PASADENA, Calif. — The gun went off and the championship hats came on and oh, baby, it was really a happy new year now. Never mind that the last play of this crazy Rose Bowl may have been the craziest of all, with an all-world quarterback throwing the ball at his feet, then seeing 0:00 on the clock. Never mind. This was a snapshot for history, a team of destiny, and nothing was going to stop the young men in maize-and-blue from the joyous celebration that awaited in the middle of the field.
All roses, no thorns.
“We had to fight to the last second,” said an exhausted Brian Griese, who was selected the game’s most outstanding player after his three touchdown passes led Michigan’s 21-16 victory over Washington State, a victory that leaves the Wolverines 12-0 for the season, and should earn them the national championship after the Orange Bowl tonight. “I never could have dreamed of an ending like this.”
The ending? Who could have dreamed the beginning or the middle? Let’s be honest. A Michigan national championship won on two long bombs is as likely as Metallica singing “White Christmas.” As normal as Bo Schembechler in a Chippendales outfit.
Then again, it’s taken 50 years for Wolverines fans to reach January saying
“we’re undefeated and best in the country.” It’s only fitting that they do it in style.
And that they did, here in glorious Pasadena, a place that has often resembled the valley of death for U-M football but more than made up for it Thursday in front of 101,219 screaming fans. What they saw flashed as many shades as the sun-drenched facade of the San Gabriel mountains. There were four lead changes, two interceptions, Michigan gaping at Washington State and its magnificent quarterback, Ryan Leaf, and the Cougars saying “Huh?” as Griese played bombs away with his receivers.
But in the end, U-M did what it does best, it held the ball for nearly seven minutes, then relied on its nation-leading defense to close the door. True, it did that with a gasp, as Leaf surged his Cougars 67 yards in 29 seconds, before the clock ran out as he intentionally grounded a pass.
“I never relaxed for one second,” admitted coach Lloyd Carr, who was defensive coordinator in 1994 when Colorado tumbled Michigan on a final Hail Mary pass.
“I never want to relive that, let me tell you.”
Not to worry, Lloyd. This is a new year. As in “out with the old”?
All roses, no thorns.
“I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I do believe in never giving up,” said a smiling Griese, who, as a senior playing his last game, truly symbolized the unlikely ascension of this team. Here was a guy who walked on to the Michigan program as a freshman, who rose to starting quarterback, then fell as low as you can fall, being tossed off the team after an incident in a bar.
Day after day, as he trained on his own, running steps in a stadium while his teammates practiced elsewhere, one image kept him going. The image of him coming back one day, winning the big game, and showing everyone that he was not the bad kid the headlines suggested.
Mission accomplished. And how he did it! In the second quarter, with Michigan trailing, 7-0, he heaved a 53-yard bomb to Tai Streets that landed in his arms and woke up the previously dazed Michigan fans. It tied Griese’s longest pass of the year.
And then, in case you didn’t believe it the first time, the kid did it again
— even better. This time it was the third quarter, right after WSU had taken a jolting 13-7 lead, and Michigan fans were shivering “uh-oh, not again.”
No worries. Griese uncorked a 58-yarder down the middle, which floated on a wonderful arch and hit Streets in stride. Touchdown.
Streets, who endured dislocated fingers much of this season — which didn’t stop fans from criticizing his ball-handling — had not caught a single pass in the two biggest games of the year, Penn State and Ohio State. Now he had two touchdowns?
“My fingers feel fine now,” Streets said afterward.
He finished with four catches for 127 yards. He would certainly be the biggest story of this game — if not for Griese.
For in the final quarter, it was mostly the senior quarterback who saved the day, not only finding Jerame Tuman for a 23-yard touchdown, but also steering a time-eating drive that chewed 6:56 off the clock. On one critical third down, Griese spun out of a tackler’s grasp and chugged for a first down.
“I’m not the fastest guy in the world,” he admitted, laughing at himself. But he needed 11 yards and he got 11 yards, diving for the final inch. He did it on an undying desire that has characterized his return to glory, and shows that young men really can grow up at college, even when they play a game.
So when it was all over, and Brian stood before the cheering crowd, the scoreboard suddenly flashed the image of his father, Bob, who was broadcasting the game for ABC-TV. And the senior Griese waved at his son, and all the bad times, all the blemishes, all those lonely training runs that once threatened to swallow Brian Griese were gone.
“I never wanted to be the all-star quarterback,” he said. “I just wanted to be accepted on this team.”
All roses, no thorns.
Now, speaking of all-star quarterbacks, a word here for Leaf. He made believers out of a lot of people Thursday. Against a defense that was only allowing 115 passing yards a game, Leaf racked up 331. He threw laser beams, held onto the ball until the absolute latest moment, and took a pounding. He still almost pulled off a huge upset. With two seconds showing on the clock, he took the snap at Michigan’s 26 and grounded the ball. He thought he’d given himself one last play.
Instead, to his disbelief, he looked up and saw the clock had expired.
“We all felt we should be able to snap the ball and ground it in two seconds,” Leaf said. “But with all the confusion and the noise, I can’t blame the officials. I wouldn’t want to have to keep track of time in that situation.”
Who knows what might have happened with one more snap? Afterward, in the tunnel, Leaf led his team in a singing of the WSU fight song, even though the Cougars had lost. He said he felt they had nothing to be ashamed of, and the seniors should get to sing it one more time. Folks, this kid is going to make some NFL team very, very happy.
But on Thursday, the happiness was destined to go the maize and blue’s way. Anytime Michigan wins a game by gaining twice as many yards passing as running, there must be some fate involved.
“Football is a team game,” said U-M’s Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, who had a key interception, but was stymied offensively by WSU’s defense.
“Today we proved that team is No. 1 with us. And that we’re the No. 1 team.”
Yes, indeed. That explanation point should come Saturday morning, when the final polls are turned in. No matter what happens with second-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl tonight, the Wolverines have won the national title. Never mind that they didn’t win this Rose Bowl by 50 points. Hey. Let somebody else try stopping Leaf. At times, he looked like an NFL quarterback tossed into a college pickup game.
No, the Wolverines came out here at No. 1 and they go home at No. 1. And when that announcement comes, it will be a huge exhale for Michigan fans, one that likely will be heard around the planet …
All those years feeling locked behind glass, watching Miami (Fla.), Nebraska, Florida State and Notre Dame win national championships, while U-M was stuck playing lower-ranking Pac-10 teams in Pasadena? Forget it. Over.
And all those years getting knocked for being heavy and slow, some kind of Midwestern heffers that can only stare at the fleet-footed Westerners? Forget that, too. Over.
And all that talk that Carr was somehow not the man for this job, that he was simply part of that antiquated machinery passed on from Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller, that his style of coaching wouldn’t work in today’s game, that he was doomed to 8-4 seasons?
Forget it. Over.
“I am so proud of this team,” said Carr, who has done a magnificent job. He believed in these kids when others did not. He trusted them, even when they fell behind. He allowed his stars to shine — and even inserted some flamboyance in the offense — without ever taking away from the team concept that dominates his thinking. His tradition is a strength, not a weakness. And it was appropriate that he asked Schembechler to address the team on Wednesday. The old coach, in his classic barking style, told his players this:
“Men, you have a chance to do something incredible here. You have a chance to be a team of destiny, to go undefeated and to win the big ten and national championship. And if you do this, if you win, you will remember it all your life. Wherever you go, whatever business you get into, they’ll always say you were part of the greatest football team Michigan has ever had.”
You don’t argue with a speech like that. You deliver. And in that leaping, happy pile of perfection that took over the Rose Bowl field at sunset Thursday and turned it a sea of maize and blue — Griese, Woodson, Streets, Carr, all of them — well, you knew they had done just that.
All roses, no thorns.
Now that’s how you start a new year.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.