The pass smacked off the Wisconsin receiver and shot into the air, and linebacker John Thompson held out his hands, praying for the rebound. Down came the ball, a gift from the heavens, and he squeezed it tight, turned toward the end zone and, with the crowd roaring, began his rumble.
Five yards. Ten yards. He slowed, instinctively, waiting for his team to show up, the way the sold-out stadium had been waiting all afternoon, the way Michigan fans have been waiting all season, and suddenly there they were two, three, four, five, six maize-and-blue jerseys, thundering together with Thompson tucked safely in their midst, a force, a group, a unit too powerful to stop.
Remember this day, folks. Because they may have just come together, this Michigan football group, a beleaguered collection of young players and a new staff, lugging a wagon full of headlines that said the experiment isn’t working, it’s taking too long, it’s embarrassing, it’s a mess. Heck, until the fourth quarter Saturday, wouldn’t you have said the same thing?
The game at the Big House had been a disaster, a humiliation, the worst Big Ten opener for Michigan in more than two decades. The Wolverines trailed, 19-0, at halftime, had five turnovers, one first down, negative yards passing – and it could have been worse. Fans were only cheering sarcastically.
When they weren’t booing.
Totally out of the blue
But that fourth quarter. Wow. It was a movie. An epic. It was Popeye’s spinach kicking in. It was Superman waking up from the Kryptonite. It was an offensive explosion and a defensive crackdown that began with 10:27 left, on a touchdown burst by Brandon Minor, and continued with Thompson’s interception and score just seconds later, and swelled with Sam McGuffie’s three-yard end zone pierce – 20 U-M points in less than six minutes – and ended only with 13 seconds on the clock, when Wisconsin’s Allan Evridge threw too high on a last-ditch two-point conversion attempt.
Michigan 27, Wisconsin 25. The second-biggest comeback in U-M history. The biggest ever in Michigan Stadium. Yellow T-shirted fans leapt to their feet en masse, as if a giant sunburst had just exploded. A new era had, officially, taken hold.
“I’m so proud of these young men,” coach Rich Rodriguez gushed to the sideline TV reporter. “They didn’t quit at halftime.”
No matter how logical it seemed. Be honest. Who expected Michigan to come back from this debacle? Against Wisconsin? Michigan had looked terrible losing to mediocre Notre Dame and overmatched losing to good but unranked Utah. Now it was supposed to overcome 19 points and all those ugly mistakes against the Badgers, ranked No. 9 in the nation?
I guess that’s why Michigan was called a “team in transition.”
The moment of truth
Although until that fourth quarter, you would have defined “transition” as walking in on a man changing his pants. Michigan was hopping awkwardly, dropping things – wanting to yell “shut the door!” until the situation improved.
But quarterback Steven Threet, under duress all day, suddenly came alive with accurate throws and some fine running, including a 58-yard fake-handoff burst. And the U-M defense proved its mettle behind lineman Brandon Graham, who was everywhere, sacking Evridge and forcing a huge fumble after the Badgers had reached the shadow of Michigan’s end zone.
There was energy. There was excitement. There was play-making.
There was a team.
“What does this mean to your program?” Rodriguez was asked by ABC.
“It means we’re 1-0 in the Big Ten,” he said.
Yes, it does. And no, it means more. Every new coach needs a signature victory. Bo Schembechler got his in 1969, in the classic upset of Ohio State. Houston Nutt got his Saturday at Ole Miss, upsetting mighty Florida. These are victories that tell the fans the compass is working, great things are possible on any week, if not every week.
Now Rodriguez has his. It would have been big if U-M had simply won. But to come back the way it did – well, nobody can predict anything now. You won’t know which U-M team will show up, a good thing for a program just finding its identity.
Remember this game. Or at least that play, with Thompson thundering to the end zone, swarmed by his teammates, blue on blue on blue. It may be just another highlight. Or it may be something much, much more.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. www.freep.com/mitch.