When Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor was told his team would likely play in the Holiday Bowl against a team from the Pac-10 - someone other than No. 1 Southern California - he forced a half-hearted and less than enthusiastic smile.
But that was a big, wide grin Taylor was wearing after the deck got shuffled at the last minute and the Cornhuskers drew Michigan as their opponent in the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl.
"Nebraska against Michigan is a big game that will get a lot of national attention, and we don't mind that at all," Taylor said. "I wanted to play a Big Ten team, because that just makes it one of those classic matchups.
Everybody always thinks of the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big Eight as having all those powerhouse teams. We're looking forward to having the chance to hopefully beat a powerhouse like Michigan."
A month ago it looked like Taylor was just dreaming about a bowl that would never materialize. A humbling 40-15 loss at Kansas in early November nearly dashed Nebraska's postseason hopes, but the Cornhuskers closed the season with two wins, including a stunning 30-3 rout over Big 12 North Division champion Colorado - a game in which Taylor completed 27 of 43 passes for 392 yards and two scores - the second-best passing performance in school history.
"That Colorado game gave us a lot of momentum heading into the preparation for the bowl game," Taylor said. "Beating them did give us a lot of confidence, but we're not getting too overly excited about it now, because we'll have to play just as solid against a great program like Michigan. I don't think we could have been put into a better bowl game at this time."
Nebraska (7-4) was not able to call on its traditional powerful running game this season, as it rushed for only 1,001 yards as a team. Senior tailback Cory Ross did the bulk of the work, rushing for 721 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 3.7 yards per carry, and he said he expects to earn everything he gets against the Wolverines.
"Michigan is a big-time team with a lot of tradition, so this is going to be a big game," Ross said. "They beat Penn State this year, so we know that they play very well. I know that they are a physical team, and their defensive line is serious. They have a really big guy who is 6-8 (Pat Massey), and I have never seen a defensive lineman that big."
That Michigan line will need to keep the heat on Taylor, who completed 223 of 399 passes for almost 2,500 passing yards this season, with 10 interceptions and 16 touchdown passes. His top receiver was Nate Swift, who caught 42 passes for 610 yards, averaging 14.5 yards per catch and scoring six touchdowns.
"We'll spend a lot of extra time working on improving and getting better as we prepare for Michigan," Taylor said. "It is very important to play well. It will really top off our season if we can beat those guys. We have all of the respect in the world for Michigan. We really have to prepare hard, because we have a tough battle ahead of us."
The Cornhuskers scored a relatively modest 24 points per game, while giving up just over 20 per game. Punt returner Terrence Nunn was one of the top threats in the Big 12, averaging almost 20 yards per return. Kicker Jordan Congdon connected on 18-of-22 field goal tries, and missed just one of 29 extra point kicks. Punter Sam Koch averaged a robust 45.9 yards per kick on 63 punts, put 28 punts inside the 20-yard line, and had a long kick of 84 yards.
Nebraska defensive tackle Titus Adams, who said his team is hungry after failing to qualify for a bowl game last year, expects the Alamo Bowl to come down to a classic battle in the trenches between two of college football's most successful programs.
"When I found out that we were facing Michigan, I thought that it would be great match-up, because they are another powerful team with a lot of prestige," Adams said.
"They've got a good quarterback, strong running backs, and some very talented receivers. It's a big challenge for us, but one we're excited about. A lot of great players have come from both of these schools, and Nebraska against Michigan - it just kind of has a good ring to it and sounds pretty good."
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