of us even realized.
"I told them I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom right here," Frost said after Saturday's loss 56-10 loss in Ann Arbor. "I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a game like that. We’ve got to be in every phase. We’re really going to find out who loves football and who loves each other, and who’s going to band together. We get a chance to hit reset next week.
"This is a really good team we played. We get a game we can win next week. We got to find a way to get better. We’re not ready to beat a team like this, yet. The key word to me is 'yet.' I know where it’s going, it certainly isn’t happening as quickly as I would like, but I’m kind of excited because it’s not going to get worse than this. It’s only up from here."
Frost inherited a 0-12 team at UCF, but the difference there was the competition. Central Florida had talent on their roster that just needed to be reassembled. At Nebraska, this is the Big Ten. When you play established programs like Michigan, Wisconsin and
Ohio State, you can't make up years of lost ground in one off-season. It takes years, and since Frank Solich was fired in 2003, the Huskers have not had a consistent program identity.
"There’s a lot of things that need to get fixed," Frost said on the building process and why he believes it will eventually turn the corner. "Our execution, our strength and conditioning, our nutrition, our recruiting. There’s a lot of things are walk-on program, there’s a lot of things we’ve talked about. Those things don’t happen overnight.
"I think it was pretty clear; we’re not ready to compete against a team like that. Coach (Jim) Harbaugh is doing a great job. He’s been here long enough to get his guys and get it installed. We’re going to keep fighting. I know where it’s going to lead."
It's not going to be easy for Nebraska fans to watch the rest of this season. Patience does not exist in today's world, but it's going to have to as Frost builds his program culture.
"I knew we had a lot of work to do," Frost said. "We’re not giving up, and we’re going to get this thing right. They brought us in here to get it right, and we’re going to get it right. We knew it was a big job. There was just so much that needed to be fixed and changed. It doesn’t show up when you’re playing teams that aren’t all the way there. Michigan, they’re a Top-25 team. I don’t know where they fit in that, but there’s no question about that. We’re not there yet."
Now on to the grade out...
What I saw on Saturday
***I don't know if I can ever remember a game where Nebraska pulled their quarterback at halftime because of what the scoreboard said. That's a very tough call for any coach to make, but the way Michigan was hitting Adrian Martinez, I agree with the decision. They need Martinez for the final nine games this season if they want to have any kind of chance.
However, even that didn't work out for Nebraska. On the first play, Andrew Bunch was in, he got hurt. Luckily for NU Bunch was able to come back in.
***Over the last three games the Huskers have had first-half deficits of 14-0, 17-0 and 39-0. I can't imagine there's another team in college football that can say that.
The game was doomed from the start. Martinez missed a wide open JD Spielman that probably would've went for a touchdown. Instead, it was tipped by Rashan Gary and intercepted by Michigan. From there, the Wolverines got a 46-yard run from running back Karan Higdon on their second play from scrimmage, and the stage was set for Saturday's beat down in the Big House. Higdon had 92 yards on his first three carries.
***The special teams woes continue. Between the Tyjon Lindsey fumble and allowing a 60-yard return for a score, this unit continues to play as poor as any.
***I thought it was interesting seeing former Husker and NFL linebacker Scott Shanle's take about how Nebraska was defending Michigan's heavy run sets. Shanle was critical of NU using safeties in the box to go against Jim Harbaugh's heavy run sets.
***We knew Nebraska's offensive line didn't play well last week, but Saturday magnified their deficiencies even more. If they can't consistently protect and get a push-up front, we are going to see more results like Saturday.
***Athletic Director Bill Moos sat in row two of the press box with his wife Kendra for nearly the entire second half. My guess is he had seen enough, and just wanted to watch the game in silence.
***Props to Nebraska fans for their support and coming out to Ann Arbor on Saturday. I estimate there were around 8,000 wearing red in the stadium, and most of them stayed the entire time.
The final grades: Nebraska at Michigan
Rushing offense: F
Nebraska generated absolutely no rushing offense when it mattered in this game. Michigan dominated the line of scrimmage and never let the Huskers get the perimeter when they ran outside. The longest run by one of Nebraska's three main running backs on Saturday was just 6 yards. Devine Ozigbo, Maurice Washington and Greg Bell had a combined 10 yards on 15 carries. That might be the worst stat line I've seen from NU's running backs in recent history.
Passing offense: F
The passing offense resulted in an interception on the first possession and a safety right before halftime. The protection was also not consistent, as the Wolverines were consistently in the backfield. Even when they weren't blitzing, their corners locked down the Huskers receivers. On seven completions the Huskers had just 22 yards of passing from Adrain Martinez.
Rushing defense: F
Thank you, may I have another. Jim Harbaugh gave the Blackshirts an old-fashioned Big Ten beating on Saturday. When the Wolverines wanted to run, they made it look easy. They executed up front, and they were the more physical team at the line of scrimmage by a wide margin. This was probably the most disheartening part of the game that the Huskers couldn't match the Wolverines physicality. Michigan finished with 285 yards rushing on 45 attempts.
Passing defense: F
Michigan didn't need to pass on Saturday, but when they were forced to, they made nearly every third down throw. NU's pass rush was also not able to get home when they dialed up pressure. Shea Patterson finished an efficient 15-of-22.
Special teams: F
Just when you thought Nebraska's special teams couldn't get any worse this season, they hit rock bottom on Saturday. The Huskers fumbled a punt that never should've been fielded, they gave up a punt return for a touchdown and had multiple penalties on special teams. They also were forced to fair catch nearly every kickoff on Saturday because they didn't have the ability to cross the 25-yard line. When they did run it out, they got nowhere near the 25.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Tuesday's at 7 pm.