Maybe Michigan plays the way it ties its shoelaces: too tight. But one thing it can do is turn uglier than a Wolverines helmet on defense, and Nebraska had the welts today to prove it.
Leave it to the Cornhuskers and the insatiable Big Red roar to make some excitement out of this Fiesta Bowl. But Nebraska could not overcome four third-quarter mistakes that gave Michigan two touchdowns and a field goal. And the Cornhuskers' final drive ended in another turnover, Steve Taylor throwing an interception with 28 seconds remaining to give the fifth-ranked Wolverines a 27-23 victory and a 10-1-1 record before a record crowd of 72,454 at Sun Devil Stadium.
"At the beginning of the season we were a long shot team," Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler said. "My only disappointment is not winning the national championship. Even at that, this team has given me the most satisfaction I've ever had."
The Wolverines trailed, 14-3, at the half, and the mostly Big Red crowd was hollering for more. But Michigan came up with a blocked punt and three fumbles, two by quarterback McCathorn Clayton. With all that, the Wolverines' journeyman offense didn't have to do much work, converting Nebraska's mistakes into touchdowns of two and one yards by quarterback Jim Harbaugh, a one-yarder by Gerald White and and a 19-yard field goal by Pat Moons.
The Wolverines even gave up a safety, punter Monte Robbins taking a walk out of the end zone with 1:14 left in the game and Michigan at its four. The Cornhuskers took over on their 46 and Taylor scrambled his way to the Michigan 49 before the game wound up where it belonged: in the hands of a brilliant defense that gave up just five touchdowns in 11 regular-season games. Taylor's pass on third and five was intercepted by defensive back Garland Rivers in the end zone.
"We played well for three quarters, but the third went badly," said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, whose seventh-ranked team finished 9-3. "We haven't had a blocked punt in years. That and the fumbles were the turning point, obviously. We just lost our concentration. Why, I don't know."
Partly credit a Michigan offense that was able to take advantage of the Nebraska mistakes. Harbaugh was able, and scatback Jamie Morris (younger brother of New York Giants back Joe Morris) added to the family name by rushing for 156 yards on 22 carries and being named offensive MVP.
"Coach Schembechler told me he expected me to run like my brother," Morris said. "I do what he says. He says, 'Jump,' I say, 'How high?' "
But credit Nebraska's offense. The Cornhuskers, the top-ranked rushing team in the nation, outgained Michigan 370 yards to 234 and got 304 yards rushing against the best team in the country against the run.
Taylor, a freshman, replaced Clayton early in the fourth quarter to rush for 76 yards and scored Nebraska's only second-half touchdown on a one-yard run. It came with 2:29 left and made it a game again before he threw the interception.
"Sometimes it hits and sometimes it doesn't," Taylor said. "The sad part is that we should have won. We're a good team, we don't turn the ball over."
Michigan had allowed an average of just 6.8 points a game. Nebraska's 14 second-quarter points marked the first time this year a team had scored two touchdowns in a period against the Wolverines. The scores came on drives of 10 and nine plays, respectively, Doug DuBose scoring on a five-yard pass from Clayton and a three-yard run. DuBose finished with 99 yards rushing.
By halftime the Wolverines seemed ready to deprive Schembechler of a bowl victory once again. Michigan had won just two of 10 postseason games under Schembechler coming in, and now the Wolverines' arch-conservative offense wasn't doing a thing and the defense was noticeably absent as well.
But Michigan's defense began throwing its weight around the moment the second half began. DuBose gave up the first fumble, on just the third play of the third quarter. Facing third and nine at the Nebraska 25, DuBose lost the ball in a pileup with fullback Tom Rathman, and linebacker Jeff Akers recovered at the 21.
Michigan scored four plays later, after Morris broke for a 19-yard gain to the one. White then dove over for the score.
Nebraska fumbled on the second play of the next series, this one by Clayton after a 10-yard gain. Defensive back Ivan Hicks came from across the field to knock the ball loose on the Nebraska 38, and defensive tackle Mark Messner recovered. It took Michigan five plays to score, Harbaugh diving over to give Michigan a 17-14 lead with 10:43 left in the period.
There was more disaster to go, and some of it came on the next series. With Nebraska facing fourth and 14 at the 35, defensive back David Arnold stormed in to get a hand on Dan Wingard's punt. The ball cartwheeled to the Nebraska six, where Arnold recovered. Three plays later Moons kicked his second field goal, a 19-yarder for a 20-14 lead.
It was all Nebraska could do to get out of the third quarter because the next series was no better. With fourth and two at the 23, Wingard managed to get his punt off, but he shanked it badly and Michigan took over on its 48.
The Wolverines embarked on their fourth straight scoring series. Harbaugh led them 52 yards in seven plays and once again Nebraska had only itself to blame, because the Wolverines were called for holding to put them back at third and 20 on the Michigan 32. But Harbaugh threw long for John Kolesar and cornerback Dennis Watkins flagrantly intefered on the play to give Michigan a first and 10 on the 17. Harbaugh dove over for his two-yard touchdown two plays later.
Nebraska's final fumble of the quarter came on the first play of the next series. Clayton broke loose for a 21-yard gain, but Mike Mallory forced the ball loose on the Michigan 49, and Hicks was there again to recover. The Wolverines didn't do anything with this one, but they didn't have to.