LINCOLN, Neb. — It was a game that had everything — adversity, a comeback win, a rare nighttime road victory in front of a raucous crowd. While Saturday night’s 32-29 win over Nebraska might not stop the national media’s incessant criticism of Jim Harbaugh, it’ll it least quiet it for awhile.
It’s a big credit to the players, who, despite trailing for the first time all year, playing in front of a road crowd for just the second time this season, stepped up in key, big moments, and secured the victory for the Wolverines. Michigan remains undefeated at 6-0 while Nebraska falls to 3-4 on the season.
It took just about everything to get this one, however. The defense faltered early and often in the second half, though the offense moved the ball regularly, thanks to the ground game. Once Brad Hawkins made a big play, forcing a fumble and then recovering it in plus-territory, the offense moved forward, and kicker Jake Moody did the rest.
It had been said all season that we would know more about this Michigan football team once it faced true adversity, and there it was, rushing forward head-on, betting the Wolverines they wouldn’t leave with bowl eligibility. That wasn’t the case, and head coach Jim Harbaugh was ear-to-ear about what his team accomplished at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
“Yeah, well, it was an incredible football fight,” Harbaugh said. “Incredible plays made by incredible athletes on both teams. The fight for the win, fighting for down after down after down. It was tremendous. Tremendous game. Incredible, really. We’re enjoying it. We’re enjoying the incredible.”
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Harbaugh says he never lost belief in the team, even when things were starting to look dire. Turns out, neither did the team.
It wasn’t just the big plays that were made, but the big contributions from unusual contributors this night in Lincoln. Injuries plagued the maize and blue, particularly on the offensive line. And yet, numerous players stepped up as called upon, some for the first time this season.
“Yeah, I knew they wouldn’t flinch!” Harbaugh said. “Like I said, some incredible athletes. Brad Hawkins, incredible play he made — stripping that ball in the end and picking it up. Dax Hill’s interception — incredible. Some of the throws Cade made — incredible. Could go right down the list. Talk about the fight of the guards, the offensive guards. Zak Zinter went as long as he could. Trevor Keegan’s shoulder had been bothering him. The toughness, the grit. And the guys that were — Chuck Filiaga played both guards tonight. Karsen Barnhart came in and had an amazing game — he played both guards. Reece Atteberry — I think we had five guards that played in the game. And not a single negative yard rushing by any of our running backs.
“Incredible run by Hassan Haskins, the one early in the game. I’ve never seen one spotted nine feet short of the spot! That was the first time I’ve seen that. Maybe that was — he’s incredible in terms of the ways he keeps his balance. Maybe — just said we’re challenging it. That spot was way short. Finally was able to get them to blow the whistle and challenge it.
“Yeah, that was a Clint Eastwood win! We’re gonna enjoy it!”
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While it was the offense giving the defense a chance to make a stand in the second half, the defense stood tall when it absolutely had to, both on the penultimate drive which ended in Hawkins’ fumble recovery, and again on the final drive, when Nebraska drove to midfield, looking to tie or win, but couldn’t convert from there.
What was it that Jim Harbaugh saw from his defense as it broke and broke and broke before it bent and bent and ultimately stood its ground? He saw the same group that struggled against Rutgers in the second half before doing exactly what it needed to in both games.
“Making the plays when they had to,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been — saw the same thing when we played Rutgers. Not to flinch, that’s what I’m talking about, that kind of grit, that kind of determination of not being denied. Just staying after it until you make one more better, sensational, incredible play than they do. And they were making some big ones. That catch on the sideline, that was an incredible catch that they made. They did some great things.
“And the atmosphere, the environment — it just showed a lot of poise and moxie by our guys. There’s no doubt they wanted to storm the field, tear down the goal posts, carry them to the — but not on our guys’ watch tonight. That was pretty cool, pretty cool. Proud of them.”