SAN ANTONIO – Michigan couldn’t find a way to finish the game, but its defense almost finished Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor.
On the Cornhuskers’ first drive of the fourth quarter, Michigan defensive linemen Rondell Biggs and Alan Branch combined to slam Taylor into the turf. Branch had been in the quarterback’s face a number of times already; he knew how hard his teammates had pounded Taylor all night.
But from what he could tell, that hit seemed to hurt the most. Branch said he saw Taylor’s eyes roll back in his head after he and Biggs had “popped” Taylor.
“I don’t know how the hell that guy kept getting up,” Branch said.
The Wolverines never consistently pressured quarterbacks during the season and recorded just 19 sacks in 11 games – the fourth-lowest total in the Big Ten this year. Ohio State led the conference with 39. But the front seven made everyone forget that futility for much of the Alamo Bowl, hitting Taylor early and often en route to five sacks.
One of the more surprising parts of Michigan’s defensive performance may have been the fact that most of the pressure came from the line. The Wolverines’ leading sacker on the season was rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who notched six. But the rest of Michigan’s starting defensive linemen managed just five sacks. Against Nebraska, linebacker David Harris was the only non-lineman to sack Taylor.
“I think that was by far the best pressure I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Woodley said.
If Taylor had stayed on the turf after one of the Wolverines’ monstrous hits, few fans would have blamed him. But Taylor has found a way to bounce back all season. The junior left Nebraska’s win over Kansas State with a concussion in the fourth quarter but returned to action a week later to lead the Cornhuskers to a blowout win over Colorado.
“He stays right there in the pocket – he’s like the eye in the hurricane,” Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. “There’s flurry all around, and he stays calm and as poised as any quarterback I’ve ever coached,” a list that includes former Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon.
Likely a result of the Wolverines’ relentless pressure, Taylor completed just 14 of 31 pass attempts for 167 yards, almost 60 yards fewer than his season average. But the junior connected on three touchdown passes – including the game-winner with fewer than five minutes remaining.
Michigan administered a number of hits but couldn’t deliver the knockout punch.
“I think that we played well as a defense, but we didn’t step on their neck and give them no hope at the end of the game,” Branch said. “We could’ve stopped them from scoring a couple times, and they wouldn’t have even been close.”
The game’s finish fit the character of both teams. It was the fourth time this season that Michigan lost a game after it was ahead or tied in the fourth quarter. It was also the fourth time that Nebraska won a game when it trailed in the fourth quarter.
“We played this season as all-day fighters all year long,” Nebraska running back Cory Ross said. “We played a fourth-quarter game; we’re a fourth-quarter team. And we showed that.”