SAN ANTONIO – He may not be Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb, but sophomore quarterback Chad Henne did his best impression in Michigan’s 32-28 loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.
Throughout Henne’s first two seasons as the Wolverines’ signal caller, critics said that he took too many sacks and did not show enough mobility. But against the Cornhuskers, Henne exhibited a set of wheels even a scrambling quarterback could appreciate.
“(Running with the football) is something we’ve tried to get him to do since he’s been here … it takes time to develop the knack,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He has some mobility and has the ability to make plays with his feet.”
Although his rushing stats are not incredibly impressive – 13 attempts for 38 yards and a touchdown – they include 20 yards lost from four Nebraska sacks.
Early on, it became evident that Henne would do more running than he had in any other game this season. On the Wolverines’ first offensive play, Henne couldn’t find anyone open down the field and decided to just tuck the ball and get as many yards as possible – on this play, zero. But that wasn’t the case for the whole game.
Right after the Cornhuskers took a 7-0 lead, junior receiver Steve Breaston’s 60-yard kickoff return set Michigan up with great field position. On the ensuing possession, Nebraska bottled up the Wolverines on their first two plays, but on third-and-12 from the Cornhuskers’ 32-yard line, Henne dropped back and took off up the middle. Fourteen yards later, Michigan had a key first down that helped it even the score at seven.
“Their defensive front four broke up a lot of plays,” Henne said. “They made it hard to run or pass. They did a great job, and I was stepping up into the pocket hard to avoid their pass rush. So at times, it was better to run it than to throw an incompletion.”
Henne’s willingness to take what Nebraska’s defense was giving him slowed the pass rush in the second half and allowed Michigan to take advantage instead of trying to squeeze the ball into coverage.
“I think it’s him maturing and seeing some things and not forcing the ball,” offensive coordinator Terry Malone said. “They were playing a lot of coverage down in the red zone and combo-ing guys, and he took advantage of that. He really can run pretty well. It’s not like he can’t run. So hopefully, that’s a sign of something to come in the future.”
No play showed that maturity better than Michigan’s last touchdown. On second-and-goal from the Cornhuskers seven-yard line, Henne executed a play-action fake to running back Mike Hart. Seeing no open players, Henne made Nebraska pay with his legs, scoring a touchdown and giving the Wolverines a 28-17 lead.
But it was here that everything fell apart for Michigan, including a key fumble by Henne at the Wolverines’ 24-yard line. Henne looked for a pass to the flat, and his arm was hit as he threw. It looked like an incomplete pass but was ruled a fumble. The officials reviewed the play but it was not overturned.
“My body was definitely towards the flat,” Henne said. “It was coming out as clean as possible. He clipped my arm. Some things just don’t go your way. I followed through, just like a regular pass. I don’t know what they’re looking at.”
Despite the fumble, Carr said he believes that Henne gave his team a chance to win all the way to the end. Henne’s play echoes those sentiments. He finished the game 21-for-43 with 270 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
On Michigan’s final drive, Henne completed four of seven passes and had the Wolverines in position to win. On third-and-eight, Henne fired a long out, right onto the hands of freshman Mario Manningham, but the usually sure-handed wideout couldn’t hold on. Then on fourth-and-eight, Henne put the ball on Manningham’s numbers, but the pass fell incomplete. But it looked as if Nebraska cornerback Zackary Bowman may have pulled Manningham’s arm back before the ball arrived.
“This is a great year to learn from. You learn from experience – you learn from defeat, you don’t give up,” Henne said.