Monday, August 20, 2007

The Lloyd Carr Era: 1999

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.

1999: Captain Comeback - and what could've been

Expectations for Michigan in 1999 were high - as they always are, especially when there's a senior quarterback calling the shots. Tom Brady was back for one more year, and although Drew Henson loomed, Brady was given his shot to prove himself, and with weapons like Anthony Thomas, David Terrell, Marcus Knight and Marquise Walker, things looked bright.

Ranked #7 to start the season, Michigan had a challenge right off the bat, hosting #16 Notre Dame - the same team that blasted UM 36-20 in South Bend in 1998. The game went back and forth with six lead changes, but the 5th one - which gave Notre Dame a 22-19 lead with 4:08 remaining - proved costly for the Irish, as they were penalized for excessive celebration. The penalty and ensuing kickoff return gave Michigan the ball at their own 42, plenty of time for Tom Brady. This was obviously before he was famous for his late game heroics with the Patriots, but 1999 was the year of the late game drive for Brady, and it started against the Irish. Two big passes and a 15 yard penalty put the Wolverines at the five yard line, and Thomas punched it in with 1:38 remaining. The Irish nearly broke our hearts, getting the ball to Michigan's 12 yard line, but UM linebacker Dhani Jones came up with a huge sack, and Notre Dame, without any timeouts, could only watch the clock run out.

The next two games went by without incident - a 37-3 win over Rice, and a bit of a revenge win over Syracuse 18-13 (even though Donovan McNabb was gone). The next game was in Madison against the defending Rose Bowl champion Badgers and their uberstar Ron Dayne. Despite a stunning loss to Cincinnati the previous week, Wisconsin would be formidable all season long; Dayne would break Ricky Williams' one-year old all-time rushing record in NCAA history, and would win the Heisman Trophy, but for the second straight year, Michigan's defense put the breaks on him. The bruiser was held to 88 yards on 22 carries, and ZERO yards on 8 carries after halftime. The Badgers' defense kept them in it (as usual), but Michigan pulled it out 21-16.

After blowing out Purdue 38-12, the Wolverines found themselves at #3 in the polls, headed on the orad to take on the team replacing Purdue at #11 in the polls, in-state rival Michigan State. The game was a joke, as Plaxico Burress of Michigan State mugged and shoved Michigan's DBs all day long to the tune of 10 receptions for 255 yards. That wasn't the deciding factor though. The deciding factor was Lloyd Carr's insane infatuation with Drew Henson. All Tom Brady did was complete 30 of 41 passes for 285 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Henson was 6-12 with an interception. It was Brady in the fourth quarter, leading three touchdown drives and throwing his two scores, nearly erasing a 27-10 deficit before ultimately falling short, 34-31.

As upsetting as the l
oss to the Spartans was, what happened next was inexcusable and an outright disgrace - the Wolverines blew a 27-7 lead and lost at home 35-29 to Illinois. It's not worth going into great detail...but Illinois even did their best to give the game back to the Wolverines. Down 28-27, Brady drove the field, and after a shotgun snap sailing over his head for a 25 yard loss, he threw a pick, which seemed to seal the loss. But Illinois gave Michigan another shot by bursting free for another long TD. So Brady got the ball back down 35-27. He once again took UM down the field, but threw another interception at the goalline...and once again Illinois gave Michigan one more chance. They fumbled the ball into the endzone for a safety, and had to punt it back to the Wolverines, with the score 35-29. Brady's last gasp wasn't enough though, and the Wolverines hit rock bottom.

The next week in Indiana, the offense staked Michigan to a 17-0 lead, but the defense, which was free falling at this point, surrendered the lead, and the Hoosiers took a 24-17 lead in the
fourth quarter. Anthony Thomas (and Brady) led the charge back though, and the seesaw affair ended with Hayden Epstein connecting on a 20 yard field goal for a 34-31 victory. Thomas was especially crucial, rushing for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns on 42 carries.

The next game was easier, a 37-3 win over Northwestern (in which Drew Henson basically ended his own season with a 3-13 passing performance). After that though, #16 Michigan had to go to Happy Valley to face #6
Penn State. The Nittany Lions, led by fearsome defenders Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, had entered the season with national championship dreams and had started 9-0, but a week before the Michigan game, Minnesota crushed PSU's spirits with a last second 24-23 win at Beaver Stadium. That cast a shadow of uncertainty over the Michigan game - which would be a bigger factor, Michigan's defensive woes or Penn State's dampened spirits?

In a situation that had become the norm, Michigan took a 17-7 lead, but gave up 20
straight points to Penn State, capped off by an interception return for a touchdown that gave them a 27-17 lead over UM in the 4th quarter. Captain Comeback stepped up big time, cutting the deficit to 27-24 with a 5-yard keeper with 3:24 left. On the drive, Brady completed four of five passes for 44 yards, ran twice for 19 yards, and was helped by two pass interference penalties on the Nittany Lions. The defense then suddenly stepped up, which was definitely atypical of their recent play. DiAllo Johnson returned the punt to Penn State's 35, and five plays later, Brady hit Marcus Knight in the endzone from 11 yards out for the winning touchdown with 1:46 remaining. PSU had one last chance, but the Wolverines forced a turnover to clinch their third straight win over Penn State, 31-27.

After the thrilling win in Happy Valley, it was Ohio State Week, and for the first time in forever, the Buckeyes weren't red hot coming into Ann Arbor. They were floundering after heavy losses to the NFL, and entered the Michigan game at 6-5, 3-4 in the Big Ten; they needed to win to get to a bowl game. Despite being down, the Buckeyes gave Michigan their best shot, as they always do. They led the Wolverines for most of the game, and the lead stood at 17-10 late in the third quarter. In front of a then-NCAA record crowd of 111,575, Tom Brady led another comeback. He hit tight end Shawn Thompson for an 8 yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the third quarter, tying the game at 17 with 15 minutes to go. The defense forced a turnover on the next possession, and after a time-consuming drive, Brady found Marquise Walker, who dove for the winning touchdown with 5:01 to play. The 24-17 win dropped John Cooper's record against Michigan to 2-9-1, and 0-6 at Michigan Stadium.

More importantly, the win for Michigan dropped Ohio State to 6-6, and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 1988. Losing once again to Michigan (despite UM being more talented this time), missing out on a bowl game and a few other factors set John Cooper in the pressure cooker, as grumblings from the Ohio State fanbase began to surface, much like they did years earlier when national title aspirations were shot down by Michigan.

Michigan finished the Big Ten season 6-2 in 1999, but despite beating Wisconsin, the Badgers' 7-1 conference record sent them to Pasadena for their second straight Rose Bowl. The 9-2 overall record was good enough to get Michigan an at-large bid in the BCS. They accepted an invitation to play in Miami for the FedEx Orange Bowl New Year's Night against 5th-ranked Alabama, champions of the SEC. The Crimson Tide were led by SEC Player of the Year and future NFL star running back Shaun Alexander. Alabama was still a couple years away from having the hammer lowered on them by the NCAA's watchdog, so the game was very much hyped because both teams were expected to be highly ranked in 2000, and the Orange Bowl was the host of the national title game in the next season.

Defense dominated early on, as neither Alexander or Anthony Thomas could find any running room. Things opened up a bit in the second quarter though, and Alexander broke loose for 54 yards on 5 carries, capping it with a 5-yard touchdown run. The Tide's defense stood t
all and forced a punt, which Freddie Milons returned 23 yards +15 on a late hit, giving Bama the ball at Michigan's 31. They wasted little time punching it in; after a 22-yard pass got them to the 9, Alexander ran for 3 yards on first down before scoring his second touchdown from 6 yards out to put the Crimson Tide up 14-0.

Brady finally got Michigan's offense going late in the half, leading the team down the short field after a personal foul on Alabama gave UM the ball at the Tide's 44. Brady completed all five of his passes for all 44 yards, c
apped off by a 27-yard touchdown strike down the middle to David Terrell (the Orange Bowl would be a coming out party for the sophomore Terrell). Bama held a 14-7 lead at halftime.

Things definitely picked up in the 3rd quarter, as the big play was the name of the game. Michigan's D kept Alabama off the scoreboard, and once the offense got it, Brady and Terrell picked up where they left off. Off a playaction fake, Brady found Terrell open down the field, and despite being chased down, Terrell was able to dive for the tying touchdown, evening the score at 14.

Alabama struck back ferociously though. On their next drive, Alexander busted loose, breaking tackles and finally outrunning Michigan's secondary to the endzone for a 50-yard touchdown, his third of the game, putting the Tide back in front 21-14. Michigan's offense didn't respond this time, and the shady special teams that had been a signature of Michigan football for years
(and would continue to be for years after) bubbled to the surface, as Freddie Milons' deadly speed burned the Wolverines for a 62 yard touchdown on the punt return. In a matter of minutes, Alabama had re-established their two touchdown lead, and at the time it seemed like Milons' touchdown was the backbreaker.

But Captain Come
back had one last comeback in him. It took 9 plays for Michigan to go 75 yards on their next possession. Five of those plays were passes to Terrell, accumulating 57 yards, the last one of which was a 20 yard play in which Terrell broke a tackle and got some nice upfield blocking, weaving his way for his third touchdown of the game with 5:42 remaining in the third quarter.

After holding Bama, the Wolverines went 59 yards on 10 plays on their next possession, capped by Anthony Thomas's 3-yard touchdown run, capping UM's 2nd 14 point comeback of the game. Thomas came within inches of giving Michigan the lead early in the fourth quarter, but was stripped of the ball just short of the goalline, spoiling an impressive drive. The rest of the fourth quarter went by without much excitement, until the end, when Brady led what seemed to be a game-winn
ing drive. The senior QB completed 4 of 5 pass attempts for 46 yards, leading Michigan from their own 31 to the Bama 18 yard line, but Epstein's field goal attempt was blocked on the final play of regulation. For the first time ever, Michigan would go to overtime.

Bama won the toss and went on defense (which is normal), and Michigan wasted no time. On the first play, the Wolverines ran their patented tight end waggle play - a play in which the quarterback fakes the handoff to the running back and rolls the opposite way (in this case, Brady fakes to Thomas, who is running off tackle to the left; Brady then rolls to the right), and the tight end rolls across the field in the same direction as Brady; in this case, Brady found Shawn Thompson wide open across the middle, and he plodded into the endzone for a 35-28 lead.

It only took Alabama two plays to respond with a touchdown of their own from 21 yards out. Michigan's defense was busy gameplanning for the second overtime...when Alabama kicker Ryan Pflugner pushed the extra point to the right. All of the sudden, the most exciting game of the new millenium was abruptly over in the most heartwrenching way for Tide fans. The comeback was Brady's 5th of the season, and 3rd straight to end the year. Michigan had won the FedEx Orange Bowl 35-34, finished 1999 10-2, and set up what looked to be a national title run for the year 2000.

Lloyd Carr vs. Ohio State: 4-1
Lloyd Carr vs. Michigan State: 3-2
Lloyd Carr vs. Notre Dame: 2-1
Lloyd Carr in Bowl Games: 3-2

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