SOUTH BEND, Ind. – They hit the road, and for the first time in six years, the road did not hit back. In fact, what Michigan did Saturday in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus was enough to make Lloyd Carr consider an entire season of away games. They came, they saw, they trashed the place. Shredded gold everywhere you looked. Notre Dame’s ranking as the second-best team in the nation seemed like a typographical error once the Wolverines had finished.
Thirty-four points – in the first half? Three touchdown catches by a sophomore, Mario Manningham? A stuffing defense that canceled nearly every move from the latest Irish “genius,” Charlie Weis?
“We knew this was gonna be the big one,” said quarterback Chad Henne, after U-M’s 47-21 victory that avenged last year’s upset in the Big House.
“Last year,” Henne declared, “is gone.”
And the year before that, and that, and that. Michigan didn’t just win Saturday. It stomped. It returned an interception for a touchdown early and a fumble for a touchdown late. It buried Mr. America, Brady Quinn, deep in the grass. It held Notre Dame to four yards rushing. I actually think it knocked the attitude out of the Irish, if only for a day.
And it happened on the road! That should relieve a lot of worried Maize-and-Blue fans, who have grown accustomed to their balloons being punctured as soon as their alma mater crossed state lines. Six straight years? Six losses in the first road game of the season?
Not this time. The Wolverines are safe in their beds this morning, their undefeated record intact, their national championship hopes intact as well.
That’s the big news. The fact that they did it against Notre Dame is what salesmen call “value added”- like getting a free airline ticket and then being bumped up to first class.
“Today,” said Carr, in a mastery of understatement, “was certainly our day.”
A part of the conversation
Let’s face it. There is always a lot of attitude riding on this game, sometimes at the expense of reality. Notre Dame was being worshipped as the new Death Star of the Midwest, even though Weis has beaten only two Top 20 teams when he has had the chance – Michigan last year, 17-10, and Penn State last week, 41-17. Sorry, but Georgia Tech ain’t Ohio State.
Yet Weis and Quinn had all the buzz and Carr and the Wolverines had the sound of crickets. That’s what happens when you routinely eliminate yourself early from the national championship picture: You are tossed in the big pile of good-but-not-great college football teams that are largely forgotten.
For this week, anyhow, that is not the case. The 11th-ranked Wolverines are in the conversation. They knocked the No. 2 team in the country halfway back to its dorm rooms. And even the snobbiest analysts had to pay attention to the Wolverines’ attack modes Saturday.
First the offense: Here was Henne, shaking off an early interception, unafraid to try to squeeze the ball in the narrowest of margins, hitting Manningham in perfect stride for one score, finding him at the back of the end zone for another. Here was Mike Hart, doing what Mike Hart does, bursting up the gut for big gains and first downs, 124 yards on the day. Here was Steve Breaston, turning on the jets for precious first downs, and Manningham, continuing his “A Star Is Born” saga, getting under a 69-yard bomb from Henne to scamper into the promised land – the first of his three touchdowns.
And then the defense: It set the tone early. Prescott Burgess stole Quinn’s second pass of the game and returned it for a score. He stole another one in the second half and almost scored again. The defensive line harassed Quinn all day long and when he tried to fan the last embers of a comeback Leon Hall dove and stole another, the third pick of the day – this against a quarterback who hadn’t been intercepted since last year’s Stanford game.
Defensive end LaMarr Woodley crashed the final cymbals when he picked up a Quinn fumble in the closing minutes and ran – well, “ran” is a little extreme, more like, moved, pushed, rumbled and gasped – until he reached the end zone.
“A lot of people had us down,” Woodley said. “A lot of people thought we couldn’t come in here and win. A lot of people judged us on last year, but this is a totally different team from last year.
Take notice, Buckeyes
And maybe, now, people are willing to believe it. Let’s be honest, before this victory, there was lots of talk that Lloyd Carr’s program was being surpassed by newcomers – Jim Tressel’s winning national titles at Ohio State, Weis’ donning the latest savior cap at Notre Dame. Both teams have bested Michigan the last few years. The Irish did it early, the Buckeyes did it late. You can forget the losses in between. That’s enough to bury a season.
But Carr can breathe easier now – at least for six more days when he faces Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener.
“We’ve had to deal with all the negative things that surround football teams when things aren’t going your way,” he said. “And we’ve handled that pretty well Now we’ll see ”
Yes, we will. Managing success can be as hard as managing failure. But it’s usually more fun. After Saturday, the Wolverines are still relevant in the big tent. They have pushed the Irish out of it. There is more to the season than trying to salvage the non-conference results with a Big Ten title. There’s hope. There’s a bad memory erased from last year. There’s a 47-21 upset in the newspaper. There’s three victories and no losses in the books.
And the weather, in case we didn’t mention it, was very nice.
You know what they call that? A pretty good road trip. That’s what they call that.
FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED
For Michigan, it was the first time since
2005 that a U-M WR had three TDs (2005 Rose Bowl).
1999 that Lloyd Carr won his road opener (beat Syracuse, 18-13, on Sept. 18).
1997 that U-M beat a No. 2-ranked opponent (beat Penn State, 34-8, on Nov. 8).
1994 that U-M won at Notre Dame (won 26-24 on Sept. 10).
1960 that a team has scored 47 or more points in South Bend (Purdue scored 51 on Oct. 1).
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Order tickets for the Sept. 27 charity launch of “For One More Day” at 248-433-1515 or ticketmaster.com. Tickets at the Fox Theatre are $40 and include an autographed copy of Albom’s novel.