The 15th Sunkist Fiesta Bowl will go down in Nebraska postseason football history as the one that got away.
The Huskers, leading Michigan 14-3 at halftime, saw the Wolverines score 24 third-quarter points the most ever in one quarter against the Huskers in the Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne coaching era to pull out a 27-23 win.
Two lost fumbles, a blocked punt and a short punt in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter set up Michigan’s surge that turned the 11-point deficit into a 27-14 lead.
But the Sun Devil Stadium crowd of 72,454 the largest ever to see a sporting event in the state of Arizona saw a frantic finish.
Freshman quarterback Steve Taylor came on in the fourth quarter to lead Nebraska on one touchdown drive, and he had the Huskers on the Michigan 49-yard line with 39 seconds left in the game.
But on the next play, Taylor scrambled, then threw the ball deep.
His receiver, sophomore Rod Smith, pulled up near the 15 before Taylor threw and Michigan defensive back Garland Rivers intercepted in the end zone to seal the win.
The loss drops Nebraska, ranked sixth and seventh in the news service polls, to 9-3 and leaves the Huskers in danger of finishing outside the Top 10. Nebraska has been a Top 10 team in at least one end-of-the-season poll every year since Osborne became head coach in 1973.
The last time Nebraska lost three games in a season was 1981 when the Huskers fell to Iowa, Penn State and Clemson. The last time NU finished a season with back-to-back losses was 1979 with a 17-14 setback at Oklahoma and a 17-14 loss to Houston in the Cotton Bowl.
After Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl, reporters wanted to know why Nebraska faltered so badly in the third quarter.
So did Osborne.
“It seemed like we lost a little bit of concentration,” he said.
“Why, I don’t know.”
Neither did linebacker Kevin Parsons, Nebraska’s leading tackler in the game with 13.
“We definitely felt we had an advantage going into the third quarter,” Parsons said. “Things were going our way.
“All we had to do was continue to do the things we had done well in the first half. Apparently, that didn’t work out.”
The statistics indicate Nebraska did many of the things it wanted.
The Huskers had more rushing yards (304-171), more passing yards (66-63), more return yards (20-3), more first downs (20-16) more time of possession (32:01 to 27:59) and a better ratio of third-down conversions (7 of 17 to 4 of 14).
But Nebraska also had the edge in what proved to be the key statistic turnovers. The Huskers lost three fumbles and threw an interception. Michigan had none.
“When you get good offenses and good defenses matched like you do in bowl games, turnovers almost always decide it,” NU offensive tackle Tom Welter said. “The thing I’m happy with is that after all the adversity we went through, we still had a chance to win the game at the end.”
At halftime, it appeared Nebraska had a great chance to beat fifth-ranked Michigan, now 10-1-1.
The Wolverines led 3-0 when Pat Moons kicked a 42-yard field goal in the first quarter.
But Nebraska bounced back to score two second-quarter touchdowns.
That was the first time this season Michigan had allowed two touchdowns in the first half.
NU I-back Doug DuBose, questionable with a bruised shoulder, capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass from McCathorn Clayton.
Two possessions later, the Huskers went 63 yards in nine plays with Du-Bose who gained 99 yards in 17 carries scoring from the 3. With Dale Klein’s second extra-point kick, Nebraska led 14-3 at halftime.
“I thought we were well prepared at the half,” Osborne said. “I thought we would come out and play good football and take off from where we left off at the end of the second quarter.
“But we had two or three turnovers and a blocked punt there. I’m not saying we would have won had we not had them. But they certainly made a difference.”
The first fumble came on the third play after Nebraska received the second-half kickoff.
On a draw play, DuBose got tangled up with fullback Tom Rathman, the ball came loose and Michigan linebacker Jeff Akers recovered at the NU 21.
“Rathman was coming back to block,” DuBose said. “When he came back, he hit the ball out of my hands. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Michigan struck quickly. Sophomore Jamie Morris’ 19-yard run set up Gerald White’s 1-yard touchdown dive a minute later that pulled Michigan to within 14-10 with 12:57 to play in the period.
Morris, named the game’s outstanding offensive player, rushed 22 times for 156 yards. He is the brother of New York Giants running back Joe Morris, the NFL leader in touchdowns this season.
Two plays into Nebraska’s next possession, Michigan defensive back Ivan Hicks drilled Clayton on an option and Mark Messner, voted defensive player of the game, recovered at the NU 38.
Morris sprinted 18 yards and White 19 to set up quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s 1-yard plunge. Moons’ conversion made it 17-14 Michigan with 10:43 left in the period.
After stopping Nebraska, Michigan freshman David Arnold flew around the Wolverine right side to block a Dan Wingard punt that was smothered at the NU 6.
It was Arnold’s third punt block of the season and the first punt Wingard had had blocked in 52 career attempts.
Wingard said the block came as a surprise even though Michigan nearly blocked a first-quarter punt.
“I was just concentrating so hard on what I was doing, I really didn’t notice anything,” said the senior from Omaha Westside.
“I knew they were coming hard. I didn’t feel I was doing it any slower than earlier in the game. Everbody told me he came through untouched.”
When the Nebraska defense held Michigan to 4 yards in three plays after the punt block, the Wolverines settled for a 19-yard Moons’ field goal to make it 20-14.
After Michigan stuffed Nebraska again, the Wolverines benefited from a 25-yard Wingard punt to get the ball at its own 48.
Wingard said the blocked punt moments before didn’t affect his concentration.
“I wasn’t any more nervous than I was before, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “It just wasn’t a good kick.”
Morris’ 23-yard burst and pass interference penalties against Huskers Dennis Watkins and Tony Holloway helped get the ball to the NU 2. Harbaugh scored on an option keeper with 3:26 left in the period and Moons’ conversion made it 27-14.
Clayton lost a fumble on the next possession, but Nebraska forced Michigan to punt going into the fourth quarter.
That punt was downed at the Nebraska 3. Clayton led the Huskers to a first down, then Osborne put Taylor in.
The San Diego freshman took Nebraska from its own 17 to the Michigan 14. But on fourth-and-five, a delay penalty during a long snap count pushed the Huskers back. Taylor then tried to hit Rod Smith, but the pass was batted down, ending the drive with eight minutes to play.
Nebraska got the ball back with 6:29 left in the game and Taylor took the Huskers 77 yards in 12 plays. He capped the drive with a 1-yard run with 2:29 to play. Klein’s conversion made it 27-21.
Michigan, pushed back to its own 3 on its next possession, took a safety when punter Monte Robbins stepped out of the end zone with 1:22 left, making it 27-23 Wolverines.
NU’s Von Sheppard returned the ensuing free kick 30 yards to the Nebraska 46. But the Huskers’ hopes ended when Taylor’s pass was intercepted with 28 seconds to play.
“We wanted to play the game in such a way that we were close going into the fourth quarter,” Osborne said. “We thought our physical strength and conditioning would help us. But at the start of the fourth quarter, we were too far away.”
|Yards per carry||3.5||5.1|
Nebraska is 4-5 all-time against Michigan.
|Florida State||Sept. 7|
|New Mexico||Oct. 5|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 12|
|Kansas State||Nov. 2|
|Iowa State||Nov. 9|
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