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.
1998 was expected to be another great season for Michigan. They were ranked #5 in the preseason, and returned almost all their starters on both sides of the ball. Their two most valuable players though, QB Brian Griese and CB Charles Woodson, departed. So there were holes to fill, but they weren't supposed to be insurmountable. Some no-name junior named Tom Brady stepped in at QB, and would spend the next two years in a farcical battle with Drew Henson.
The season couldn't have started any worse. In the opener, 30 straight points by Notre Dame buried the defending champions, 36-20. The next week saw Michigan hit rock bottom, as Donovan McNabb brought the Syracuse Orangemen into the Big House and blow the Wolverines out. The defense was caught off guard by McNabb's mobility running options and scrambling about, and before they knew it, Syracuse led 38-7. The Wolverines heaved the ball 44 times and scored 3 straight touchdowns, but lost 38-28. Many look back at this game as the real beginning of Michigan's glaring weakness against mobile quarterbacks.
The back-to-back losses dropped Michigan out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1993. After two weeks out of the polls, they got back in at #25 with consecutive wins against Eastern Michigan and Michigan State. They then faced Iowa in Iowa City, and in absolutely miserable conditions, the Wolverines eeked out a 12-9 win. The ugly, close game dropped them from the polls again, and for another 2 weeks, they were unranked - once they got back into the top 25 late in October, they would stay there until 2005.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines kept winning in brutal fashion - 12-6 against Northwestern, 21-10 against Indiana, 15-10 against Minnesota. They had regrouped from their 0-2 start and were now 6-2 and ranked #22, welcoming #9 Penn State to Ann Arbor. PSU's only loss had been to Ohio State, so they still had Big Ten title aspirations. The defense found their 1997 swagger in this one, completely stifling anything the Nittany Lions tried. When it was over, Michigan had their second straight blowout win over Penn State, this one to the tune of 27-0, the first time PSU had been shut out since 1987.
Wisconsin came to the Big House the next week, and they were 9-0. But they had not proven themselves yet, missing Ohio State from the schedule completely and not playing Penn State until the next week. They did however, bring their bowling ball running back Ron Dayne with them. Dayne had been tearing up Big Ten defenses since 1996, but the Wolverines always had an answer for him, and this time was no different, holding him to 53 yards on 16 carries. With Dayne under wraps, Wisconsin was doomed, as the Wolverines gained the inside track to the Big Ten title with a 27-10 win.
Unfortunately they would relinquish that inside track the very next week at the Horseshoe against Ohio State. The Buckeyes had entered 1998 as the consensus #1 team in the nation, and had won their first eight games before losing an absolute stunner at home to a Michigan State team that would finish 6-6. The fact that John Cooper finally got off the schneid against Michigan only made the fanbase in Columbus angrier for losing the national title to an inferior team like the Spartans.
And the Michigan/Ohio State game was never close. Turnovers and special teams errors buried the Wolverines, and with his nemesis Charles Woodson gone, OSU wide receiver David Boston tore loose for 10 catches, 217 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Ohio State pounded the Wolverines, 31-16. The loss cost Michigan the Rose Bowl, and because both Wisconsin and Ohio State had better overall records, they won the tie-breakers. Wisconsin got the Rose Bowl, Ohio State got the Sugar Bowl, and Michigan, after beating Hawaii the next week in an oddball game after OSU week, went to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl against 11th ranked Arkansas.
The Citrus Bowl was Anthony Thomas's coming out party. The sophomore running back finished the season with 891 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, and in the Citrus Bowl he ran for 132 yards and three TDs on just 21 carries.
The game was in doubt until the final minutes though, but Tom Brady hit DiAllo Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown with 2:25 remaining to put the Wolverines ahead 38-31. Cornerback James Whitley returned an interception for a touchdown two plays later, sealing a 45-31 win for the Wolverines.
Despite the early season ugliness and the loss of the Big Ten title at the end, a 10-3 finish capped off with an exciting bowl win can never be frowned upon, and with Brady and Thomas coming back, big, big things were expected out of Michigan headed into 1999.
Lloyd Carr vs. Ohio State: 3-1
Lloyd Carr vs. Michigan State: 3-1
Lloyd Carr vs. Notre Dame: 1-1
Lloyd Carr in Bowl Games: 2-2