By Steve Beideck
LINCOLN – Michigan scored on seven of its first eight drives on Saturday – with six of those going for touchdowns – as the No. 2-ranked Wolverines routed Nebraska 45-7.
Uncomfortable temperatures in the 90s and Nebraska’s anemic offensive performance combined to whittle the crowd of 87,134 down to less than 20,000 by the time reserve receiver/running back Joshua Fleeks saved one of NU’s last historic streaks.
The senior transfer from Baylor took a handoff from quarterback Heinrich Haarberg and went 74 yards through the middle of the Michigan reserves for the lone Nebraska touchdown with 4:17 remaining in the game.
The run ensured Nebraska’s scoring streak increased to 344 games. The last time Nebraska was shut out was on Sept. 21, 1996, when the Huskers were ranked No. 1 before falling 19-0 to Arizona State on Sept. 21, 1996, in Tempe.
The Sun Devils, who also ended Nebraska’s 26-game winning streak, finished that season 11-1 and won the Pac-10 championship. They were ranked No. 2 before losing the 1997 Rose Bowl 20-17 to No. 4 Ohio State.
Michigan (5-0) is in the process of putting together a similar season – if not better – and dominated NU from the start.
NU’s defense had shown considerable improvement during the season’s first four games, but that streak of top-notch performances ended abruptly against the Wolverines.
Nebraska had given up less than 60 yards rushing per game during its 2-2 start. Five minutes into Saturday’s game, the Wolverines were halfway to 60 with 30 yards on seven carries on their opening drive – an 11-play, 75-yard masterpiece that ended 5:40 after the opening kickoff.
Michigan went past the 60-yard standard on its second drive with a 20-yard TD run by Kalel Mullings with 7:15 remaining in the first quarter. That drive started deep in Nebraska territory after the first pass of the game by
Nebraska quarterback Heinrich Haarberg turned into an interception.
Wolverines edge rusher Braiden McGregor tipped the ball, and 6-foot-3, 339-pound defensive lineman Kenneth Grant grabbed and secured it at the Husker 29-yard line. Three plays later Mullings ripped through the middle of the Nebraska line for 20 yards to put Michigan ahead 14-0.
Any hope of a Nebraska rally was quashed in the second quarter as Michigan scored two more touchdowns before intermission. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy followed the same path as Mullings – through the middle of the NU line out of the shotgun – for a 21-yard touchdown run that increased the Wolverine lead to 21-0.
Michigan then turned a muffed punt into a 30-yard return that gave the Wolverines the ball at their own 45. Eight plays later and with just 23 seconds remaining before halftime, McCarthy found his No. 1 target – receiver Roman Wilson – on the left side for a 16-yard touchdown.
The Wolverines added another touchdown in the third quarter and 10 more points in the fourth quarter. Blake Corum had a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:58 remaining in the third. James Turner, who also made all six extra-point kicks, made a 30-yard field goal 43 seconds into the final frame.
Third-string quarterback Jayden Denegal finished off a 13-play, 63-yard drive with an 8-yard TD pass to Peyton O’Leary with 4:37 remaining in the game.
Fleeks then took off on his 74-yard TD run to help the Huskers avoid the shutout.
Despite not playing the last 20 minutes, McCarthy finished with 156 yards passing, completing 12 of his 16 attempts, including two touchdowns. The Heisman candidate also had 30 yards rushing on two carries.
Corum led Michigan’s backs with 74 yards on 16 carries, and Wilson was the Wolverines’ leading receiver with 58 yards on four receptions.
Haarberg was 14 of 25 passing for 199 yards and one interception. Fleeks was Nebraska’s leading rusher with that one touch for 74 yards in the fourth quarter. Anthony Grant was the only other NU back to finish with a double digit yardage total – 16 yards on six carries.
The Wolverines outgained Nebraska 436-305, with 249 of those coming via the running game. That rushing total is more than the Huskers’ first four opponents combined. Michigan had 26 first downs to Nebraska’s 10, the Wolverines had 74 plays compared to Nebraska’s 46, and
they also converted eight of their 13 third-down opportunities.
Nebraska (2-3) has a short week to prepare for its next game on Friday at 7 p.m. at Illinois. That game is scheduled to be broadcast on FS1. The Huskers then will have a bye week before their Homecoming game Oct. 21 against Northwestern.