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.
After the agony of the Rose Bowl loss to Texas subsided, Michigan faced some questions for 2005. Four All-Americans were departing - WR Braylon Edwards, C David Baas, CB Marlin Jackson, and S Ernest Shazor, who stupidly left for the NFL a year early, and would go undrafted. So there were definitely holes to fill, but Chad Henne and Mike Hart were a year older, so things were still expected to go well. At least that's what the media and coaches thought, as Michigan was ranked 4th in the preseason. Things started out....well, I suppose. The Wolverines beat Northern Illinois 33-17, Henne threw for 227 yards, 2 TDs and no picks, Hart ran for 117, and Jason Avant emerged from Braylon's shadow, catching 9 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. The defense however, had work to do, surrendering over 400 yards of offense, including 200 on the ground. So the D definitely had some kinks to work out, and with #20 Notre Dame coming to the Big House, there was not a lot of time to fix things.
The Irish, led by new coach Charlie Weis, were garnering a ton of national hype. Weis, a 3-time Super Bowl champion as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, led an offensive explosion in his Notre Dame debut, as Brady Quinn and the Irish beat Pitt down, 42-21. Michigan, now ranked #3, was still heavily favored, but it would be interesting. In the back of my mind, I think I am the cause of 2005 going horribly, horribly wrong. Why? I slept through the first quarter of the game, and never really got on track - much like Michigan's offense. The defense held Notre Dame's Darius Walker - the hero of the 2004 game - to a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry, and while Quinn didn't turn it over, he didn't set the world on fire either, throwing two TDs but only 140 yards. But Michigan's offense was an unmitigated disaster, and the entire season was thrown into the fire when Mike Hart injured his hamstring after only three carries.
Trailing 14-3 at halftime, it seemed like the offense found its legs, opening the 3rd quarter with a 13-play, 69 yard drive. The 14th play, however, essentially buried the Wolverines. Henne stared down his receiver from the snap and threw an interception to ND's Tom Zbikowski at the goal line. After that, in between three straight Michigan punts, the Irish tacked on a field goal for a 17-3 lead. Michigan finally got near the endzone after forcing a turnover deep in Notre Dame territory. They stalled though, and Henne threw an incomplete pass on 4th and goal. The defense forced a punt, and Henne finally got a big play, hitting Jason Avant for 54 yards, down to the one yard line. On the next play though, Henne tried a sneak, and was controversially stripped of the football, turning it over. It was controversial because some camera angles suggested that he might have gotten into the endzone before losing the ball. Regardless, the Irish took the ball back and burned some more clock. UM got it back and with 3:47 left, on 4th down, Michigan finally scored, with Henne connecting to a freshman receiver named Mario Manningham for a 25 yard touchdown. After another punt, the Wolverines got the ball with 2:11 to go, but four straight incomplete passes sealed Notre Dame's 17-10 upset, the beginning of a year of hell for Michigan.
Henne played miserably against the Irish, completing only 19 of 44 passes with those two horrible turnovers at the goal line. But most attributed the failure of Michigan's offense to the loss of Mike Hart, whose 2005 season was essentially lost due to lingering injuries. After the ND debacle, the Wolverines had in essence, a bye week, beating Eastern Michigan 55-0. It was a disappointing 2-1 start, but the Big Ten schedule was about to get rolling, so it was time to go to work, starting off under the lights in Camp Randall against the Badgers. The first quarter was scoreless, mainly because Michigan couldn't convert a 4th and goal at the 1 after a 17-play, 94-yard drive that took 7 minutes. In the 2nd, the Wolverines tacked on 10 points via a Garrett Rivas field goal and a Chad Henne touchdown pass to Jason Avant. The two teams traded field goals late in the second quarter, and went to the half with UM leading 13-3. The third quarter was a punt-fest, but Wisconsin did muster one more field goal, cutting Michigan's lead to 13-6 headed to the final frame. The Badgers finished off a drive that began in the third with another field goal to get it to 13-9. That drive went 15 plays, 64 yards, and ate 4:35 off the clock. And this is where the Wolverines crumbled. Max Martin, one of the guys trying to replace the injured Hart, lost a fumble deep in his own territory, setting up Wisconsin for the lead, which they took, 16-13, two plays later. On Michigan's second play after getting it back, Henne threw a brutal interception. Luckily, the Wolverines got a pick of their own two plays after that. It took the Wolverines three plays to retake the lead after that. After two 6-yard runs by Kevin Grady, Henne hit that unknown freshman named Manningham for a 49 yard touchdown. It was 20-16 Michigan with 9:03 to go. After the two teams exchanged punts and ate over 4 and a half minutes off the clock, Wisconsin got the ball with 4:29 left. 11 plays, 52 yards, and 4:05 later, Wisconsin QB John Stocco ran a QB draw on 3rd and goal, scoring with 24 seconds left. Michigan's last ditch effort was not a threat, and Badger coach Barry Alvarez, in his final year, had his first victory over Lloyd Carr. It was also the first time since 1981 that Michigan had lost their Big Ten opener.
Michigan's season had taken a disastrous turn, and for the first time since 1998, the Wolverines found themselves out of the Top 25. Worse, they had to go up north to East Lansing to face the red-hot, unbeaten 11th-ranked Spartans of Michigan State. The Spartans were averaging 49 points a game in their first four games, including a 44-41 overtime victory over the Notre Dame team that had beaten Michigan in Michigan Stadium. Plus, the Spartans, and Drew Stanton in particular, had vengeance on their minds for the heartbreaking 45-37 triple overtime loss to UM the previous year. One bright spot for Michigan was Mike Hart, who was healthy enough to play the entire game. After the Spartans stalled on their opening drive, they pinned the Wolverines at their own two-yard line. On 3rd and 1 at the 11 though, Hart exploded for a career-long 45 yards. That got the ball rolling, and 7 plays later, on 1st and goal, Chad Henne hit Jason Avant on a fade in the endzone for a 7-0 lead.
MSU's offense only gained 3 yards before punting it away, and it took UM two plays to extend their lead to 14-0, on a 43 yard deep post pattern to that Manningham guy again, who was making a habit of destroying defensive backs with his lethal double moves at the snap. The Spartans got it together though, easily marching 80 yards on 10 plays before Stanton punched it in for Sparty's first points. After forcing a punt, Michigan State seemed poised to tie the game...before Johnelle Smith put his signature on the game with his shenanigans. At the Michigan 27-yard line, MSU's coaching staff called a stupid wide receiver pass. The pass was a lame duck, and was intercepted by Michigan safety Willis Barringer at the 4-yard line. Barringer then fumbled, and MSU tried to say he never had control, but it was ruled an interception and fumble (which Michigan recovered), giving the Wolverines the ball. UM capitalized on the momentum, going 87 yards in 11 plays, capping it off with Chad Henne's third touchdown pass of the first half, for a 21-7 lead.
Sparty roared back though, both methodically and quickly. First, they drove 78 yards in 5 and a half minutes to get back to within a touchdown. Then, after a Michigan 3 and out, MSU wide receiver Kerry Reed scored on a 61 yard catch and run with 3:30 to play in the half, tying the game at 21. With 9 seconds left in the quarter, Rivas connected on a field goal, giving UM a 24-21 lead headed into the locker room. On the opening drive of the 3rd, Henne was intercepted deep in his own territory, and the Spartans turned it into the game-tying field goal. Later, the Spartans' backs seemed to be broken, when, after eating up the final 7:14 of the 3rd quarter and first minute and a half of the 4th, their 17-play, 90-yard drive ended with a missed 23-yard field goal. On Michigan's first play, Hart exploded again for 64 yards. Five plays after that, Hart somehow managed to stay up on a tackle near the 2, and twisted and dove his way into the endzone, putting his team ahead 31-24. Hart would finish with 218 yards on 36 carries. The Wolverines seemed to then be driving the stake through MSU's hearts, but on 3rd and 11 from the 25, Henne supposedly (I still say he was passing) fumbled the ball, and MSU defensive lineman Domata Peko, who might run a 6.5 40 yard dash, chugged his way 74 yards for the tying touchdown. Of notice for Michigan fans on the play is Mike Hart, hopelessly, desperately trying his damnedest to stop Peko from reaching the endzone. In my mind, that play symbolized both Mike Hart - never giving up, always laying it all on the line - and Michigan in 2005 - always trying, but not having enough to finish.
So the game was tied again, 31-31. The Wolverines responded coolly, driving 50 yards on 14 plays in 5 minutes and 48 seconds, setting up Garrett Rivas for a 27 yard field goal...which he pushed to the right with 48 seconds left. Damn him anyway. The Spartans then seemed to come to life, gaining 20 yards plus 5 on a Michigan penalty. MSU suddenly had the ball at midfield, with enough time to get into field goal range...and Johnelle Smith tried to get cute again, calling a Mongolian clusterfuck of a play. Seriously, he called a hook and ladder (or lateral, if you prefer), and MSU lost 5 yards, killing any momentum. So...the teams went to overtime. MSU got the ball first, and after getting 5 yards on 1st down, Stanton threw two incomplete passes, forcing John Goss, who had missed the chip shot field goal in the 4th, to try another. And he missed it again, sending the MSU crowd into a frenzy. Michigan ran only two plays - a 6 yard pass to Avant and a one yard run by Hart - before sending in Rivas, who calmly smacked a 35 yard field goal through the uprights, setting off a momentous Maize and Blue celebration in front of a stunned Spartan Stadium, 34-31.
As previously stated though, this was a year of hell for Michigan, and their season flatlined the next week at home as Minnesota, the team Michigan had escaped the previous two years, finally got the Wolverines, and in the most unlikely of ways. With the game tied at 20 late, Minnesota - without their starting quarterback because LaMarr Woodley KO'ed him - simply played for overtime, opting to run the ball. On 3rd and 10 at the 26 yard line, running back Gary Russell found a hole on the right side - there because Prescott Burgess didn't cover it in time because he was gassed, much like the whole defense - and cut Michigan's throat wide open with a 61 yard run. Suddenly, the Gophers were in business, and with 1 second left, Jason Giannini kicked a 30 yard field goal, and for the first time since 1986, Minnesota beat Michigan, stealing the Little Brown Jug - something Michigan had taken for granted since it never left Ann Arbor.
2005 was already a disaster; a lost cause of a season, something everyone wanted to abort and hit the reset button on. A 3-3 start...a 1-2 start in the Big Ten...two losses at home. And yet, in all the hell and misery the Michigan fans were put through, it also produced a moment that is already immortalized in Michigan football lore, against #8 Penn State. To preface, I'm still pissed. I should've been at this game with my dad, but he owed some favor to my mom, and passed on tickets to the game to go with her to some wedding. I was sick as a dog anyway, but I was still angry. It's Penn State for god's sake...but I digress. Anyway, the game started off really slow; it was only 3-0 at halftime, and 10-3 Michigan after 3. PSU duel-threat QB Michael Robinson scored a touchdown run early in the 4th to tie the game at 10 (after UM's defense gave up a 61-yard run...again). On Michigan's next play, Henne ran for yardage, and on his way down, Penn State cornerback Alan Zemaitis tore the ball from him and sprinted untouched 35 yards for a touchdown. Worse, Penn State botched the extra point...only to have their KICKER run it in for two. In a matter of seconds, Penn State had gone from down 10-3 to leading 18-10. On their next possession, Michigan took 5 plays to go 55 yards, the last play being a 33-yard wheel route to that freshman named Manningham; it was perfectly thrown, as Manningham ran right by Justin King (who is now one of the Big Ten's best corners) and got the ball right on his hands. Mike Hart (who was relatively healthy) scored on the two-point try to tie the game. The Wolverines got the ball back a short time later, and Garrett Rivas put them back in front 21-18 with a 47 yard field goal with 3:45 to go. Leon Hall intercepted Robinson seconds later, and Michigan seemed to have a victory within their grasp. Some really bad playcalling ensued, and the Wolverines only took 28 seconds off the clock, and ended up doing some pooch punt, giving Penn State the ball with 2:46 to go. 13 plays, 81 yards, and 1:53 later, with a 4th and 7 conversion in there, Michael Robinson scored from 3 yards out with 53 seconds to go, and I screamed at my TV, my hoarse voice being shot even further. How could this happen again? How could the defense surrender another game?
And then Steve Breaston returned the kickoff 41 yards. And Henne hit Avant for 17 yards, and Carl Tabb for four. And Michigan called timeout, and Lloyd Carr got extra time put on the clock. And the Wolverines took 5 plays (2 of those incomplete passes) to go 22 yards, leaving one second on the clock; time for one play, one moment, and one miracle. Time for one of Michigan's brightest moments in one of their darkest years. Perhaps Brian at MGoBlog put it best with "The New Math."
Even with my voice shot, I screamed. With an empty house, and a fever of nearly 100, I threw my hands into the air, and I screamed.
The next week, Michigan beat Iowa in overtime at Kinnick Stadium, snapping the Hawkeyes' home-winning streak. After that they climbed back into the Top 25 and beat Northwestern on the road and Indiana at home before Ohio State came in. Henne played a great game, especially considering Hart was barely available, and the running game was non-existent anyway (32 yards on 24 carries). But damn you Jim Herrmann. Michigan's defensive coordinator lost this game. The Wolverines led a much better Ohio State team 21-12 in the 4th quarter, and everyone - every fan, player and coach at the stadium and every soul watching on TV - knew what was going to happen. When it was 18-12, the playcalling turtled and went into uber-conservative mode, settling for a field goal. And then Herrmann took over with his bullshit soft prevent zones, giving Ohio State chunks at a time. The Buckeyes scored with 6:40 to play, getting it to 21-19. And then they got the ball back with 4:18 to play, and went 88 yards in 12 plays, thanks to the pisspoor conditioning of the defense and Herrmann, sitting back and hoping the Buckeyes would somehow mismanage the clock and run out of time. Instead, predictably, OSU scored with 24 seconds left, and it was Michigan that was out of time. Jim Tressel had outcoached Michigan again, 25-21.
The same thing happened in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska. The defense wilted, surrendering two fourth quarter touchdowns to Nebraska, and thanks to some bad turnovers and REALLY bad officiating (fuck the Sun Belt referees), Michigan lost 32-28, a fitting end I suppose, to the Year of Infinite Pain. It seems like every season ends with me feeling like shit because the seniors had to go out with a loss. This time it was Jason Avant I felt for. The underappreciated wide receiver with hands of glue who had lived in Braylon's immense shadow had finally gotten his time, and he made it count (82 catches, 1007 yards, 8 touchdowns), but he had to go through the hell of a 7-5 season, and had to watch on the sideline as the defense puckered (copyright Mike Valenti) time and time again. Avant deserved better. He was never the superstar that Braylon was. He was never the speedster like Breaston, or the big play guy like Mario. He never showboated, he never ran his mouth and got flagged. He never got into trouble. He just went out there, did his job, and got ready for the next play. And in the end, he was lost in the abyss of Seven and Five - The Year of Infinite Pain.
Lloyd Carr vs. Ohio State: 6-5
Lloyd Carr vs. Michigan State: 8-3
Lloyd Carr vs. Notre Dame: 3-4
Lloyd Carr in Bowl Games: 5-6