The moment was gone.
Nebraska, down 19-7, had stormed back to take a 22-19 lead against No. 9 Michigan in just the third quarter. Nebraska then grinded out an epic fourth, but fell to old habits, losing 32-29 in what could have been one of its most memorable home night games in a very long time.
Here are the position grades for Nebraska in another stunning defeat:
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez’s game against No. 9 Michigan will be defined by one play. The fumble, late in the fourth quarter of a 29-29 game, is another reminder of Martinez’s turnover issues that have haunted Nebraska over the last four years.
Martinez’s two turnovers were instrumental in getting Michigan six points, but the bad should not outweigh the greatness he exuded in the back stretch of the game. The Huskers’ offense was blanked in the first half, but Martinez and the rest of the offense finally ignited in the second half.
Martinez led four second half touchdown drives, being responsible for the score on all four drives. Martinez tossed for three touchdowns and 197 yards on 17 pass attempts over this stretch, averaging over 11 yards an attempt.
The explosive plays that were mostly non-existent in the first half came back to get Nebraska the lead, and also kept Nebraska on pace with a top-10 opponent. The other half of Martinez’s game, his ability on the ground, also came out in the second half to propel the offense.
Martinez created several big plays on pitch options and quarterback keepers that kept drives alive. His second half performance was one of his finest yet this season, but a stagnant first half and turnovers defined Martinez’s grade in Saturday’s game.
Running Backs: A-
Freshman running back Rahmir Johnson was tossed to the fire against Michigan and, like the rest of the Husker offense, didn’t have much impact as a runner in the first half. Still, Johnson was a worthy receiver and a reliable target for Martinez.
Johnson took Nebraska’s first offensive play of the game for 43 yards on a screen, an explosive start to his game. After that play, however, Johnson remained quiet for the first half. The runs called for him seemingly all ended up in the middle, and Michigan snuffed out those attempts.
Johnson and freshman running back Jaquez Yant took 21 carries for 81 yards, not making much of an impact on the ground. Through the air, Johnson finished with six catches for 105 yards and had a 41-yard touchdown catch on an open wheel route in the third quarter that cut the Michigan lead to 19-14.
Johnson did a little better in the second half as a runner. He notched a 24-yard run on a drive that took Nebraska’s lead to 29-26.
Despite some missteps in the run, it was the freshman’s best game as a Husker overall so far, with 172 all-purpose yards.
Johnson was a vital part of Nebraska’s game plan and he answered the bell, creating plays on the air and ground in his finest performance of the season.
Perimeter blocking, a commonly stressed element of Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s tenure, was on display against the Wolverines in the second half when the Huskers broke out multiple pitch option plays.
That, along with several successful screen plays such as Johnson’s first catch of the game, showed how far that blocking came along. It wasn’t all perfect on that end but it started to turn the tides of the second half.
The more important part, obviously, is catching, where the wide receivers had a solid day. This solidity, however, did not translate into explosive plays. The wide receivers created two pass interference calls and, though they were effective in their targets, the receivers didn’t create much after the catch and generated just 48 yards after catch.
The lead receiver out of the wide receivers and tight ends was junior tight end Austin Allen, who managed two catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. The group overall didn’t do anything bad, but nothing about their play stood out in Saturday’s thriller against Michigan.
Offensive Line: B
Nebraska’s offensive line may have been dealt its toughest hand yet, going up against Michigan senior defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson and a strong Wolverine front seven. At tackles, Nebraska started two freshmen, each tasked with slowing a ferocious front seven.
Freshman offensive lineman and right tackle Turner Corcoran took the majority of his reps against Hutchinson, limiting his havoc impact with zero sacks and zero tackles-for-loss. Nebraska also swapped left tackles, with freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka leaving due to injury and Corcoran returning to his left tackle spot in the second half.
Nebraska’s pass protection had a surprising performance, only giving up a sack, and kept Martinez relatively pressure-free in various moments of the game. The offensive line disappointed on the ground, however, unable to move Michigan’s defenders off the line of scrimmage.
The Huskers attempts at runs up the middle were mostly futile, only a few would break out for a significant. A failure of dominating the trenches forced Nebraska to outside runs, where it saw moderate success but that was largely due to a combination of the entire offensive unit and not just the line.
The Huskers offensive line had no false starts, a massive improvement from its previous ranked game, and also wasn’t detrimental to Nebraska’s chances of winning.
Defensive Line: B
The Wolverines’ plan to dominate the line of scrimmage required moving Nebraska’s defensive linemen around. The rotation of sophomore defensive lineman Ty Robinson, junior defensive linemen Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels and senior defensive lineman Ben Stille were up to that challenge.
The rotation held down Michigan’s ground game in the first half, and the Wolverines attempts up the middle were met with lots of resistance. Still, the defensive line’s inability to create pressure was what propelled the Wolverines’ offense to outduel Nebraska in the second half.
The defensive line created havoc, having two tackle-for-losses and a couple of pass break-ups, but Michigan slowly eroded away the Husker defensive line in the second half.
The most disappointing performance came with the Husker linebackers. The linebackers, led by sophomore linebacker Garrett Nelson and senior linebacker JoJo Domann, struggled mightily in containment and intermediate coverage.
The most glaring misses were the Wolverines’ converting third-and-longs through soft coverage by linebackers. That kept Michigan drives alive, but the coverage wasn’t all on the linebackers as those defensive calls were countered by Michigan’s staff.
The coverage issues were overshadowed by containment issues, heavily seen in the second half when sophomore running back Blake Corum and senior running back Hassan Haskins abused the outside areas of the field.
Corum and Haskins combined for 34 carries and 212 yards, averaging over six yards a carry, and primarily took turns either outside the tackle or between the guard and tackle. Those duties, meant for linebackers, saw Corum and Haskins seemingly run wild as Michigan had more first downs than Nebraska.
The best performing unit in the defense was the secondary. Although the unit overall had several mishaps, its impact on the game created several key Nebraska stops and forced Michigan to kick field goals which otherwise would’ve been touchdowns.
Down 19-14, Nebraska senior safety Deontai Williams came up with a potentially game-defining interception in the waning seconds of the third quarter. Williams, who previously gave up a 48-yard pass play in the first half, snatched a third quarter interception that propelled Nebraska to an eventual 22-19 lead.
Williams wasn’t the only notable player for the secondary, with junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt notching three pass deflections and being a general force as a cornerback.
Sophomore cornerback Quinton Newsome also had an up-and-down first half performance before finally settling in the second half.
Newsome shut down a potential game-winning Michigan touchdown on 3rd-and-11 with just over three minutes left. Overall, McNamara struggled against the secondary, going 22-for-38 and relying on shorter passes between the middle to continue moving the chains.
Junior wide receiver Cornelius Johnson and senior wide receiver Daylen Baldwin combined for 10 catches and 101 yards, a much different day compared to their massive outings against Wisconsin.
Special Teams: B
The only noteworthy event of Nebraska’s special teams was a “joint possession” call in the third quarter where Michigan freshman wide receiver A.J. Henning muffed a punt. That muffed punt was tied up by Henning and an unknown Husker due to the size of the pile.
Field position remained king but Michigan and Nebraska ended up about the same spot. The Wolverines’ drive started around its own 29-yard line while Nebraska started at its own 28-yard line.
Sophomore punter Williams Przystup helped with field position, booting four punts for an average of 47.5 yards and had two punts inside the 20-yard line.
Michigan didn’t do much damage on punt returns, but neither did Nebraska.