On November 9th, the Michigan Wolverines will play the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 9th time in history, bumping Nebraska past California and Harvard - who the Wolverines have played eight times - and tying them with Army and Oberlin at nine. The short history between the two teams spreads throughout the last century. They met three times before the First World War ended, with Michigan shutting out Nebraska by a combined score of 51-0 in 1905 and 1917 and the teams battling to a 6-6 tie in 1911. The teams wouldn't meet again until 1962, when Nebraska beat Michigan for the first time by a score of 25-13. After '62, Nebraska caught fire and dominated the Big 8 and Big 12, finishing first in the conference 28 times and winning the National Championship five times (including 1997, when the teams shared the title), until they joined the Big Ten two years ago. In that span, the teams traded victories against each other in Bowl Games (both of which I'll be talking about), with Michigan winning the Fiesta Bowl in '86 and Nebraska winning the Alamo Bowl in '05. After both of those games (which I'll be talking about below), the teams have played twice as Big Ten rivals, with Michigan dominating the Cornhuskers in 2011 and Nebraska taking advantage of a Denard-less Wolverines squad last year en route to their first Big Ten Championship game, where they got destroyed by Wisconsin.
The Fiesta Bowl on January 1st, 1986, Michigan 27 - Nebraska 23
Coming into the bowl season, Michigan and Nebraska were looking for a reason to celebrate their respective seasons, as both teams came within a win of winning their conference title. The Wolverines lost in a top-ranked showdown against Iowa, the eventual Big Ten Champs, and the Cornhuskers dropped their final game of the season to Oklahoma, giving the Big 8 title to the Sooners. Michigan also tied Illinois two weeks after losing to the Hawkeyes to give them a 9-1-1 record and a #5 ranking heading into the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska lost in the season opener - to Florida State - as well the finale, giving them a 9-2 record and a #7 ranking before meeting the Wolverines.
Even though Michigan had the nation's most efficient passer in quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the top-ranked scoring defense, and the second-ranked overall defense, the Wolverines stumbled in the first half and showed none of these strengths. The first quarter was boring, with the only scoring coming off the foot of Michigan's kicker Pat Moons. After the field goal, Nebraska took control of the game in the second quarter by scoring 14 unanswered points and making Michigan's powerful defense look weak. The Cornhuskers would take a 14-3 lead into halftime.
After the break, Michigan woke up and played some inspired football in the third quarter, aided by some helpful Nebraska turnovers. On the third play of the second half, Cornhuskers running back Doug DuBose fumbled the ball away to the Wolverines. Four players later, Michigan was in the endzone on a 1-yard run by running back Gerald White. On their ensuing drive, Nebraska would turn the ball over again, this time via a fumble by quarterback McCathorn Clayton. This time it took five plays for Michigan to score on a quarterback sneak by Harbaugh. The touchdown capped a 2:14 span to open the second half that saw Michigan score two touchdowns and regain the lead 17-14.
After the change in momentum, Michigan's defense continued to shut down the Cornhuskers. The Wolverines blocked a punt on Nebraska's next drive, which turned into Moons second field goal of the game. Harbaugh would run for another touchdown before the quarter ended, giving Michigan a solid 27-14 heading into the final frame.
In the fourth, Nebraska would try to spark its offense by putting in freshman quarterback Steve Taylor, who ended up running for a touchdown to cut Michigan's lead to 27-21. With 1:22 left in the game and backed up against their endzone, the Wolverines took an intentional safety rather than risk a short punt or a block. With Michigan's lead now down to four, the Huskers began their final drive with good field position at their own 46-yard line. But Nebraska couldn't finish the comeback, as Michigan's 24 unanswered points in the third quarter proved too much to overcome. On Nebraska's final offensive play, cornerback Garland Rivers intercepted Taylor's overthrown pass attempt with 29 seconds left, sealing Michigan's victory. Check out longer highlights: Part 1 and Part 2, or a shorter version here.
The win would vault Michigan into #2 overall, behind National Champs Oklahoma, and give them a 10-1-1 record on the season. With the loss, Nebraska fell in the final rankings to #11 and finish 9-3 on the season. It was Michigan's first bowl victory after losing in the three previous seasons, and it continued a win-one, lose-one trend in bowl games for the Huskers that started after the 1980 season.
The Alamo Bowl, on December 28th, 2005, Michigan 28 - Nebraska 32
The 13th rendition of the Alamo Bowl had everything college football fans could've wanted. The game saw Michigan and Nebraska meet for the first time since sharing the National Championship in 1997, at the time they were the only two teams in Division I history with 800 or more wins, and on top of all that, the final play was filled with chaos and controversy, reminiscent of "The Play" between Stanford and Cal.
However, none of the excitement came from anything the two teams had accomplished that year. Both teams entered the bowl season after less than spectacular regular seasons. Michigan failed to live up to its #4 overall preseason ranking, finishing tied for third in the Big Ten and ranked #20 at 7-4. The only positive spin on the Wolverines season was that they never lost by more than a touchdown. On the other sideline, the Huskers finished 4-4 in Big 12 play and second in their division with a 7-4 record as well.
The first quarter saw both teams trade touchdowns, with Nebraska scoring on a 52-yard pass from quarterback Zac Taylor to wideout Terrence Nunn, and Michigan scoring through the air as well on a 13-yard toss from quarterback Chad Henne to tight end Tyler Ecker. The second quarter would see the same, with Henne throwing another TD to tight end Mike Massey and Taylor passing for a touchdown to wideout Nate Swift. Tied at 14 at halftime, the third quarter saw the teams trade points again, with Nebraska kicking a field goal after video review overturned a Huskers touchdown and Henne throwing for his third touchdown to wide receiver Mario Manningham. Michigan would take a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
Early in the final frame, the Wolverines expanded their lead on Chad Henne's fourth touchdown of the game on a 7-yard run. With a solid fourth quarter lead at 28-17, Michigan looked to shutdown the Huskers. After Henne's touchdown, the Wolverines forced Nebraska into a three-and-out. But the Huskers would do the same to Michigan, and a short punt with a long return gave Nebraska the ball back at Michigan's 38-yard line. Two plays later, the Huskers scored on a 31-yard line by running back Cory Ross, cutting Michigan's lead to 28-25. On the first play of the ensuing drive, wideout Jason Avant fumbled the ball away to Nebraska, giving the Huskers possession at Michigan's 48-yard line. However, Michigan would stifle the threat, forcing a three-and-out. But Henne would fumble the ball away on their next drive, and three players, the Huskers turned it into a touchdown, giving them a 32-28 lead.
Michigan would have one more solid chance on the next drive as Chad Henne drove the Wolverines to Nebraska's 18-yard before turning the ball over on downs. The Wolverines defense would force another three-and-out, giving Michigan the ball at their 37-yard line with 18 seconds remaining. After an incomplete pass on first down, Henne and the Wolverines lined up for what would be the chaotic final play of the game that included seven laterals and a fumble:
After the snap, Henne throws a pass to Jason Avant, who laterals to Steve Breaston, who ends up throwing it back to Mike Hart, who laterals it back to Avant, who then throws it across the field to Mario Manningham, who then runs a bit before tossing it back to Avant, who then throws it again across the field, where it bounces around a bit before Hart regains it and laterals to Tyler Ecker, who sprints down the field before being forced out of bounds at Nebraska's 13-yard line.
While the play was happening, the Huskers started celebrating as if the game was over, dousing their coach in Gatorade and running onto the field. The refs were the center of controversy, as they should have called a penalty, since they had numerous to choose from, most of which would have given Michigan another play. The only other way the game could have ended the way it did would have been if the refs penalized only Michigan for interference or too many men on the field, which the Huskers would decline to end the game. But it's clear that on the final play, more Huskers were on the field than Wolverines, and at the very least, offsetting penalties should have been called and the down should have been replayed from the original spot. Watch for yourself here and see the whole game here.
After the frustrating defeat, Michigan fell out of the rankings and finished the season 7-5. Nebraska would finish ranked #24 at 8-4 overall.