Michigan’s win over Nebraska Saturday was the best by the Wolverines in The Big House since they walloped Penn State 49-10 in 2016. What we were left with afterwards was escalating expectations.
What We Learned: Rashan Gary, at his best, is nasty (add in there Devin Bush, and Chase Winovich, and this entire defense).
I wrote an article on Friday afternoon looking to make sense of Gary’s career relative to the incredible expectations that have followed him around since being ranked the No. 1 recruit in 2016.
Gary hadn’t put up big numbers thus far, with 18 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in the first 29 games of his career (before Saturday), but he’s been better than what his stats indicate.
Still, to some extent, he’ll always be judged by his numbers because that’s what they do – they help us put in context how good a player was relative to others that came before and will come after, like the multitude of All-American defensive linemen to have worn the winged helmet.
On Saturday, Gary played angry. He played determined. And he ran through the Nebraska offensive line to the tune of two tackles for loss and a sack in limited snaps (he didn’t play in the second half).
This is the fifth game of Gary’s career in which he had two or more stops behind the line of scrimmage, and frankly, he was well on his way to more.
Gary set the tone for a defense that absolutely punished Husker ball carriers, with four sacks and 14 total tackles for loss.
The defense eventually ceded some points but this was as dominant a performance as we’ve seen since Michigan's three-game run of shutouts in 2015.
What We’re Asking: Can Michigan replicate this? Every facet of the team clicked Saturday – offense, defense, special teams and coaching. Outside of junior viper Khaleke Hudson, it’s hard to say that a single player had a bad game.
Nebraska might be awful this year – we’ll need another few weeks to figure that out – but whether NU is good, average or bad, this was utter destruction by the Maize and Blue. This effort and execution would probably beat 11 teams on Michigan’s schedule this year (maybe, maybe not, Ohio State) but will see this same level of competence in coming weeks?
I can’t say for certain. You can’t say for certain. Jim Harbaugh can’t say for certain, but with confidence gained and three units chalk full of playmakers, Michigan could have more afternoons like we saw against Nebraska.
Northwestern, you have been warned.
What We Learned: The quarterback position is in great hands for the foreseeable future. Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey is the best backup QB Michigan has had since Devin Gardner was Denard Robinson’s No. 2 in 2011. If you want to go further back than that, I wouldn’t argue.
McCaffrey’s final numbers – 3 of 8 for 86 yards and a touchdown, plus 23 yards on two carries – do not do justice to what he showed on Saturday.
There was the 56-yard dime he threw to freshman Ronnie Bell for a score, but two plays earlier there was a 40-yard pass right on the numbers to freshman Ambry Thomas that was dropped, and there was the 75-yard run on read-option in which McCaffrey pulled away from a defensive back pursuer (called back due to a hold).
Perhaps most impressively, there was a 17-yard scramble finished off with McCaffrey lowering his shoulder and driving into his tackler.
We all assumed preseason that redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters was the No. 2 but in the Notre Dame game we saw McCaffrey take over for a momentarily-injured Shea Patterson, and he’s followed Patterson in blowouts over Western Michigan and Nebraska.
McCaffrey’s dad, Ed, was, arguably, the best wide receiver in Denver Broncos’ history and his older brother, Christian, was a Heisman finalist at Stanford. Both were known for an intangible quality that is hard to describe – perhaps an intense competitiveness. We wondered if Dylan had it. He does.
Patterson is the guy, but there is something special about McCaffrey, to the point where you almost want to see him get a few snaps as a complement to Patterson. That probably won’t happen, but we can all agree on this: if needed, McCaffrey is extremely capable of running this offense, and some day, when his day comes, it will be fun to watch.
What We Learned: Michigan’s special teams are really, really special.
Take your pick of impressive plaudits by the special teams this weekend:
• Will Hart’s 59.3-yard average is the best single-game punting performance in U-M history with a minimum of three punts.
• Hart also now has nine 50+ yard punts this year on 11 total punts.
• Donovan Peoples-Jones had a dazzling, video-game-like 60-yard punt return for a touchdown that gives him two TD returns for his career and two TD returns by Wolverines this year (Thomas had a kickoff return against Notre Dame in Week 1).
• Quinn Nordin converted field goals of 50 and 38 yards, the former giving him three 50+ yard field goals in his career. He is just the third Wolverine in school history with three or more (Hayden Epstein has four for the record).
• Finally, Jake Moody forced a touchback or a fair catch on 8 of 11 kickoffs, as the Huskers averaged just 18.7 yards on three returns.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Michigan has the best punter in the Big Ten (and maybe in the country after four games), has the best kickoff/placekicker combination, and has the most lethal pair of returners in the conference.
A unit that has seemingly been a liability more often than not over the past two decades has been U-M’s most consistent (and greatest) strength this year.
What We’re Asking: What is Aidan Hutchinson’s ceiling? High. Really high.
Hutchinson had a tackle for loss among his three stops, and a pass deflection, which resulted in a safety when Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez tried to catch and bat down the ball in the end zone.
The son of an All-American defensive lineman (Chris), Hutchinson has outstanding football intelligence, and combines that with a level of athleticism, strength and speed that could make him a future double-digit sack guy.
In my 20-year career covering Michigan I’ve seen a lot of talented freshmen, and he’s the best first-year defensive end of the bunch that I’ve seen.