JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Well, after careful analysis, I think we can all agree that the turning point in this game was the opening kickoff. That, or when Desmond Howard put on his uniform.

I don’t want to say Howard made the Ole Miss Rebels eat his dust at Tuesday’s Gator Bowl. That wouldn’t be fair. They weren’t that close.

Example: First quarter. Michigan’s Elvis Grbac uncorks a bomb that goes as high as it does long. Up, up, up. Down, down, down. I’ve seen punts with less hang time. Fortunately, Howard was so far ahead of the Mississippi defenders, he was able to stop and wait, eyes to the sky, as if he were watching a NASA splashdown. “I said to myself, ‘Come down, ball,’ ” Howard recalled.

It came down. He caught it. He ran it in for a touchdown — the first of five U-M touchdowns. Later, Howard snagged another, quicker Grbac pass, did a 180-degree spin that left an Ole Miss defender flying off the screen — I think I last saw that move on “Dance Fever” — and chalked up another long score, 50 yards.

Dazzling. That’s a good word for him. Dazzling. All afternoon he was there, greased lighting, losing defenders, leaving only a breeze. There were other offensive stars on this afternoon, certainly. (Hey, there had better be when the score is 35-3.) But Howard? He was the spark. He was Peter Pan, zipping through the air and saying “Follow me! You can fly!” He had six catches, three kick returns, a long reverse and two touchdowns. This is the difference between Desmond Howard and everybody else: When Howard touches it, you lean forward in your seat.

“He did a few things today that even shocked me,” Grbac said. “When he’s playing that way, it enables us to do just about anything.”

And they did. Just about anything. Howard’s magic loosened the offense to the point that soon, he was simply the thing you watched when Jon Vaughn and Ricky Powers weren’t busy running through holes the size of military transports, and Jarrod Bunch wasn’t busy saying farewell to his college days with two touchdowns.

Whoa. Run that score by us again? 35-3? And 715 yards of total offense? Michigan? The school famous for making bowl games look like tractor pulls? Well. Those days, remember, were with a different coach. And a different cast.

Which leads us to this: Maybe the biggest lesson from Tuesday’s victory has less to do with the season it ended than with the season coming up. Let’s face it:

Any offense with Howard, Grbac, Vaughn, Powers and Derrick Alexander coming back could be hotter than Georgia asphalt. The holes were how big?

Now, relax. I have not forgotten about the offensive line. The offensive line was, how can I put it?

“GRLLLLZZP!”

“MRRRGGHHH!”

“Ayee!”

Those were the sounds heard after each Michigan snap Tuesday. The first two came from the beefy ensemble of Tom Dohring, Dean Dingman, Matt Elliot, Steve Everitt and Greg Skrepenak. The last was the sound of the Ole Miss defense. I don’t want to say this was a lopsided battle.

But I will.

“How would you finish this sentence?” someone asked Powers after he gained 112 yards Tuesday and Vaughn gained 128. “The holes today were as big as . .
. “

“Oh, wow,” Powers said. “The holes today were as big as rivers! No, not rivers. Wait. The holes today were as big as . . . moon craters! Yeah. No. I don’t know. Most of the time I never got touched until I was in the secondary. The holes were huge!”

Indeed. Michigan was gaining yardage so fast, the guys moving the chains had to take oxygen. The offensive line, all five starters, were voted MVPs of this game, partly, I think, because the guys who vote were afraid what the linemen might do if they didn’t win it.

Talk about effective! Come on, 715 yards? Of offense? In one game? What is this, Brigham Young? And remember, Gary Moeller had scrubs playing for much of the fourth quarter. Even they moved the ball. By the end, I think Moeller sent the tuba player in, just to keep things fair.

Which leads to the question: Were the Wolverines this good or Ole Miss this bad? Probably both. Michigan has long had great talent, but the attitude on this day was special. “I told our guys earlier in the week that I refused to play this game not to lose,” Moeller said in the post-game locker room.
“We were gonna play to win it. I told the defense, if the offense makes a mistake, you guys have to hold, because we’re gonna come right back and try it again.”

So they went to the air early, and when the first drive stalled with an interception, they came right back and went deep again. Such a gunner’s attitude is different from previous January appearances with Bo Schembechler. Then again, let’s be honest: This wasn’t the Rose Bowl.

You could tell that by Ole Miss. No offense, but the Rebels, on Tuesday, wouldn’t have been allowed in the Rose Bowl without tickets. The story goes that their defense played so well in its regular-season finale against Mississippi State that defensive coordinator Robert Henry let his players shave his head.

After Tuesday, he should make them buy him a toupee. Frightening in ’91?

But let’s get back to Howard, because his value to Michigan only grows as time passes. He is one of those players who justifies the cliche “makes things happen.” His nickname is “Magic,” given to him by a junior high school basketball coach. He already has Earvin Johnson’s laugh, and plenty of teeth. And he’s got that 180 spin move down pretty well, too.

“I practice that,” Howard said, laughing. “I knew I did it when I heard the crowd go ‘Ooooooo.’ “

It won’t be the last time. If he stays healthy, his possibilities are frightening.

Can we point out a few things here: Moeller — if you count the Hall of Fame Bowl he coached when Schembechler was ill — now is 2-0 in bowl games. He has most of his offense coming back, and most of his defense (which, it goes without saying, did a heck of a job Tuesday, holding the Rebels to three points). This season’s group, new coach and all, still came within a few points and funny plays of winning everything. All of which suggests that, with a little luck, the 1991 Wolverines could be downright frightening. And they know it.

“I think anything less than a Rose Bowl or a national championship next year,” Grbac said, “would be a big disappointment.”

Uh-oh.

You wonder, after a performance like this, where Michigan could be right now, give or take a play here, a whistle there. They are undefeated in their last six games, and their three losses all came in the fourth quarter, and were by a total of six points.

Then again, don’t we always end up saying that about a Michigan team?

What we don’t always say is this: They were an offensive juggernaut Tuesday. And while the defense was obviously excellent — and I think three points speaks for itself — what whets the appetite for next year is the possibility of bash in the offensive line, dash in the backfield and flash in the receiving corps.

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