The 1986 Fiesta Bowl brought together two traditional powers, Michigan and Nebraska, who had narrowly missed being in position to play for a national title, but still had a top-five national finish on the line when they met. Here’s a look back on the road the Wolverines and Cornhuskers took through the 1985 college football season and to their ultimate meeting on New Year’s Day in Tempe.
Michigan was coming off the most disappointing season of Bo Schembecler’s tenure in Ann Arbor. They had gone 6-5 in 1984 and then missed a chance at redemption when they lost the Holiday Bowl to undefeated BYU, the eventual national champion. After having gone to a major bowl in eight of the ten seasons prior to ’84, including five Rose Bowls, Bo wasn’t going to take this lying down.
He had few believers though, and the Wolverines opened the season unranked. The key to their revival would be defense. They had two All-Americans, defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein and Brad Cochran in the secondary, and collectively, the unit was one of the best in the country.
Schemebecler produced his traditional strong running game, as Jamie Morris ran for over 1,000 yards, and Gerald White provided a good change of pace with over 500 more. There were quality receivers, starting with Paul Jokish, who caught 37 balls and 18.4 yards-per-catch was third-best in the Big Ten. Tight end Eric Kattus was effective underneath, catching 38 passes for 582 yards.
Overseeing it all, was a quarterback that would go on to achieve some notoriety, both here, in the NFL and as a head coach in both college and the pros—that would be Jim Harbaugh. The current Michigan head coach was an underrated quarterback in his day. He wasn’t highly regarded, like conference rival Chuck Long at Iowa. But Harbaugh completed 64 percent of his passes, got 8.7 yards-per-attempt and posted an 18/6 TD-INT ratio.
The Wolverines opened the season at home with Notre Dame. It was the final year for Irish head coach Gerry Faust and ND would struggle to a 5-6 finish. They were ranked #13 when they came to Ann Arbor and Michigan won 20-12. The Wolverines then played another ranked team that would disappoint and finish 5-6, that being #15 South Carolina. The result here was a 34-3 win and Michigan was now up to #12 in the polls.
No one could ever accuse Schembecler of ducking non-conference competition. He lined up his third straight preseason Top 20 team in the Maryland Terrapins and this was a team that would stay good throughout the season, winning the ACC title and their only losses—outside of this game—were to Miami and Penn State, both of whom had title shots on New Year’s Night.
Harbaugh was efficient, going 16/20 for 196 yards, regularly finding Kattus. The tight end caught six passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns. The defense picked off Terps quarterback Stan Gelbaugh four times and Michigan posted a 20-0 shutout.
The Big Ten schedule was set to begin and the Wolverines were back in familiar territory as a Top 10 team. They blew out mediocre Wisconsin 33-6 and vaulted all the way to #3. A 31-0 rout at Michigan State, a good bowl-bound team with a 2,000-yard rusher in Lorenzo White, pushed Michigan to #2. It was time to go to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were ranked #1 in the country and all of Big Ten Country was jacked up for this game. Long was a Heisman contender (he would finish an extremely close second to Auburn’s Bo Jackson). Michigan never got anything going offensively, but a couple big special teams play combined with great red-zone defense had them ahead 10-9. Then Long was able to mount a last-second drive and win with a field goal on the game’s final play. Michigan paid a very small price in the polls, only dropping to #4. But a Rose Bowl return was now a tough row to hoe.
Michigan bounced back and blew out a bad Indiana team, 47-15, but then played their worst offensive game of the season in a 3-3 tie to Illinois. The positive was that Ohio State had beaten Iowa, opening up the conference race. The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes were tied atop the league at 4-1, with the Wolverines and Illini in hot pursuit at 3-1-1.
The Michigan offense got unleashed the next two games, blowing out mediocre teams in Purdue and Minnesota by a combined 95-7. In the meantime, Iowa had blasted Illinois, narrowing the race to three teams. On the season’s final week the stakes were simple—if the Hawkeyes lost to Minnesota, then the Michigan-Ohio State winner would go to Pasadena. And even if Iowa won, the stakes for a major bowl invite were high.
Michigan and Ohio State were tied 10-10 at the half in Ann Arbor, but Harbaugh was playing brilliantly. He finished 16/19 for 230 yards and three touchdowns. The Wolverines clung to a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter and were on their own 23-yard line. Harbaugh found John Kolesar down the sidelines for a 77-yard touchdown pass that put the game out of reach. The 27-17 win moved Michigan to #5 in the polls and ticketed them for Tempe.
Nebraska had gone to nine major bowls since Tom Osborne became head coach in 1973. The last two years were marked by heartbreak at the goal-line—a legendary failed two-point conversion in the Orange Bowl that cost them a national title in 1983 and a failed fourth down at the goal line against Oklahoma that cost them a #1 ranking going into the bowls.
The 1985 edition of the Cornhuskers didn’t have the same kind of overwhelming talent, but they still had an honorable mention All-American on each side of the line of scrimmage—center Bill Lewis and defensive end Jim Skow. The lead running back was Doug DuBose, whose 1,161 yards were second in the old Big Eight.
Nebraska also had Tom Rathman at fullback, who rushed for nearly 900 yards and would end playing with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in his NFL career. Paul Miles ran for nearly 700 more, rounding out an exceptionally deep stable of backs.
The depth at running back was needed, because the QB tandem of McCathorn Clayton and Travis Turner was problematic at best. Neither quarterback completed even 40 percent of his passes and they combined to throw only 133 passes all season long.
Nebraska was ranked #9 to start the season and a 17-13 home loss to an eight-win team in Florida State quickly sent the Cornhuskers down to #18. They had a week to lick their wounds and welcome Illinois into Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but the Illini came back and cut it to 17-10 in the second quarter. Clayton then hit a 64-yard pass—a single play that amounted to more than 10 percent of his passing yards on the season—that set up a DuBose touchdown. Nebraska would outrush Illinois 456-98, with DuBose going for 191. They took over the second half and rolled to a 52-24 win.
Expected routs of mediocre Oregon and woeful New Mexico were by a combined 101-7 and moved Nebraska back into the Top 10. The next game up was at Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys were ranked #5 and hungry to break into the Nebraska-Oklahoma duo that ruled the Big Eight.
Okie State also had Thurman Thomas, the future NFL MVP, whose 1,650 yards rushing easily led this conference. The Nebraska defense met the challenge and held Thomas to 71 yards, while DuBose ran for 139. After a scoreless first quarter, the Cornhuskers spotted the Cowboys a field goal, then ripped off 20 straight points by early in the third quarter.
Just as they had against Illinois though, the defense led Oklahoma State off the mat and the lead was cut to 20-17. It took touchdown runs by Rathman and Clayton to re-extend the lead and finally put the finishing touches on the 34-24 win. Wide receiver Rob Schintzler was an unexpected hero, catching four balls for 119 yards.
Nebraska had a bit of a letdown at woeful Missouri the next week, escaping 28-20, but they still nudged up to #5 in the polls. The Cornhuskers beat a pretty good Colorado team 17-7, and then rolled through the first three games of November. Nebraska beat Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas by a combined 146-9, and were sitting pretty at #2 in the nation.
It was already known that top-ranked Penn State was going to the Orange Bowl to play the Nebraska-Oklahoma winner, so the Cornhuskers controlled their own destiny. What they couldn’t control, or do anything with, was the Sooner defense. The Cornhuskers were completely shut down in a 27-7 loss, where their only touchdown came on a long fumble return in the game’s final minute. They would settle for a Fiesta Bowl bid as a consolation prize, going to Tempe ranked #7.
Nebraska looked in control in the first half. DuBose ran for two touchdowns and the lead was 14-3 at halftime. The Cornhuskers would ultimately win the rushing battle 304-171, and the passing edge Michigan had with Harbaugh never materialized all game long.
But the Wolverines were the ones who made all the plays in the third quarter. They blocked a punt to set up one score. The Cornhuskers turned it over twice, setting up more gift points. Jamie Morris took off on an 88-yard touchdown run. A shocking 24-point third-quarter explosion gave Michigan a 27-14 lead.
Nebraska wasn’t done. They turned to Steve Taylor at quarterback, the man of the future turned into the man of the present. He ran for 76 yards, including a touchdown that cut the lead to six points. Michigan voluntarily took a safety that made it 27-23. Nebraska got one final chance at a desperation pass to the end zone, but Wolverine corner Garland Rivers picked it off with 28 seconds left.
Both programs would continue to be on the national stage and their more important links in history would come when they shared the national title in 1997, and later as conference rivals after Nebraska moved to the Big Ten for the 2011 season. But the 1986 Fiesta Bowl is one of those hidden little gems in college football history, when Michigan completed a redemption tour of a season that ended with them ranked #2 in the nation.