Supporting cast stepped up for Michigan football; misdirection plagued LBs

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen breaks down Michigan football’s 32-29 win over Nebraska and looks at a few players who helped or hurt their stock Saturday at Memorial Stadium:

Four up

S Brad Hawkins: Hawkins has been identified as one of the team’s defensive leaders alongside Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Ross. He is the member of the secondary who organizes extra film sessions for the defensive backs and the player who fills the role of primary communicator during games. On Saturday, Hawkins did what all great leaders do — makr a huge play when his team needed it most. With the game tied 29-29 and Nebraska’s offense on the field, Hawkins stripped the ball from quarterback Adrian Martinez and recovered the fumble that all but assured Michigan of victory. Hawkins demonstrated tremendous discipline by continuing to play until the whistle was blown — or, in this case, not blown despite Martinez’s forward progress appearing to be stopped by a wall of bodies. He capitalized by jarring the ball free in a moment when many others assumed the play would be blown dead. Hawkins was also excellent in run support as the Wolverines limited Nebraska to 39 rushing yards in the first half to build a 13-0 lead.

Nebraska's Omar Manning catches a pass as Michigan's Brad Hawkins defends during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Nebraska's Omar Manning catches a pass as Michigan's Brad Hawkins defends during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

NT Mazi Smith: Just as crucial to Michigan’s terrific run defense was Smith, who anchored the middle of the line in arguably his strongest showing of the season. Smith made three tackles in the first half on plays that gained a combined 11 yards to prevent leakage after contact. He also walloped Martinez from behind on a play that resulted in an incomplete pass and was inches away from being considered a fumble. Smith's ability to remain stout in the trenches — even on plays when he didn’t make a tackle — was a huge reason why Nebraska averaged just 3.4 yards per carry on interior runs, according to Pro Football Focus. Smith’s 6 tackles against the Cornhuskers doubled his previous season high of 3 against Rutgers.

GRADES: Michigan football grades vs. Nebraska: Defense's uneven night earns it the lowest mark

Backup guards: Michigan’s adherence to the next-man-up philosophy was tested in the trenches Saturday when both starting guards left early due to injury. Right guard Zak Zinter played just 20 snaps before departing with a leg injury, while left guard Trevor Keegan lasted 50 snaps before a shoulder problem sent him to the sideline. In their place, the Wolverines relied on Karsen Barnhart and Chuck Filiaga, both of whom played excellent games. In 59 snaps, Barnhart finished as the team’s second-best offensive lineman based on the Pro Football Focus grading system, and Filiaga, who logged 33 snaps, was right behind him in the rankings. Together they contributed to a rushing attack that gained 101 yards in the fourth quarter prior to a pair of kneel downs by quarterback Cade McNamara. Harbaugh told reporters he doesn’t believe the injuries to Zinter and Keegan are long-term in nature, but steady performances from reserves are always reassuring for coaches.

TE Luke Schoonmaker: This is a bit of cumulative recognition for Schoonmaker, who caught two passes in each of the last two games after a September without a single catch. He matched his career high with 29 yards against the Cornhuskers by providing a reliable option for McNamara over the middle. McNamara connected with Schoonmaker for 24 yards to move the chains on third-and-5 and also found his tight end for a 5-yard pass to set up a third-and-short in the second half. Equally important was Schoonmaker's blocking, which helped spring several big runs. Schoonmaker and center Andrew Vastardis both made excellent blocks at the second level to help running back Blake Corum gain 26 yards up the middle on a drive that resulted in a touchdown. And when Hassan Haskins ripped off 50 yards after hurdling a defender, it was Schoonmaker whose block in the hole created the perfect running lane at the line of scrimmage. The emergence of a second dual-threat tight end alongside Erick All could be big for McNamara and the offense.

SHAWN WINDSOR: Cade McNamara is Michigan football's quarterback. He proved what he can do vs. Nebraska

Two down

WR A.J. Henning: Prior to Saturday, Henning flashed the ability to create explosive plays on special teams as the primary punt returner. In three games as the No. 1 return man, Henning posted longs of 32 yards, 29 yards and 19 yards against Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Wisconsin, respectively. There was no questioning his positive influence on U-M’s field position. That upward trajectory halted Saturday when Henning made a mistake on each of his two returns. On his first attempt, Henning caught the ball and spun backward in hopes of a big gain. Instead, he was swarmed deep in his own territory and wound up losing 5 yards. On his second attempt, Henning muffed a punt on his own 12 but managed to fall on it and keep the ball for the Wolverines thanks to a technicality in the rulebook about simultaneous possession between the offense and defense. It bears watching whether Harbaugh reconsiders Henning’s spot on the depth chart during the bye week.

Inside linebackers: This was always going to be a difficult game for Josh Ross, Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson. Between Nebraska’s zone read plays, option concepts and highly mobile quarterback, no position group was tested quite as strongly as defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s inside linebackers. Generally speaking, the linebackers fared better against the run than they did the pass. Ross finished with a team-high eight tackles, including half a tackle for loss, while Hill-Green and Colson combined to make nine stops. But things got dicey whenever Martinez employed some of the fakes and tricks that confounded the Wolverines two weeks ago in the win over Rutgers. Both Ross and Hill-Green were sucked toward the line of scrimmage on a play fake by Martinez before the 46-yard touchdown to tight end Austin Allen. The same duo lost track of their respective assignments on the 41-yard touchdown pass to running back Rahmir Johnson when the tailback looped out of the backfield on a wheel route. When Martinez gave Nebraska the lead on a 5-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, Ross had committed too far inside on a fake to the running back and couldn’t recover to protect the middle. Expect teams to continue using misdirection and pre-snap motion until Michigan’s inside linebackers prove they are no longer susceptible to big plays.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football supporting cast rising after dramatic win