Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Lloyd Carr Era: 2004

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.

2004: A fresh start for the Wolverines (and Braylon's domination of the Big Ten)

On August 7th, 2003, 23 days before the beginning of John Navarre's senior season, soon-to-be high school senior Chad Henne, in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, stunned many by committing to the Wolverines. It was believed by most that Henne would stay at home and play for Penn State, but Michigan's rich quarterback lineage (Harbaugh, Garbac, Collins, Griese, Brady, Navarre) lured him north. Henne was the prize jewel of Michigan's 2004 recruiting class, and praise was heaped on him from all recruiting services. Nobody knew, however, that there was a sparkling diamond in the rough in the recruiting class that had already committed to Michigan less than a month earlier (more on that earlier).

The 2003 season ended badly, with USC using Michigan as its whipping boy in the Rose Bowl en route to the AP National Championship. Braylon Edwards (despite catching 10 passes for 107 yards) had a very poor outing in Pasadena, which was probably the deciding factor in him returning for his senior season. John Navarre and Chris Perry on the other hand, were out of eligibility, leaving a gaping hole in Michigan's backfield like the departures of Drew Henson and Anthony Thomas did aft
er the 2000 season.

Matt Gutierrez was supposed to be the starter at quarterback, and David Underwood was expected to start off at running back, although that situation was a bit murkier. Things were shaken up though, as news circulated shortly before kickoff in the season opener that Gutierrez had a "shoulder injury", and Henne would start, becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start for Michigan since Rick Leach in 1975. As a true freshman starting in front of 110,815 people, Henne could not have asked for a better weapon in Braylon Edwards. Henne's first two career touchdown passes went to Edwards, and although he threw an interception, for the most part his debut (a 43-10 win over Miami-Ohio) went smoothly: 14-24, 142 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception.

Personally, I was overconfident headed into the next week's game at Notre Dame. Henne wasn't awful - 25 for 40, 240 yards, one touchdown and an interception that bounced off of Braylon's hands - but it was unrealistic to expect a freshman QB to carry his team to victory. Henne needed the running game, and it did nothing. Underwood carried the ball once before being injured, and Jerome Jackson and Pierre Rembert was entirely ineffective. The Wolverines averaged 1.9 yards per carry as a team, and that led to the defense wilting in the 4th quarter - with a little help from yet another special teams meltdown. The Wolverines intercepted Brady Quinn three times, but had to settle for field goals, staking themselves to a precarious 12-7 lead. After the fourth field goal, Michigan forced a punt, only to have Steve Breaston fumble the punt return away to the Irish. Notre Dame was forced to punt, but on the next possession Henne threw his only interception of the game. The Irish didn't miss their opportunity this time, taking a 14-12 lead. It snowballed from there, as Michigan had a punt blocked and gave up two straight touchdowns, burying themselves in a 28-12 hole. A late touchdown made it look a little closer, but ultimately UM lost, 28-20.

Henne had his first "
oy" game afterward against San Diego State. Three interceptions and only 11 completions on 24 attempts kept SDSU in the game, and they even led 21-17 at halftime (thanks to some shady pass defense). The offense put it together on the opening drive of the 2nd half though, driving 79 yards on 10 plays, capping it with Henne throwing a 7 yard touchdown to Braylon. After 31 first half points, that touchdown would be the only points either team would score in the second half, as Michigan prevailed 24-21. The main story of this game - which was far bigger than the actual win or even Henne's struggles - was the emergence of some scrawny running back named Michael Hart, who had committed to Michigan on July 8th, 2003. He was only a 3-star prospect and had been pursued out of Syracuse, New York by Michigan, Michigan State, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Virginia. His official height was listed at 5'10, and in 2007 Michigan lists him at 5'9, but some say he's even smaller than that. Against San Diego State, he broke out (against a tough defense led by current NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison) with 121 yards on 25 carries.

The next few games were the Braylon Edwards show. Against Iowa, #1 had 150 receiving yards and a touchdown as Michigan finally took out the Hawkeyes, 30-17. A funny piece of trivia: Mike Hart lost a fumble at the Iowa one-yard line in this game, which would be his only lost fumble until the Ball State game in 2006. At Indiana, Braylon caught 8 passes for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a career long 69 yard touchdown. Henne threw for 316 yards on just 17 completions in the 35-14 win. Against Minnesota the next week, Henne grew up a lot, leading a game-winning 6-play, 77-yard drive, throwing a 31-yard touchdown to tight end Tyler Ecker with 1:57 to go, giving the Wolverines a 27-24 victory. Braylon had another good game, catching 10 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. Mike Hart had his best game to date as well, gaining 160 yards on 35 carries.

Braylon sort of disappeared the next two games (he may have been a little dinged up, I'm not really sure), catching only 3 passes for 18 yards at Illinois and 5 for 25 at Purdue. Both it was these two games (and the next one against MSU...sort of) that would serve as Mike Hart's true coming out party. Against Illinois, Hart ran for 234 yards on 40 carries in a come-from-behind 30-19 win. The game against Purdue was highly touted; the Boilers had started 5-0 with Kyle Orton tearing it up through the air, before Wisconsin edged them 20-17 the week before. Still, Michigan had a daunting task, going up against Purdue's "basketball on grass" offense. The Purdue game is memorable for four reasons: Hart running for 206 yards on 33 carries, Marlin Jackson regaining his dignity, Garrett Rivas the game-winning field goal with 2:45 to go for the 16-14 win (after having one blocked earlier in the 4th), and Ernest Shazor wiping Dorien Bryant off the face of the earth with a brutal hit to force a fumble to snuff out Purdue's game-winning drive. About Marlin - after being injured and being entirely mediocre in 2003 after being absurdly moved to safety, the coaches moved him back to corner for his senior year in 2004, and he was regaining his All-American status, and the Purdue game marked his return to elite status. He spent the entire game man to man with Purdue wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield, who is statistically one of the greatest wideouts in Big Ten history. Marlin held him to a single reception for 10 yards, and that one catch came two plays before Shazor turned Purdue's lights out.

My next statement might be a little crazy, but I'll just come out and say it: The 2004 Michigan/Michigan State game is my favorite Michigan game that I've ever seen, bar none. The game itself was amazing enough, but it was so much more than that. 2004 was my junior year of high school, and my best friend's senior year, and he was already planning his life after high school - attending Michigan State. So we had friendly banter all week; MSU was in the midst of a 5-7 season, but all week, I heard the "shock the world" speech from people at school. I waved it off; no chance MSU's defense stops Braylon, Henne, and Hart. As it turns out, I was right...I just nearly killed myself beforehand. MSU's offense did whatever it wanted against Michigan, racking up 535 yards of offense, 368 on the ground. Even after Drew Stanton was knocked out of the game late in the first half (his final statline: 10-13 passing, 95 yards, 12 carries, 80 yards, TD), MSU's offense was too much. DeAndra Cobb killed UM's undisciplined defense all day, to the tune of 205 rushing yards and two LONG touchdowns - 72 yards on MSU's first drive of the game, and a 64 yarder with 8:43 left in the 4th quarter, which seemed to break Michigan's break at 27-10 Spartans. And it was after that touchdown, that something clicked in Braylon Edwards' head; something that said, "It's time to take over. We are NOT going to lose this game." On Michigan's next drive, Braylon had a beautiful 46 yard drive, and he hopped right up, frantically motioning for his teammates to hurry downfield so they could get the next play off. Michigan stalled and kicked a field goal to cut it to 27-13, and immediately recovered an onside kick. After an 11-yard screen pass to Hart and a 15 yard facemask penalty put Michigan at MSU's 36, Henne went to his patented "Henne Heave" - a jump ball downfield to Braylon, who was one on one with a hapless MSU corner. Braylon scaled an invisible ladder and took the ball away over the defender's head, falling to the endzone for a 36-yard touchdown. In 15 seconds, Michigan had cut MSU's lead to 27-20. The defense finally stopped Cobb and the Spartan offense, and after a 16-yard punt return by Steve Breaston, the Wolverines took over at the Michigan State 47-yard line with 3:13 to go, needing a touchdown. It took only 14 seconds for Michigan to tie the game. After Mike Hart ripped through for 26 yards - he would get his 3rd straight 200 yard game, rushing for 224 yards on 33 carries - Henne heaved it up to Braylon again, who used his leaping ability to lunge up into the heavens and bring the football down in his hands. The MSU defense could only shake their heads; Braylon had caught them. Despite all the heroics, it still seemed like MSU might steal the game. After Michigan was forced to only kick a field goal in overtime for a 30-27 lead, MSU got it to the four yard line before UM's defense finally turned them away, forcing MSU to settle for the tying field goal. The Spartans punched it in in the second overtime for a 37-30 lead, meaning Michigan needed a TD of their own to keep the game alive. On 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line, Henne lobbed a pass to the back corner of the endzone, where Jason Avant did his best Braylon impression, fully extending, getting his hands (best hands for a Michigan wideout I've ever seen) on the ball and stabbing his foot inbounds as he fell backward. Again, MSU's defense shook their heads in disbelief. To start the third overtime, Michigan found itself in a bind, 3rd and 9 at the MSU 24. It was an obvious passing down, and Henne went to his main man Braylon, who had juked his defender out with a fake at the line of scrimmage. Henne hit him in stride, and #1 sprinted untouched into the endzone for his third touchdown. On the ensuing two-point conversion (required in college football starting in the 3rd OT), Henne fired a strike to the back of the endzone that tight end Tim Massaquoi caught in self-defense. Michigan's defense rose up in MSU's half of the overtime, and Damon Dowdell's pass on 4th and 8 from the 23 was nowhere close, fluttering through the endzone harmlessly. The Big House crowd roared in delight, as Michigan pulled out the 45-37 victory in three overtimes. The next day, I took the sports section - emblazened with the headline in bold: "EDWARDS CATCHES MSU" - to school on Monday, and my best friend, now in his third year at Michigan State, could only shake his head helplessly.

The Wolverines got a bye week to come down from the high of the MSU game, and after a sluggish first half against Northwestern, they buried the Wildcats with 35 second half points for a 42-20 win, going to 7-0 in Big Ten play. Hours later, Michigan State, which seemed to be in a freefall, stunned America by demolishing unbeaten #5 Wisconsin in brutal, brutal fashion, 49-14, giving Michigan the inside track to the Big Ten title.

Lets take a moment and thank the Spartans for this.

Thank you Sparty!

As it turns out, that was a huge upset, because Ohio State buried Michigan the next week, and this was another ugly, ugly strike against Lloyd Carr. I understand Chad Henne and Mike Hart being true freshmen in Columbus, and nobody could've predicted Troy Smith beginning his legend on that day, but the fact remains: Michigan was going to the Rose Bowl, and Ohio State would finish the season 8-4 in the Alamo Bowl, and the Buckeyes blew the Wolverines out, 37-21. After taking a 7-0 lead, the Wolverines came apart and got embarrassed. The coaches did a bad, bad job of preparing the te
am for the game, plain and simple.

Despite that, the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl, and with USC in the Orange Bowl fo
r the national championship game, Texas out of the Big 12 got the invite to Pasadena, and what ensued was the greatest Rose Bowl of all time (until the next season's between Texas and USC). It's honestly too painful to do a lengthy writeup about, but suffice it to say it was truly an amazing, back and forth game, that the coaches (and the defense) lost in the fourth quarter. Braylon Edwards put on a show in his Maize and Blue finale, catching 10 passes for 109 yards and 3 touchdowns. Chad Henne, the first true freshman QB to start a Rose Bowl, playing flawlessly, throwing for 227 yards, 4 touchdowns and no turnovers. Steve Breaston set a Rose Bowl record for most all-purpose yards, accumulating 315 (6 kickoff returns for 221 yards, catching 3 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, rushing 3 times for 15 yards and returning one punt for 2 yards). All of that however, was upstaged by Texas quarterback Vince Young. VY's passing numbers weren't eye-popping, but efficient: 16-28, 180 yards, one touchdown, one interception. However, Vince Young was the one thing Michigan's defense had never been able to contain: He was a running quarterback. For the better part of 20 years, no matter what, a quarterback that was a threat to run was always a threat to destroy Michigan's defense, and nobody did that better than Vince Young on January 1st, 2005. After his team fell behind 31-21, Vince, in a preview of what he would do to USC on an infinitely bigger stage one year from then, put the Longhorns on his back and willed them to victory. First, he somehow escaped from Pat Massey, who had him dead to rights for a sack. Instead, Vince slithered away and weaved his way into the endzone, 31-28. A field goal put Michigan's lead to 34-28. 3 plays and 69 yards later, Vince bootlegged to the left, picked up a block, and highstepped Texas to a 35-34 lead with a 23 yard run. And when Rivas hit another field goal to put Michigan back in front 37-35 with 3:04 to go, Vince led them down the field again. It was all too easy in the fourth quarter for him; he either had wide open field to run in because the defense stayed with the wide receivers, or his wide receivers sprinted in the open because the defensive backs were trying to keep an eye on Vince in case he took off. Either way, he marched the Longhorns into game-winning field goal position. I had a REAL problem with the playcalling from Lloyd Carr and Terry Malone on Michigan's drives in the fourth quarter. It was plain as day that the defense was not going to stop Vince Young, and yet the conservative playcalling on offense remained. Texas's defensive backs had been scorched by Braylon Edwards all day, and fearful of the big play, they played ridiculously soft coverage on the outside. Repeatedly on Michigan's two drives that ended in FIELD GOALS in the fourth quarter, Braylon had at least 10 yards of open field in front of him on 2nd and 3rd down plays, and instead of calling those quick WR screens they love so much, the Michigan coaches called running plays, trying to kill the clock and let Garrett Rivas win it. Don't get me wrong, Vince Young was incredible, I don't mean to undercut what he did at all. But he did get an assist from some truly shitty playcalling. And still, despite all that, Michigan almost won. On Dusty Mangum's 37 yard field goal try on the game's final play, All-American safety Ernest Shazor lunged to block the kick, and he got his finger on the ball. If he had gotten his hand on it, it would've been blocked. Instead, the ball still had enough juice to get through the uprights, ending Michigan's season with a gut wrenching 38-37 defeat. I cried. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I cried like a little kid. I watched as two of my favorite Wolverines - Braylon Edwards, the All-American wide receiver and possibly the Big Ten's greatest WR ever, and Marlin Jackson, the disgraced safety as a junior who had redeemed himself as an All-American cornerback as a senior - walked off the field, never to wear the Maize and Blue colors again.

Lloyd Carr vs. Ohio State: 6-4
Lloyd Carr vs. Michigan State: 7-3
Lloyd Carr vs. Notre Dame: 3-3
Lloyd Carr in Bowl Games: 5-5


Misha said...

actually, hart technically didnt lose the fumble in the ball state game in 2006. he fumbled out of the end zone, so it didnt count as a lost fumble, but rather a safety.

the streak lives on!!!

Brian said...

Aha, I THOUGHT I had heard that somewhere...but I couldn't remember, so I assumed it counted as a lost fumble.

Thanks for the clarification.