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.
Before the 2003 season began, two major storylines surrounded two of Michigan's best young players. One was Braylon Edwards, Michigan's junior wide receiver who caught 10 touchdowns while racking up 1035 yards as a sophomore in 2002. Edwards made waves in the Michigan community by actually requesting to wear the fabled #1 jersey prior to his junior year of 2003. The #1 jersey had become highly prestigious to Michigan football, first made famous by UM legend Anthony Carter, and also worn by Greg McMurtry, Derrick Alexander, and most recently David Terrell. The thought of some underclassman brazenly asking to wear it was unheard of, but Lloyd Carr decided to use itas a motivational tool. Edwards was given the #1 jersey, but was told he would still have to "earn" it with his play on the field.
The other storyline involved Marlin Jackson, Michigan's consensus All-American cornerback. I could go into detail about the assault charge he faced in the offseason, but there's really no point in dwelling on that. He paid his dues both on the field (he was suspended for the 2003 opener) and off. On the field, some genius decided to move the All-American cornerback to safety to make room for Jeremy LeSueur and Markus Curry to start at corner, a move which would prove to be brilliant (note the sarcasm) in the season finale months later.
The season started with the Wolverines racking up 613 yards in a 45-7 win over Central Michigan. Chris Perry ran for 232 yards, and Edwards caught two touchdowns. The defense did give up over 200 yards rushing, which was a concern. After the game, Lloyd Carr said that Braylon and he "were not on the same page", essentially calling out the junior wideout who had made so many headlines in obtaining the #1 jersey.
The offense and defense were in sync the next week in a laughable 50-3 win over Houston at the Big House. Perry steamrolled again, this time to the tune of 184 yards. Edwards caught another touchdown, but his receptions (4) and yards (50) were still low.
The next game was a thing of beauty. #15 Notre Dame came to the Big House to face the #5 Wolverines. It was a highly anticipated matchup, but when it was over, Chris Perry's Heisman campaign was in full force (133 rushing yards, 3 TDs, 44 receiving yards, TD), and Michigan laid a nasty 38-0 beatdown on the Irish.
The beatdown of Notre Dame, the 125-10 combined score in the first three games, and Chris Perry running roughshod over everybody helped elevate Michigan to #3 in the country, and onto the cover of Sports Illustrated the week of another treacherous trip out to the west coast. Trips to UCLA and Washington had soured Michigan's season early on in 2000 and 2001, and they looked to avoid the west coast bug in Eugene against the Oregon Ducks. The first quarter was really bizarre, as Michigan's offense had the ball for a total of 56 seconds. Oregon's first drive ate up 9 minutes and 18 seconds, but ended with Marlin Jackson blocking a field goal, and Jeremy LeSueur taking it back 78 yards for a touchdown. A missed extra point left Michigan's lead at 6-0, and it was all downhill from there. A worn out defense and, surprise surprise, shady special teams staked Oregon to a 21-6 halftime lead, which would be extended to 24-6 before Michigan found their legs. A touchdown pass to Jason Avant cut the deficit to 24-13 headed into the 4th, and early in the final quarter Navarre finished an impressive 98 yard drive with a touchdown pass to little-known redshirt-freshman Steve Breaston, followed by a two-point conversion pass to Edwards. It was suddenly 24-21, and the Wolverines had momentum. Predictably though, the special teams gave it away, surrendering a blocked punt for a touchdown. Michigan added another touchdown late, but could not climb the hurdle, losing on the west coast again, 31-27. Perry's Heisman hopes were basically shot. The one (and only) bright spot was Navarre and Edwards finally getting on the same page, as #1 caught 13 passes for 144 yards.
The wounded Wolverines returned home the next week to face Indiana. In a weird twist, I did not see one play of this game. I was up north on vacation with the family, and for some reason it wasn't on TV. I didn't understand; it's not like I was out of state or anything. Regardless, Michigan won 31-17. They led 31-3 late, but gave up another blocked punt for a touchdown, and an even later garbage touchdown.
The next game started out so well, and turned to utter shit. It was supposed to be a revenge game, as the Wolverines headed to Iowa City, looking for revenge after last year's 34-9 loss to the Hawkeyes at home. It started promisingly, with UM taking a 14-0 lead. Once again, the special teams escorted Iowa back into the game. A 43 yard punt return (+15 on a personal foul) gave Iowa an easy touchdown before half, leading Michigan with a perilous 20-17 lead. A Navarre interception set up the tying field goal for Iowa in the third quarter, and what happened next falls on the shoulders of the head coach. For the second time in the game, the Wolverines ran some bullshit spread formation on a punt, and Iowa easily, and I mean EASILY, blocked it, setting them up at the Michigan 14 yard line. The defense rose up for UM, holding the Hawkeyes to the go-ahead field goal at 23-20. In the fourth, the Hawkeyes drove 79 yards and got a controversial touchdown with 5:16 to go. I still swear that Ramon Ochoa never had possession of the ball as it went into his arms over his shoulder before Marlin Jackson stripped it out. Nevertheless, Iowa now led 30-20. It took 7 plays and 90 seconds for Michigan to go 86 yards, cutting the Iowa lead to 30-27 on a 41 yard Braylon Edwards touchdown. UM got the ball back with 2:44 left, but Navarre made a disgraceful throw on 4th down, TOTALLY missing Jason Avant. The special teams had lost the game again.
The next game was just...unbelievable. The Wolverines were reeling. They gave up 424 yards to the up and coming Minnesota Golden Gophers on a bizarre Friday night game in the Metrodome. I am ashamed to say this, but I won't deny it: I walked out on Michigan in this game. When Thomas Tapeh's 2-yard touchdown gave Minnesota a 28-7 lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter, I turned the game off, and I left the room. I'm not proud of what I did, but it is what it is. When I turned the TV on over an hour later, it was on ESPNews, and I saw Lloyd Carr with a bit of a smile on his face doing a postgame interview, and in the bottom right corner of the screen, it said, "Michigan defeats Minnesota 38-35". I probably broke my jaw because it hit the floor so hard. What happened, exactly? Chris Perry scored to make it 28-14. Jacob Stewart scored on an absolutely horrible throw by Minnesota QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq, 28-21. On Minnesota's next drive, Abdul Khaliq broke through the line on 3rd and 1 for a 52 yard touchdown, with nobody around. 35-21. 53 seconds later, Navarre hit Edwards in stride for a 52 yard touchdown, 35-28. That's four touchdowns in 3 minutes and 6 seconds early in the fourth. Things calmed down a bit, and Chris Perry tied the game with 5:48 left with a 10 yard run. Minnesota was too shellshocked to respond, and freshman Garrett Rivas hit a 33 yard field goal with 47 seconds left, completing the greatest comeback in Michigan history, 38-35. Perry was the hero, carrying the ball 20 times for only 85 yards and a touchdown, but catching 11 passes for 122 yards and another score.
The next four games were relatively drama free: 56-14 vs. Illinois, 31-3 vs. #10 Purdue. 27-20 in East Lansing against the Spartans, returning to the scene of the crime of Clockgate. This was actually one of my favorite UM-MSU games to date, since I was now in high school and was fully engaged in friendly trash talk with my MSU-aligned (and misguided) friends. Braylon put on quite the show, catching 7 passes for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns...although that would pale in comparison to his performance in 2004...but that's for another post. The Spartans made a game of it with a defensive touchdown late, but couldn't get the tying score. The story of the game was Chris Perry's unbelievable performance. #23 carried the ball 51 times - a Michigan record - for 219 yards and a touchdown.
After the MSU game, most Michigan fans began to look ahead to the Ohio State game on November 22nd, and for good reason. The Buckeyes were surging, and were getting away by the skin of their teeth again: 16-13 against San Diego State, 44-38 against North Carolina State in triple overtime, 24-17 against Bowling Green, 21-20 at Penn State and 16-13 in OT against Purdue a week before the Michigan game. They lost to Wisconsin early, but by the game Michigan week rolled around, a win would've put them in position to defend their national championship in the Sugar Bowl. There was plenty of reason for Michigan to look ahead to the Buckeyes, but they kept their focus and blew Northwestern away 41-10, jumping out to a 31-3 halftime lead. The highlight of the game was sophomore wide receiver Jason Avant - who never quite received his due at Michigan, playing in the shadow of Braylon, and his senior year being the Year of Infinite Pain - making a Marquise Walker-like one-handed catch.
I cannot accurately describe the hype the UM/OSU game received headed into it. It was #4 Ohio State @ #5 Michigan, with the Big Ten title on the line in the 100th meeting between the schools.
Perhaps Mr. Jackson can accurately capture the moment for me?
An NCAA record 112,118 saw the Wolverines battle the Buckeyes on November 22nd, 2003 - exactly 34 years to the day of Bo's first game against Woody, reviving the rivalry. Braylon Edwards dueled with OSU cornerback Chris Gamble all day, and burned him to a crisp most of the time too. He caught touchdowns in the second quarter of 64 and 23 yards, putting the Maize and Blue out in front 21-0. The Buckeyes, led by Craig Krenzel one more time, would not roll over though, not with so much on the line. After an interception, Ohio State cut the Michigan lead to 28-21 early in the 4th quarter, but Chris Perry put his signature on the game, and in the rivalry. OSU's run defense had given up only 50 yards per game on the ground entering the Michigan game, and Chris Perry carried 31 times for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns - the 2nd from 15 yards away with 7:55 left. Ohio State in 2003 wasn't built for shootouts, and could not muster any more offense, and for the first time since 1997, the Wolverines booked a trip to Pasadena as undisputed Big Ten champions, beating their archrivals 35-21. In their final game in front of the Michigan faithful, Chris Perry, and particularly John Navarre, finally had their vindication.
Unfortunately, that vindication did not carry over into the Rose Bowl. Michigan was pitted against a very pissed off Southern California team. USC had been #1 in BOTH the AP and Coaches Polls, and yet even with Oklahoma being blown out 35-7 by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, the Sooners were selected over the Trojans to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl for the BCS National Title. Combining the fury of such an outrageous snubbing with the de facto homefield advantage, and USC steamrolled the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. John Navarre was under siege from the first snap, taking nine sacks. Oh, and remember how Marlin Jackson was moved to safety for Markus Curry and Jeremy LeSueur? Here's how that worked out.
That would be USC wide receiver Keary Colbert. On the left, he is pulling away from a beaten Markus Curry. On the right, he is making a one-handed catch and breaking the tackle of Jeremy LeSueur for a 47-yard touchdown. Oh, and he made the catch one-handed because LeSueur was called for pass interference.This game was before USC was fully on the national map as a dynasty-like team, and before Pete Carroll was known as college football's greatest coach. USC absolutely mauled the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, and even though the final score was 28-14, it might as well have been 42-7, because UM was never sniffing victory at any point. It was a bittersweet ending for Navarre and Perry, and although Edwards would announce he was returning for his senior year in 2004, having to replace the offensive backfield loomed as a major obstacle for the Wolverines.
Lloyd Carr vs. Ohio State: 6-3
Lloyd Carr vs. Michigan State: 6-3
Lloyd Carr vs. Notre Dame: 3-2
Lloyd Carr in Bowl Games: 5-4