Friday, August 17, 2007

The Lloyd Carr Era: 1997

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.

1997: Climbing Everest

1997 wasn't expected to be a season of glory for Michigan. They entered the season 14th in the polls, and both Ohio State and Penn State were picked to finish ahead of them in the Big Ten. That was understandable, since Lloyd Carr was a pedestrian 17-8 in his first two years. The defense had been stellar in 1996, and was expected to be solid again, but the offense wasn't supposed to have enough firepower. Brian Griese provided nice senior leadership at QB, and there were some good offensive lineman like Jon Jansen, Jeff Backus and Steve Hutchinson. Tai Streets was back at wideout, but overall the offense seemed to be just "eh" - certainly not powerful enough to put Michigan past the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions.

Colorado provided another early season test, visiting the Big House for the 2nd time in four years, this time ranked #8. There would be no Hail Mary this time - unless the Buffaloes prayed for mercy during the game. Michigan's defense put their feet on Colorado's throat from the outset, dominating them from beginning to end 27-3.

Baylor was next, 38-3. Notre Dame played the Wolverines tough, but the defense did its thing, 21-14.

The Big Ten season opened in Bloomington against the Hoosiers. I have vague recollections of watching this game, and I laugh now, because I remember being worried before the game started. That happens when you're eight years old - I wasn't aware that Indiana was/is a cupcake in the Big Ten. A few hours later it was 37-0 Michigan. The next week those damn Northwestern Wildcats came to Ann Arbor, looking for 3 straight wins against UM...not this time: 23-6.

Things went crazy the next week. Michigan was now #5 in the country, and #15 Iowa was coming to the Big House. The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead, punctuated by a punt return for a touchdown by Tim Dwight on the final play of the second quarter. This was the pressure point for Brian Griese, and he responded brilliantly. With a little help from the defense, the senior QB led the second half comeback and threw the game winning touchdown to tight end Jerame Tuman with 2:55 to go, giving Michigan the 28-24 win.

The next week was another #5 vs. #15 matchup, as the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing to face their in-state rivals, Michigan State. The shine on the matchup had been tarnished a bit, since MSU had been undefeated before losing the week before to Northwestern. But it's never easy to go into Spartan Stadium and win - unless you have Michigan's 1997 defense. The only points for the day by MSU came via a fake field goal. Other than that, it was the Charles Woodson Show, as he snagged two interceptions, including the greatest interception I have ever seen in my life. MSU's quarterback Todd Schultz rolled out of the pocket to the right, and when he saw no receiver open, he threw the ball away to avoid a sack. The only thing was, he "threw it away" right near Woodson, who was lurking near the sideline. #2 lunged into the air full extension, got his right hand on the football (fully stretched above his head), somehow managed to reel the ball in, and on the right day, found a way to stab his left foot inbounds before falling to the turf out of bounds, the ball secured in his right arm to his chest. The crowd - which had been sitting on their hands for a while anyway - knew it was over. The Wolverines picked off six passes, and beat the Spartan quarterbacks up so bad, at one point one sideline reporter asked (about MSU's 3rd-string QB), "Is he dead?" When it was all over, Michigan won 23-7, and for the first time, those two hallowed words - "Rose Bowl" - were beginning to be whispered.

The next game was a formality, as 4th-ranked Michigan steamrolled 2-6 Minnesota 24-3. This game was just a blip on the radar; everyone was already looking ahead to the next week - the week where everyone in the nation would see whether or not Michigan was for real - and the game that ten years later, Michigan fans still refer to as Judgment Day.

#4 Michigan. #3 Penn State. The largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history (at the time), 97,498. Penn State was 3-0 against Michigan since joining the Big Ten, and given their track record, most expected the Nittany Lions to make it four in a row.

In the end, Judgment Day was a crowning moment for the Maize and Blue. The Wolverines utterly pulverized Penn State, 34-8, in front of Coach Joe Paterno, the Penn State fans, and the national audience watching on ABC. Two plays summed it up. One was Charles Woodson's touchdown, which came on a 37 yard pass down the middle from Griese, with no Penn State defender remotely close to him. The other was Daydrion Taylor's ultimate sacrifice. In the second quarter, Penn State's tight end made a reception and turned up field on the far sideline. Taylor, a backup cornerback/safety, probably had him lined up from a good ten years away. The collision was horrible, the sound sickening. The crunch of the helmets and shoulder pads colliding brought a gasp from the crowd. And when neither player got up, or even moved, the silence lingered in Beaver Stadium. Both men would eventually get up and walk off the field, but for a moment, they had both been knocked unconscious. Taylor's playing days were over, but in the blink of an eye, he had found his own place in the hearts of all Michigan fans.

After Judgment Day, the Wolverines vaulted to #1 in the polls. The coaches believed, the players believed, and now the nation believed as well.

Sandwiched in between showdowns with Penn State and Ohio State was a road game at Wisconsin. Camp Randall is always a hostile environment, but the Wolverines were too focused and determined to be tripped up now. It wasn't their best effort, but it was enough to leave Madison with a 26-16 win, setting up the biggest game with Ohio State in years.

Once again, the Buckeyes were highly ranked and very powerful coming into the Michigan game, this time at 10-1, with their lone loss being a 31-27 loss to Penn State. Unlike the previous two years however, Michigan was right there with the Buckeyes in the top 5. #4 Ohio State @ #1 Michigan.

In a rivalry always defined by signature performances, Charles Woodson sealed the Heisman Trophy against the Buckeyes. Coming into the game, Ohio State sophomore wide receiver David Boston fired his mouth off, declaring that the Buckeyes would beat Michigan by two or three touchdowns. Woodson fired back, and the war was on. While Boston struggled early on, obviously jittery, Woodson entered the game on offense in the second quarter, and caught a 37 yard pass to set up Anthony Thomas' touchdown that put the Wolverines ahead 7-0.

Later in the second quarter, the signature play of Woodson's career at Michigan, and the signature play of 1997 occurred. The Buckeyes were once again forced to punt, and like Desmond Howard did six years earlier, Woodson took the punt back for a touchdown, 78 yards to put Michigan ahead 13-0 (the extra point was blocked). Perhaps the greatest part about Woodson's punt return is the fact that someone managed to capture a photo of it with David Boston standing on the Ohio State sideline right as Woodson ran by. Boston could only stand there with his fists clenched as his nemesis ran to glory.

Woodson wasn't done though. With the score still 13-0, Ohio State's offense finally found its legs early in the third quarter, and was driving inside the 10 yard line, about to punch it in on Michigan's defense. One of their wide receivers ran a poor route into the endzone though, and Woodson cut underneath it and ran right into QB Stanley Jackson's pass for an interception. Once again, Woodson shimmied his shoulders. He was always arrogant, always cocky, and his ego gave Michigan's defense attitude, an edge over opponents.

Only moments later, on Ohio State's next drive near midfield, Jackson tried to escape as the pocket collapsed around him. He tried to do too much though, and threw an ill-advised pass that landed right in the arms of UM cornerback Andre Weathers, who sprinted untouched to the endzone for a 20-0 Michigan lead.

The Buckeyes did eventually find the scoreboard. In fact, Boston burned Woodson badly on a touchdown pass (and stupidly waved the ball in the beaten Woodson's face as he scored, earning a 15-yard penalty and a yelling from Coach Cooper). It was the only highlight for Boston on the day...but not the only highlight involving him. In the fourth quarter, with the Buckeyes down 20-14, Boston lunged high into the air across the middle to try and get an errant pass. Michigan safety Marcus Ray tagged him in the leg, undercutting him from behind. Boston crashed down the earth square on his shoulder blades. He laid there, the air smashed out of him, symbolic of the Buckeyes on that day. Glen Steele sacked Joe Germaine twice in the closing minutes, and the Wolverines held on, 20-14, once again vanquishing their archrivals, and clinching a ticket to Pasadena in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

The Rose Bowl had, and has, always been a bugaboo for Michigan (and the rest of the Big Ten for the most part). Its location in southern California gives the Pac-10 representative a de facto homefield advantage in both fans and travel. Before the Ohio State game on ABC, a segment ran about Lloyd Carr talking to his team about a group of men who had tried to climb Mount Everest and perished doing so. For Michigan, OSU had been a major stepping stone, but the Rose Bowl was the summit of their Mount Everest. There, they met the 8th-ranked Washington State Cougars, led by Ryan Leaf, who had not yet become the posterchild for NFL Draft busts. Then, he was the 6'5 gunslinger with an attitude, looking to go out on a high note in the Rose Bowl. Like many Pac-10 teams, the Cougars had a powerful offense, averaging 42.5 points per game on the season, with their lowest output being 24 in a win against Oregon. Their only loss had been to Arizona State, the Pac-10 champions of 1996. The Sun Devils had missed out on repeating as champions due to losing the season finale to Arizona. So the 1998 Rose Bowl pitted Washington State's awesome passing attack against Michigan's lights out pass defense, led by Heisman winning CB Charles Woodson. Wazzu's offense got the early edge, as Leaf connected for a touchdown in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. They were driving again in the second quarter, when once again, Charles Woodson changed the face of the game, picking Leaf off in the endzone to snuff the Cougars out. And once again, the shoulders were shimmeying.

Brian Griese threw two long touchdowns to Tai Streets, and a 3rd score to Jerame Tuman in the 4th quarter. Despite Ryan Leaf's best efforts (and a blatant offensive pass interference penalty that wasn't called), time ran out on the Cougars, and the Wolverines had reached the summit. The 21-16 final score gave Michigan a Rose Bowl victory, a 12-0 record, and a national championship (technically half, due to the cowardice of the coaches voting with their hearts instead of their minds).

In retrospect, the 1997 season has been both a blessing and a curse for Lloyd Carr and everyone else associated with Michigan. Of course nobody would trade the memories forged by Woodson and co. for anything, and the entire season was one big dream that we never woke up from, but the disappointment and underachieving that has taken place since then has been amplified by the standards set by that magical set of men that took the field for the Maize and Blue in Nineteen-hundred and ninety-seven.

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