by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jeff George, the Illinois quarterback, fidgeted with his helmet strap. This was his time, wasn’t it? The final seven minutes. He was the miracle man, the can-do kid. He does more with a football in the closing minutes than some teams do all afternoon. Hands on hips. Look up. Look down. It was his time.

But it was Michigan’s ball. And they were not giving it back. Seven minutes. Six minutes. Five. Four. Three. What’s wrong with this picture? Here in the land of passing brilliance, it was U-M’s Michael Taylor showing off — not with the pinpoint passing that George has made famous, but with old-fashioned toughness, scrambling, taking hits, moving the Wolverines downfield.

You know.

Bo Ball.

“When it got down to the nitty-gritty, we stuffed it in there the old- fashioned way,” said a delighted Bo Schembechler, after the Wolverines pushed, crunched, and finally split apart the Illini, 24-10, to take the clear lead in the Rose Bowl chase. He smiled.

“I like that.”

Sure he likes it. It has his name all over it. What Michigan did on that final scoring drive was more than march 80 yards, more than consume the critical part of the clock, more than score on a 13 yard scamper by Tony Boles. What they did was take the final breath out of this upstart Illini team, which up to that point seemed confident that it could win when it had to. Final seven minutes, right? Hadn’t Jeff George led them all year?

Yeah. But the year’s not over yet. So effective was that final surge by the Wolverines, that there seemed little spark left for Illinois when it got the ball back with under three minutes to go. A few plays late, George threw an interception, Tripp Welborne made the play, and that was that. The showdown between the old coach and the young rival who had once worked for him was history.

“Hey this is a heck of team here,” said Schembehcler. “That quarterback can scare you half to death.”

And forget the final score. This was a tough game. A great game, really. Michigan was the guy in work boots. Illinois was the flash kid in high-tech sneakers. The Illini were all about play action and double tight end alignments. Michigan was about hit him low and hit ’em hard.

And here was their collision, chock full of terrific plays and non-stop tension. It was a game with crunching and slamming and one-handed catches, locomotive tailbacks and a temper tantrum by Bo and a crowd that never stopped screaming. There were mistakes, but few, and mostly this became a battle of execution. The Michigan offensive line came to life just when it had to. And the Michigan defense, overshadowed this week by the press clippings of their Illinois rivals, nonetheless did the better job, clamping down on the Illini rush, and covering the Illini receivers for what seemed at times to be forever.

“They’re sort of a no-name group,” said Schembechler, with a sly smile,
“they don’t get a lot of attention, and probably none of them will make All American. But they get the job done.”

And done it is. Michigan is now 8-1, 6-0 in the conference, and another
“classic showdown” has bit the dust, with U-M on top. It seems as if U-M has nothing but showdowns these days. Notre Dame. Michigan State. Illinois. And there’s still Ohio State. This Wolverine group has taken knocks, and has, at times, looked sloppy — they surrender 21 points to Purdue but hold Illinois to 10? — but one thing can be said: They know how to play big games. That comes from having a lot of them.

Never was that more evident than in the third quarter, fourth and one on the Michigan four yard line. The Illini, bloated with confidence, decided to go for the tying touchdown. A big moment. The crowd was on their side. The emotion was on their side. But experience was on Michigan’s side. George dropped back to pass and the Michigan defense stayed on its assignments. Two seconds. Three. Four. With nobody open and the pocket closing, George had to whip it to the end zone. Vada Murray deflected it away, and for all intents and purposes, the game was history. Michigan had taken the measure of the upstart’s courage. It has survived.

It survives still. Two more showdowns before Pasadena. If they get there, let there be no mistake. They will have earned it. Every inch. CUTLINE: Tony Boles jump-starts the Wolverines with 73-yard run on the second play of the game.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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