From multiple early fourth down attempts, to actual creativity on defense, to a willingness to utilize a second quarterback intelligently, this does not feel like the Jim Harbaugh of recent years. There are still talent deficiencies on the roster, and the opponents to date are weaker than the opponents to come, but Michigan is playing like a top-10 team and has earned the right to shed the weight of its past.
There are probably losses ahead, and this season may still end in disappointment, but right now the Wolverines are nothing like what Harbaugh has featured in recent years. The offense is maximizing its strengths and minimizing its weaknesses, and the defense is outproducing the sum of its parts. There will need to be improvement in some key areas, but even without that growth, games like that on Saturday are still winnable.
Nebraska should not be overlooked; the Cornhuskers rank 22nd per S&P+ and offer the biggest test to date to the Michigan defense. That being said, anything short of a win in Lincoln would be a huge disappointment. If the visitors take care of their job, they will be heading into their bye 6-0 with plenty of very large goals sitting in front of them.
No. 9 Michigan Wolverines (5-0, 2-0) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-3, 1-2)
Date: Saturday, October 9
Time: 7:30 pm ET
Location: Lincoln, NE
While 112 rushing yards may not seem incredible on the surface, the Michigan run game continued its impressive start to the season against the highly stingy Wisconsin defense. The Nebraska defensive front should not be quite at this level, but both Michigan State and Northwestern failed to pass 100 total yards on the ground, so this could be another battle.
The Blake Corum hype settled down a bit, but this weekend is a good chance for him to make a statement. Oklahoma averaged 5.5 yards a carry last month and that is closer to where Michigan needs to be. The identity of this team remains with the offensive line and the run game, so a strong performance on the ground is important.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh surprisingly started bringing J.J. McCarthy into the game last weekend while it was still competitive. His role was mostly reduced to running read options — an area where Cade McNamara is clearly incapable — but there is plenty of reason to let him actually run the offense a bit as well. Depending on how the game progresses, do not be surprised to see him increase his snap count heading into the bye. While McNamara has done enough to keep the job, this team would be foolish to not consider the bigger challenges that lie ahead.
The only thing that should give the Wolverines pause on Saturday is Adrian Martinez and the ever-terrifying idea of a mobile quarterback. Martinez has a solid 66.7 percent completion rate to begin the year, but it is his nine rushing touchdowns that causes concern. The Michigan defense is better suited to handle these threats this year with the switch to zone and work by the edge players. Keeping Martinez in the pocket is probably the most important factor in Lincoln.
McNamara had some really solid throws downfield last week, favoring Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson while also involving players like Erick All. The next step for him is to shore up his intermediate accuracy, where he continues to miss players over the middle and past the sticks. He can make big throws, does not turn the ball over, and runs the offense very well, but Michigan will not meet its ceiling if McNamara cannot figure out how to clean up this aspect of his game.
Again, this game comes down to the performance of Martinez. The read option is a legitimate problem, and while he does have the arm to make some throws, his goal is to spread the defense out and make plays with his feet. The Wolverines defensive line has been improving by the week, but this will be another huge test. The Nebraska offense looks much different than the Wisconsin offense, though the goal of blowing things up at the line remains exactly the same.