2005 Alamo Bowl Preview
Dec. 22, 2005
#20/21 Michigan (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Nebraska (7-4, 4-4 Big 12)
When the No. 20 Michigan Wolverines and unranked Nebraska Cornhuskers meet at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio on Dec. 28, two of college football's most prestigious programs clash for the first time in two decades. The Wolverines' 848 all-time wins ranks them as the nation's winningest program, while the Huskers, who shared the 1997 national title with Michigan, are fourth with 793 wins. But this year's match up is different than most for both storied teams.
Michigan started the year 3-3, suffering for an early dose of injuries and a tough schedule that featured eight bowl teams. But the Wolverines pulled together a 4-1 streak to make its 31st straight bowl appearance - the longest string of postseason appearances in the country. The Huskers owned that honor with a 35-year run that ended last season, a year in which their streak of 42 consecutive winning seasons also ended. Michigan took over that distinction as well with 38.
Second-year Nebraska coach Bill Callahan is no stranger to Big Ten bowl success. In his five years as Wisconsin's offensive line coach from 1990-1994, Callahan helped lead the Badgers to their first-ever Rose Bowl win in 1994.
History may play a part for Michigan as well. In the 10-year history of the Big Ten-Big 12 Alamo Bowl square off, Big Ten teams have won seven times.
Michigan's Bowl Record: 18-18
Michigan on Offense
In its four losses, Michigan has put up quite a fight, narrowly missing in games to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State by a total of 17 points. The Wolverines are scoring 28.2 points per game and perform best when they can take advantage early, out-scoring opponents by 95 points in the first half.
The Wolverines returned a star-studded sophomore duo of quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart, who had hoped to pick up where their All-Big Ten rookie seasons left off, but an injury-plagued season hit Michigan's offensive troupe the hardest.
The primary focus of Michigan's offense, Hart missed four games this season when he was sidelined with hamstring and ankle injuries. Despite the absence, he leads the Wolverines' rushing attack with 588 yards. Meanwhile, Henne has amassed 2,256 yards and 20 touchdowns, and has only counted seven interceptions.
Consensus All-Big Ten selection Jason Avant ranks second in the conference with 74 catches and 936 receiving yards. With dexterous hands and speed, Avant has pulled down eight touchdowns this year.
The health of the Wolverine offensive line, including starting linemen Jake Long and Leo Henige, has also been hit hard. Although Long was expected to miss the bowl game after suffering an injury in Michigan's final regular season game, the starting right tackle will play and give the Wolverines' offensive front a boost against Nebraska's sack-happy defense. Also buckling down the Wolverines line are first team All-Conference and fifth-year seniors Matt Lentz at right guard and Adam Stenavich at left tackle.
Nebraska on Offense
In their second season with the west coast offense, the Huskers are still adjusting to the new system. Nebraska ranked ninth in the Big 12 with 24 points per game and tenth with 320 yards per game. The squad bottomed out at last in total rushing.
In his first year, junior quarterback Zac Taylor has thrown for 2486 yards and 16 touchdowns while learning the ins and outs of the west coast set up, but tossed 10 interceptions, the fifth-highest in the Big 12. Taylor is coming of back-to-back career games. He amassed 612 yards and four touchdowns - without any interceptions - in wins against Kansas State and Colorado. He racked up almost 400 yards and two touchdowns in the Huskers' road win against Colorado.
With Taylor growing more comfortable in Callahan's offense, the Huskers are turning to the run less and less. Averaging 91 rushing yards per game, Nebraska ranks 112 th in the country. Despite his size - only 5'6" and 195 pounds - senior running back Corey Ross has been the Huskers' biggest ground game playmaker. He leads the team in rushing yards, claiming 721 of the Huskers' 1,001, and scored four touchdowns. Ross has also proved his versatility, pulling in a team second-best 40 receptions. Ross totaled 142 yards and one scoring run in the defeat of the Buffaloes.
On the receiving end, the Huskers have a trio of receivers sharing the production load. Leading the unit with 42 grabs and 610 yards, redshirt freshman Nate Swift has pulled in six touchdowns. Just behind Ross, Terrence Nunn has 404 yards on 39 receptions and five touchdowns.
Michigan on Defense
In a conference loaded with some of the nation's leading defensive competition, the Wolverines ranked fourth in the Big Ten, allowing only 19.3 points per game, and third in total yards allowed. The unit yielded more than 25 points on only one occasion this season in the Wolverines' 34-31 overtime win against Michigan State.
Senior defensive tackle and first team All-Big Ten selection Gabe Watson will look to shut down the Husker's ailing running game from the line along with fellow defensive frontman Pat Massey, and junior linebacker LaMarr Woodley plans to put Taylor's passing under fire. Woodley leads the unit with 15 tackles for loss, including six sacks for a total of 54 yards, and has forced three fumbles. Senior linebacker David Harris has counted 80 tackles, ranking him 10 th in the Big Ten and first among the Wolverines in stops. Junior linebacker Prescott Burgess has the team's third-highest stops total of 77.
Leading the league's fourth-best pass defense, All-Big Ten second team corner Leon Hall has wreaked havoc on opposing receivers. Hall's all-around solid game has delivered two interceptions, five broken up passes, two forced fumbles and 57 tackles. Cornerback Grant Mason is the team's No. 2 tackler, not far behind Harris with 79 stops.
Nebraska on Defense
The Huskers' defense also ranked fourth in their conference in points allowed, giving up 20.4 per contest. The Huskers boast a greatest threat is a monstrous trio: sophomores Corey McKeon and Bo Ruud, and senior safety Dan Bullocks, who lead the unit in stops. McKeon is the No. 1 defender in tackles for a loss, with 19 for 82 yards. He also has a team-best three interceptions and 10 quarterback hurries. Ruud, however, will miss the Alamo Bowl game with a broker arm. The second-leading tackler, Ruud made 15 stops against Kansas State and had 14 on the season for loss. The most likely candidate for his replacement is Lance Brandenburgh.
While that dangerous threesome puts the pressure on Hart, defensive end Adam Carriker and the rest of Nebraska's dominating front plan to go to work on Michigan's offensive line and Henne. The Huskers made a nation-leading 46 sacks this season, tying the third-highest mark in school history. Carriker leads the team with 9.5 sacks for a loss of 84 yards.
While the Huskers' pass defense ranked last in the Big 12 at the end of 2004, the secondary has improved drastically this season, leaping to third in the conference. The Huskers have Bullocks, who is seventh in the conference among defensive backs in tackles, and sophomore corner Courtney Grixby have led the forward progress. Grixby also has 40 tackles and 10 passes broken-up.
Keys to the game
Health is going to be the biggest question facing Michigan's offense. Hart is expected to play, and if the Wolverines' primary back is healthy and can be an offensive threat, it will be key to a Maize and Blue victory. A strong, fully-intact offensive line will also be crucial to avoiding many offensive woes for the Wolverines against Nebraska's aggressive defense.
The biggest period of the game could be the second quarter. Michigan has out-scored its adversaries 116-64, while Nebraska has led its opponents 91-46. But for the high-scoring second quarter to be a catalyst for Michigan, the team has to be cautious of the fourth-quarter drop-off. In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter against Ohio State, Michigan's defense gave up two touchdowns and 155 yards. If the Wolverines can jump to an early lead, sustaining their defensive pressure and offensive productivity through out four quarters could be the biggest difference in who comes out with the win.