Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Lloyd Carr Era: 1996

As the beginning of Lloyd Carr's 13th, and perhaps final, season as Michigan head coach draws nearer, I feel it is appropriate to summarize and analyze each season he has been the head honcho in Ann Arbor. Please keep in mind that I was but a young pup when LC took the reigns in 1995, so my summaries of the first couple years are based mostly on second-hand accounts of the events that transpired.

1996: Growing Pains and the Foundations of a Champion

1996 got off to a bizarre start in the sense that Michigan opened with a Big Ten game right off the bat with Illinois. After dispatching the Illini, the Wolverines were ranked 11th in the nation, and headed west to face #5 Colorado in Boulder. It was a much anticipated matchup not only because it was a game between two highly ranked teams, but it was a revenge game for Michigan, two years after Kordell Stewart's miracle in Michigan. This time around, there was no Hail Mary for Colorado at the end - barely. They almost caught lightning in a bottle again, but because Charles Woodson was back there this time, instead of Ty Law, Michigan averted disaster.

After the 20-13 win in Boulder, Michigan won back to back home games against Boston College and UCLA, entering Big Ten play 4-0, ranked 6th in the country...and then that damn purple team again. The lack of any competent offense finally cost them, as the defense wilted in the fourth quarter, and for the second straight year, Northwestern stunned Michigan, this time 17-16.

The offense bounced back in the next three games, scoring 27, 44, and 45 points against Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State respectively. Despite the hiccup against the Wildcats, the Wolverines were 7-1, ranked 9th in the nation, and on a collision course with Ohio State to decide the Big Ten title.

And then...the sky caved in. The offense performed its vanishing act again in an embarassing 9-3 loss at unranked Purdue. The malaise from that defeat carried over, as Penn State came into the Big House the next week and beat UM for the 3rd straight year, 29-17. Headed into the Ohio State game, Michigan was crippled, their Rose Bowl aspirations dashed and their confidence shattered.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, entered The Game undefeated once again, at 10-0. They seemed to be even more powerful than the previous year as well. Some of the scores from OSU's games in 1996 leading up to the Michigan game: 70-7, 72-0, 38-7, 42-14, 45-0, 48-0. They were ranked 2nd in the nation again, and with the game in Columbus, there was no chance the Wolverines would spoil Ohio State's national championship dreams again.

And then...The Slip.

Ohio State took a 9-0 lead into halftime, as the usual no-show by the offense and unbelievable performance by the defense somewhat kept the Wolverines in the game. Early in the second half, Michigan was trying to get the offense going before the burden on the defense became too much to bear. Quarterback Brian Griese threw a pass to wideout Tai Streets on a slant pattern, and suddenly Streets was in the open field, gone for a 69 yard touchdown. What happened? Ohio State's All-American cornerback Shawn Springs - described by OSU coach John Cooper as the best CB in America - had lost his footing and slipped on the play, freeing up Streets for the touchdown that changed the momentum for good. Michigan's defense stood tall, and the offense squeezed out a pair of field goals, and the coronation for John Cooper and his mighty Buckeyes was crashed again. Michigan 13, Ohio State 9. Afterward, many Buckeye fans rained hatred down on Coach Cooper as he left the field - how could he lose to Michigan again, when the difference in talent between the two teams was so painfully obvious?

Michigan lost the Outback Bowl to Alabama 17-14, to finish the season an average 8-4. But the colossal upset of Ohio State once again made things okay. Defensive back Marcus Ray, who clinched the OSU win with an INT on the game's final play, put it best:

"I'd rather not go to the Rose Bowl and beat Ohio State than go to the Rose Bowl and not beat Ohio State."

Lost in the euphoria of the Ohio State win and the disappointment of an average 8-4 season was Michigan's defense, which was lights out all season long - a prelude of things to come.

Lloyd vs. Ohio State: 2-0

Lloyd vs. Michigan State: 1-1

Lloyd vs. Notre Dame: --

Lloyd in Bowl Games: 0-2

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