by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TEMPE, Ariz. — I don’t know what they put in the locker-room water out here, but I’m not leaving until I get some.

Cactus juice? Iguana blood? Something magical. Must be. For there were the Michigan Wolverines, down 14-3 at halftime of the Fiesta Bowl, and looking meek. Nebraska was whomping them. The thousands of Michigan fans who had flown thousands of miles and endured thousands of hangovers to get up for this New Year’s Day kickoff were watching a genuine maize and blue Desert Disaster.

Grab an ice bag. Pop some aspirin. For the Michigan defense had already allowed two touchdowns — more than twice what the Wolverines allowed on average for a whole game. And quarterback Jim Harbaugh was overthrowing receivers, running for his life, fumbling snaps. There was one play where he dropped back, scrambled, turned, scrambled, turned, and was knocked to the ground by his own man. A 22-yard loss. This was ugly.

And then, halftime. The teams disappeared into the locker rooms. And when they emerged, it was like that Monty Python movie.

And Now for Something Completely Different.

What’s in that water? Prairie dog milk? What? A low-key talk from Bo

Must be something. For Nebraska, which had not committed a single turnover in the first half, developed a sudden case of the desert dropsies. The Cornhuskers fumbled three of their first five plays in the second half. And the Michigan players — who can recognize Christmas presents, even on New Year’s Day — turned the mistakes into touchdowns.

The U-M offense sprung to life, mostly in the legs of sophomore running back Jamie Morris. He was magnificent, gaining 88 yards in the third quarter alone.

By the time the quarter was over, “mistake-free” Nebraska had lost three fumbles, had a punt blocked, and was trailing, 27-14.

What’s in that water? Rattlesnake juice?

You can’t attribute the turnaround to any almighty halftime speech by Bo Schembechler. “I didn’t really say much at all,” the coach claimed. “I just told them to play like Michigan.”

Maybe Nebraska coach Tom Osborne told his guys to play like Tuscaloosa High School. Whatever the case, by the time the Cornhuskers came gasping out of the third quarter, the game was all but out of reach.

Nebraska changed quarterbacks — from Clayton McCathorn to freshman Steve Taylor — and started to move. The Cornhuskers scored a touchdown to pull within 27-21. They held Michigan on a critical series of downs, after which U-M took a safety to make it 27-23. And they were driving toward a winning score with less than a minute left. It looked like the halftime elixir had worn off.

And then Taylor threw a long bomb to the end zone, Michigan intercepted, and Schembechler and his Wolverines had that rarest of winter jewels — a bowl win.

‘Fess up. Is it Possum juice? Scorpion syrup? U-M on a split decision

“I don’t know what happened to us,” said Osborne. “We haven’t had a punt blocked in what, three four, five years? I can’t explain it.”

Nor can most people who watched these Cornhuskers all year. They are better than they played in the third quarter. But then, U-M fans would argue that the Wolverines are better than they played in the first half.

In fact, people will be arguing over this one for a while. Nebraska dominated the numbers game, gaining 304 yards on the ground to Michigan’s 171, and easily winning the Time Of Possession Battle. If this game was a boxing match, Nebraska would have won three rounds to U-M’s one.

But the one was a knockout.

“That third quarter won it for us,” said Schembechler. “No question.”

And for statistics buffs, let the record show that the Wolverines have outscored their opponents, 103-6, in the third quarter this year. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise.

“They’re the toughest team we’ve played all season,” said Morris, who rightfully earned the offensive MVP honors with 156 yards rushing. “But we found a way to beat them.”

That cannot be denied. A bowl win is a bowl win — “I don’t have too many of these, so I have to cherish the ones I get,” said Schembechler — and this one likely knocks the Wolverines up a few pegs in the final polls.

Their season is officially over. A year in which no major pre-season poll picked them to make the top 20 sees them finish in the top five. Not bad. All that remains is to wait for the final polls.

And to find out what’s in that water.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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