SAN ANTONIO — Marching band drummers and defensive tackles and little kids in red jerseys stomped celebratory balloons. Fireworks sparkled above the 50-yard line.
A sea — make that a lake — of red thundered "Husker Power." Titus Adams and Barry Cryer cradled the Alamo Bowl trophy like an infant.
For the first time in many a winter, Nebraska football and its legion of followers can hibernate with a smile. The Huskers, who spit and sputtered through three-straight losses late in the season, somehow, some way, outlasted Michigan 32-28 Wednesday in the Alamo Bowl.
"I can't be any prouder of this team the way they fought and came back," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan shouted to a pro-Husker crowd afterward.
The last time Nebraska won its last three games was 1999. The Huskers opened the ensuing fall ranked No. 1 in the country. That won't happen in 2006.
But the seed of redemption, a seed planted in the foothills of the Rockies a month ago, sprouted on a warm December night under the dome lights for all this football-loving, ESPN watching country to see.
Few — even those who wondered for so long if Big Red had the right man at the top or the right quarterback or the right attitude — could question that.
Few could question a team that trailed 28-17 in the fourth quarter against the winningest program in college football history and rallied with two key turnovers and two key touchdowns that commenced a New Year's-like jubilation, the kind that seemed a stranger since that morbid winter night in Pasadena four years ago.
"This is another huge building block for our program," said linebacker Lance Brandenburgh.
Whether the seed survives this cold, hard winter and then programs like Texas and USC, well, that's a topic for another day. Just like the question of what the heck happened on the last play when Michigan almost mastered its impression of Cal-Stanford '82.
On this night, in this fair city where thousands of Midwestern families spent thousands of dollars and chanted "Go Big Red" thousands of times, Nebraska stamped itself back on the national map.
"I don't know what the ramifications will be," Callahan said. "But I can tell you about the excitement in that locker room. We've been through quite a bit of adversity this year and to culminate this season with this type of victory feels very good."
The key plays in the fourth quarter alone were almost too many to count.
There was Cory Ross' 31-yard burst off left tackle to cut the Michigan lead to 28-25. There was Blake Tiedtke's sack and forced fumble of UM quarterback Chad Henne that handed an inconsistent Husker offense the short field in the final minutes.
There was Zac Taylor's strike to Terrence Nunn on third-andsix from the Michigan 14-yard line to boost NU to its first lead since early in the third quarter.
The biggest: On fourth-and-nine from the Nebraska 19 with 2:39 left, Zack Bowman tipped away a Henne pass to Mario Manningham at the goal line, all but ending Michigan's hopes — the fact that pass interference could've been called mattered little to the shirtless dudes in the crowd who painted red their chests.
Nebraska and Michigan hadn't met on a football field since the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1, 1986. The score that day: Wolverines 27, Huskers 23.
Twenty years was too long for a rematch. These two traditional titans had experienced their share of nail-biters in 2005.
Wednesday's may have taken the cake, though, in part because the Huskers never quit, a mindset epitomized by Taylor, senior I-back Cory Ross and a decimated group of Blackshirts.
The first-year quarterback has experienced the full spectrum of emotions in 2005.
He looked suspect in September. He torched the record books against Iowa State. He missed one too many opportunities against his hometown Sooners.
He was knocked out of the Kansas State game. He played like an All-American at Colorado. The Alamo Bowl illustrated a microcosm of his season, and perhaps Nebraska's.
On NU's second drive, Taylor punished Michigan for an ill-timed blitz. He found Terrence Nunn on a hot read over the middle. Nunn broke a tackle and raced to the end zone.
But before Taylor could find that rhythm that carried him to 392 yards at Colorado, he threw two interceptions on two straight plays. He missed Nunn deep down the sideline. He suffered several shellackings from Michigan's beefy defensive linemen.
Midway through the second quarter, after five Nebraska possessions without a first down, Michigan's defense had taken control.
But Taylor came back, starting with a perfect strike through traffic to Nunn on third-and-nine. Taylor danced in the pocket before finding a hole and shooting a laser that gained 25.
"He's a courageous young man," Callahan said. "He's like the eye in the hurricane. There's flurry all around, and he stays as calm and as poised as any quarterback I've ever coached."
Taylor capped a seven-play, 70-yard drive when he fired to trusty Nate Swift over the middle. Tie game.
That's when Ross stepped in, refusing to let his career end quietly. He moved as quickly, as gracefully as he had in months. He finished with 161 yards on 28 carries; 102 yards came after halftime.
He sprinted around left end for 25 yards to set up a field goal early in the third quarter. He burst 31 yards off left tackle for another score with 8:08 left after Michigan had seized a 28-17 lead.
Then the Blackshirts stepped up. Kevin Cosgrove, NU's defensive coordinator, told his injury-bitten bunch it had to create a turnover. Had to give the offense a short field.
Senior linebacker Adam Ickes had the right idea when he stripped a Wolverine at midfield, but Nebraska couldn't convert the turnover.
The Husker offense earned another chance after Tiedtke stripped Henne inside the UM 20 with six minutes left, leading to Taylor's third touchdown pass.
Henne responded, directing a drive into the Husker red zone in the final three minutes before Bowman broke up the fourthdown pass.
The Wolverines got one last chance with two seconds left, but a bizarre desperation play that included at least six pitches ended at the Nebraska 13-yard line after — yes, after — a mass of joyous Huskers had already rushed the field.
Officials forgave them, for this party had been a long time comin'.
|Yards per carry||3.1||4.1|
Nebraska is 4-5 all-time against Michigan.
|Wake Forest||Sept. 10|
|Iowa State||Oct. 1|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 8|
|Kansas State||Nov. 12|
Nebraska hasn't played any other games on Dec. 28.
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