Take away the third quarter and Nebraska probably would have won the 1986 Fiesta Bowl game against Michigan (and Jim Harbaugh), handily. Without it, the score would’ve been 23-3.
Certainly there were games during Tom Osborne’s 25 seasons as head coach that turned on the Huskers’ play during one quarter. But none quite like the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.
The Huskers led 14-3 at halftime on a pair of second-quarter touchdowns by I-back Doug Dubose, the first on a 5-yard pass from McCathorn Clayton, the second on a 3-yard run.
More to the point here, perhaps, Nebraska had not committed a turnover.
In any case, the third quarter went like this.
The Huskers received the ball to start the half. Captains Mike Knox, Jim Skow and Bill Lewis—there were only three, all seniors—had won the toss and elected to defer.
Sophomore I-back Keith Jones returned the kickoff 25 yards from the end zone, first-and-10 at the 25. Fullback Tom Rathman was stopped for no gain on first down, and a Clayton pass intended for DuBose was broken up, leaving third-down-and-10—and entry into the Twilight Zone.
Clayton handed the ball to DuBose, who fumbled. Michigan recovered at the Nebraska 21-yard line, only 50 seconds into the quarter.
An incomplete Harbaugh pass was followed by a 19-yard run by Jamie Morris and a pair of 1-yard carries by Gerald White. The extra-point was good: Nebraska 14, Michigan 10.
Paul Miles returned the kickoff 29 yards to the Husker 33-yard line. On first down, Clayton pitched to DuBose, who handed to wingback Von Sheppard on a reverse.
The ball was mishandled, but Sheppard recovered for a 5-yard loss.
Trouble averted—or simply delayed.
On second down, Clayton kept, gained 10 yards, and fumbled. Michigan recovered at the Nebraska 38-yard line with not quite 3 minutes gone in the quarter.
The Wolverines tried some trickery. Harbaugh pitched to wide receiver Paul Jokisch, who threw a pass intended for another wide receiver, John Kolesar. Incomplete.
Then Morris gained 20, and White gained 19. After White was stopped for no gain, Harbaugh got the ball into the end zone. The extra-point kick made the score Michigan 17, Nebraska 14.
But wait, there was more . . .
Nebraska ran five plays, including a 22-yard Clayton pass to tight end Todd Frain for a first down. But the Huskers couldn’t capitalize and faced fourth down at their 35-yard line.
Dan Wingard’s punt was blocked and recovered by Michigan at the Husker 6-yard line.
The Husker defense refused to concede a touchdown this time; linebacker Kevin Parsons was involved in three consecutive tackles, and on fourth-and-2, Michigan kicked a 19-yard field goal.
Wolverines 20, Nebraska 14.
Nebraska went three-and-out on its next possession, and a 30-yard Wingard punt gave the Wolverines possession at their 48-yard line.
On first down, Morris took a pitchout and ran 26 yards to the Husker 26. During the rest of what officially was a seven-play touchdown drive, Michigan was flagged for holding but Nebraska was flagged for pass interference, twice. Harbaugh scored from 2 yards out.
The Wolverines went for two, converted, but were called for holding, after which they settled for an extra-point kick. The score was Michigan 27, Nebraska 14.
“We just lost our concentration,” Osborne said afterward. “Why? I don’t know.”
Let’s run that third quarter back. Nebraska fumbled three times, losing two; had a punt blocked and was flagged for pass interference twice.
Nebraska drove from its own 3-yard line to the Michigan 14 on its first possession of the fourth quarter, despite two fumbles, both of which it recovered. Clayton completed a 9-yard pass to Frain on the third play, his fourth completion in six attempts, and was replaced by freshman Steve Taylor.
“We needed a change,” Clayton said of the seemingly curious substitution.
After Nebraska was penalized for delay of game from the 14, Taylor’s fourth-down pass, intended for Rod Smith, was broken up with 8:08 remaining in the game.
The Huskers got the ball back and drove 77 yards on 12 plays, the big ones a 31-yard pass from Taylor to Sheppard and a pair of 12-yard runs by Taylor, who scored the touchdown on a sneak from 1 yard out. Dale Klein’s extra-point kick cut the deficit to six with 2:29 remaining.
Michigan then faced fourth-and-16 from its 14-yard line with time running out. Instead of punting, the Wolverines took a safety with 1:22 left.
Sheppard returned the free kick, a punt, 30 yards to the Nebraska 46. Taylor scrambled for 5 yards, threw a pass that was broken up with 39 seconds remaining then threw a pass into the end zone that was intercepted 11 seconds later.
Michigan 27, Nebraska 23.
“I really thought our strength, depth and physical conditioning would help us in the fourth quarter,” said Osborne. “But we were too far away.”
Too far away because of their own doing, you might say.
In one quarter of play.
Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.
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.