ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The calendar hasn’t yet turned to October, but the Big House on Saturday afternoon quickly became a house of horrors for visiting Nebraska.
Who knows where this Huskers team will be by Halloween, but right now must feel a bit nightmarish for coach Scott Frost's first team.
NU suffered one of the worst defeats in school history at the hands of the No. 19 Wolverines, who wasted little time establishing themselves as the far superior outfit in every phase of a 56-10 victory.
"I thought they competed. Execution, no. Physicality, we got whipped," Frost said afterward. "Those are harder fixes sometimes than competing. If I had a team that didn’t compete, I would be really worried right now, but I thought they competed.
"We missed tackles in the hole. We got pushed around on both sides up front. We couldn’t protect our quarterback. We couldn’t get the one block we needed on a lot of things. We couldn’t come up with catches. We were on our heels the whole day and I give them a lot of credit."
Jim Harbaugh’s team piled up 39 points and held the Huskers to 17 total yards of offense in a first half that goes into the NU record book as the most lopsided in the modern era.
Before the game slid so far out of hand, it appeared Nebraska might actually take an early lead. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez returned to the starting lineup after missing one game with a right knee injury and hit Stanley Morgan for 32 yards on a third-and-9 scramble — the first of many times Martinez was harassed on the afternoon — for an early conversion. Then, he had JD Spielman flash wide open on a slant route that looked as if it could have been a touchdown. Instead, the ball got batted and intercepted at the line of scrimmage.
"It didn’t help," Frost said of the early turnover, NU's sixth first-quarter giveaway of the season. "That’s not a great way to start, but I don’t think it would have mattered today."
Indeed, Michigan scored six plays later.
Then, the Wolverines scored again. And again. And again. And that was just the opening 16 minutes.
Nebraska had no chance running the ball against Michigan. Including four first-half sacks of Martinez, nine of NU’s 13 rushing attempts in the opening 30 minutes went for 2 yards or less. The Wolverines racked up pressure and hits on the Huskers’ freshman signal-caller, ruining even the simplest attempts at moving the ball forward.
"I mean, everything needs to change," Frost said after his offense mustered 132 total yards, including 103 in the fourth quarter with mostly backups on the field for both sides. "I felt great about the game plan coming in, thought we had a lot of good stuff for them, and we couldn’t make any of it work. Give a lot of credit to them, but we couldn’t line up and run our most basic play and get 2 or 3 yards. We were in second-and-8, second-and-9 or second-and-15 every time, and then they brought sub packages in and rushed us and we couldn’t protect and we were on our heels the whole day.
"So, we’re going to keep working, but you keep asking me what needs to be fixed, if there was something I could snap my fingers and fix, it would already be done."
The Wolverines, on the other hand, took whatever they wanted against a Nebraska front seven that said during the week that they knew the weight of a physical game would rest on their shoulders.
Fullback Ben Mason, who came into the game with one career touchdown, had three in the first half. Tailback Karan Higdon rushed 12 times for 136 and another score. Overall, UM averaged 7.3 yards per snap and the Huskers averaged 0.7.
"We had missed tackles there on the first couple of drives that killed us," senior linebacker and captain Luke Gifford said. "I thought we matched them pretty well physically. I don’t know how the defensive line feels, but I didn't feel like we were getting moved all over the place. Obviously, we just have to watch the film and see for sure."
The Wolverines racked up 174 of their 491 total offensive yards in the first 15 minutes and scored 37 points on their first seven possessions.
"A pro-style offense like that, they've got some smoke and mirrors and things going in different directions to mess with your eyes and they’re really good at it," Gifford said.
Added Frost, "We needed to be able to stop their run game to have a chance to stop them. … When they can pick a play and run it and get yards rushing like they did, then the play-actions are going to open up, the boots are going to open up. And they ran it right at us for the first three series."
For the game, Martinez finished 7-of-15 passing for 22 yards and the interception. Frost decided to go with backup Andrew Bunch after halftime — he said afterward purely to protect Martinez — but Bunch momentarily had to come out of the game when he was hurt on his first play of the third quarter.
Bunch, the walk-on who made his first career start last week against Troy, missed only a series and eventually led a drive that culminated in points when freshman Barret Pickering hit a field goal with 5:23 remaining in the third quarter. NU flirted with getting shut out for what would have been the first time in 286 games, a streak that dates to Sept. 21, 1996, at Arizona State, Frost’s first road game as the Huskers’ starting quarterback.
So at least the visitors avoided that.
Find a metric by which to measure this game, though, and Michigan most assuredly dominated it.
"In games like these, these are watershed moments now," Frost said. "We got our butt whipped. Guys are either going to have to figure out how to work hard and get it fixed, or we’ll move on to the next guy. That’s not trying to throw anybody under the bus, that’s just the fact of it is we can’t keep doing the same things and expecting a different result than this."
Nebraska has now opened the season with three straight losses for the first time since the months immediately following the end of World War II in 1945, and each has seemed to be progressively dispiriting. First a sloppy-but-seemingly-promising nail-biter against Colorado, then a lackluster home loss to a Group of Five opponent. On Saturday, the Huskers learned the wide gulf between their program and one of the better ones in the Big Ten.
Next up is a Purdue group that faced its own adversity early in the season, losing three straight home games, but bounced back to throttle No. 23 Boston College on Saturday.
"Listen, a lot of things need to get fixed," Frost said. "Our execution, our strength and conditioning, our nutrition, our recruiting, our walk-on program. A lot of things that 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 (Michigan).
"I think we have good enough team to be in a lot of games this year and win games this year, but we have to be able to execute better."