Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler credited Jim Harbaugh with winning the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. If so, the junior quarterback got a huge assist from Nebraska.
The Huskers led 14-3 at halftime. With 1:53 remaining in the third quarter, they trailed 27-14.
Yes, Harbaugh scored two of the touchdowns, from 1 and 2 yards out. But he completed only one pass in two attempts during the quarter, and it came after the 24-0 run.
So consider the context.
“That was the most disastrous quarter I’ve ever seen,” Nebraska running backs coach Frank Solich said. “I’ve never known so many bad things happening to a team in such a short period of time.”
The Huskers fumbled three times on their first two possessions, losing the ball on two of the fumbles, at their own 21- and 38-yard lines. Their third possession ended with a blocked punt, recovered at the Nebraska 6-yard line. And their fourth possession ended with a 30-yard punt.
On Michigan’s fourth possession, which led to Harbaugh’s second touchdown, the Huskers were flagged for pass interference twice, the first on third-and-16 at their 32-yard line.
Harbaugh was “one of the best we’ve played against,” Nebraska defensive tackle Jim Skow said. But “our offense just had too many mistakes for us to win the game.”
Still, you win as a team and lose as a team. And except for the third-quarter meltdown, the Huskers played well enough to win against a Wolverine defense that ranked first nationally in points allowed, 6.8 per game, and second in total yards allowed, 253.6 per game.
Nebraska, with the nation’s top rushing offense (374.3), ran for 304 yards, led by I-back Doug DuBose, with 99 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
Starting quarterback McCathorn Clayton rushed for 68 yards on 14 carries and completed 4-of-6 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown to DuBose, before giving way in the fourth quarter to true freshman Steve Taylor, who scored the final touchdown from 1 yard out.
Points 22 and 23 came when Michigan took a safety with 1:22 remaining.
The Nebraska-Michigan series is even at 4-4-1, with the Huskers winning the last two games. Among the most notable games, perhaps, came at Ann Arbor in 1962, Bob Devaney’s first season at Nebraska. He and his staff highlighted that game. “We set a team goal that if we didn’t accomplish much else during the year, we were going to go up there and beat Michigan,” Devaney said years later.
The Big Ten was more prominent nationally than the Big Eight at the time, and Devaney knew the favored Wolverines had lost seven starters and six top reserves from a 6-3 team in 1961.
“Michigan was not a great team,” said Devaney.
Only 57,252 were on-hand in 101,001-seat Michigan Stadium to watch Nebraska win 25-13, the second of six in a row to start that season.
Nebraska was the coaches’ national champion while Michigan was the Associated Press national champion in 1997, prompting Lincoln radio station KFOR to broadcast a championship game between the teams at Soldier Field in Chicago – the game that was never played.
Michigan led 13-10 at halftime, but Nebraska scored 14 points in both the third and fourth quarters of the game that was never played to win 38-13.
The 1986 Fiesta Bowl match-up was the first of two bowl games between the teams. The second came in Bill Callahan’s second season, the 2005 Alamo Bowl, a 32-28 Husker victory that ended with Titus Brothers making a tackle at the Nebraska 13-yard line following a 62-yard run that began with a cross-field pass and included a series of laterals.
The Huskers scored two touchdowns in the game’s final 8:08.
After the first of the touchdowns, on a 31-yard run by Cory Ross (followed by a 2-point conversion pass from Zac Taylor to Todd Peterson), Michigan lost two fumbles, the second setting up the winning touchdown, on a 13-yard pass from Taylor to Terrence Nunn.
Michigan’s fourth quarter that night was similar to Nebraska’s third quarter in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. “The first 7-8 minutes of the third quarter just killed us,” Tom Osborne said.
“I really thought our strength, depth and physical conditioning would help us in the fourth quarter, but we were too far away.”
As for Harbaugh, the nation’s leading passer in 1985, he finished with 6-of-15 passing for 63 yards and the two rushing touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.