TEMPE, Ariz. — Well, it didn’t take long. The first Impossible To Answer Sports Question of 1986 came in the late afternoon of January 1, when the final gun went off here at the Fiesta Bowl.
Did Michigan win it? Or did Nebraska lose it?
I figure you can make a case for either side. And you will. Depending on what colors you prefer in your sweaters, blue or red.
This was one of those games that people argue about in the car ride home, each one countering the other with a seemingly valid point, until they all go hoarse and have to turn on the radio.
Half-empty or half-full? The chicken or the egg? Did the guy fumble or was he stripped? Did the offense stumble or did the defense choke them? As Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said, “We did enough things to win a lot of ball games out there.”
But then, he lost.
You see what I mean.
Let’s start with the undeniable. The final score was 27-23, Michigan.
Well. So much for the the cold facts.
Actually, this too is hard to argue:
Nebraska was whupping Michigan in the first half. Even the man who names his first child Bo had to admit that.
The Cornhuskers drove on U-M better than any team had all year. And they scored two touchdowns — more than twice U-M’s average surrender per game — to take a 14-3 lead into halftime.
“A shock.” That’s what Bo Schembechler called it.
And then. . . . Something in the water? How can you explain it? 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. For the two teams that went into the halftime pow-wows did not seem to be the same ones that came out.
Nebraska, which had not committed a single turnover in the first half, developed a sudden case of the desert dropsies. The Cornhuskers fumbled the ball three of their first five plays in the second half. And the Wolverines
— who can tell when it’s Christmas, even on New Year’s — turned the mistakes into touchdowns, thanks largely to some absolutely magnificent running from sophomore Jamie Morris.
By the end of the quarter, “mistake-free” Nebraska had lost three fumbles, had a punt blocked, and was trailing, 27-14.
OK. Here’s where the Nebraska fan says “we lost it.” No team as good as the Cornhuskers loses the ball so often, right? Without those mistakes — whatever magical forces caused them — Nebraska would have kept going like the first half, and shut down Michigan easily, right?
Ah. Well. Maybe. Here’s where the Michigan fan says “We won it.” Doesn’t a good defense cause turnovers? Isn’t that what really happened?
“We played a great third period,” said Schembechler. “The turnovers of course helped us.”
Can’t tell too much from that, can you? The bottom line: 27-23 But then, as if that crazy third quarter wasn’t enough, the fourth unfolded as more kindling for the debate. Nebraska seemed to recover from its bout with fumbleitis and put together impressive drives.
The Cornhuskers scored a touchdown to close the lead to 27-21. Then they held Wolverines on a critical set of downs and forced U-M to take a safety and kick it back.
Had this period been a boxing round, it surely would have been awarded to Nebraska. And they were driving for the winning score, with the clock running out. And then quarterback Steve Taylor threw a long interception and that finished it. 27-23. Killed by a mistake.
“We played well for three quarters of a game,” said Osborne.
The Cornhusker fan will argue numbers. He will point out that Nebraska gained more than 300 yards on the ground, compared to 171 for U-M. That Nebraska won the time of possession battle. That Nebraska converted on third down better than U-M. “They just flat out gave the game away” moans the Husker.
Ahem, says the Michigan fan. Beg your pardon. The game was won by the strangling defense and the powerful rushing attack of the Wolverines.
Like I said. Impossible to answer. Both Schembechler and Osborne admit the mistakes were key. And that’s about all. Leave the debate to the fans.
Theories bend. Numbers do not.
27-23, forever Michigan. At least in the record books.
“I don’t get too many of these bowl wins,” said Schembechler, laughing, “so I cherish the ones I get.”
U-M fans will likely do no less.