THESE REBELS WITHOUT A CLUEAGAINST DAZZLING DESMOND

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 took over the Gator Bowl. I don’t want to say he made the Ole Miss Rebels eat his dust. That wouldn’t be fair. They didn’t get close enough to eat his dust.

Desmond was dazzling. He turned Mississippi into Rebels Without a Clue. 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, look up and wait, as if he were watching a NASA splashdown. “I said to myself, ‘Come down, ball, come down,’ ” Howard recalled.

It came down. He caught it. Then he accelerated beyond the charging Rebels

and ran it in for a touchdown — the first of five U-M touchdowns. Later, Howard snagged a better Grbac pass, did a 180-degree spin — a move I last saw

on “Dance Fever” — and left the defender flying off the screen. Howard raced to the end zone. A 50-yard touchdown. See you later.

Dazzling. That’s a good word for Howard. All afternoon he was there, then gone, losing defenders, leaving only a breeze. There were other offensive stars on this afternoon. (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 the ball, 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 running through holes the size of military transports, and Jarrod Bunch wasn’t saying farewell to college by dragging tacklers into the end zone.

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. Remember, that was a different coach. And a different cast.

Which makes you wonder: Did the biggest lesson from Tuesday’s victory have

less to do with the season it ended and more to do with the season coming up?

After all, 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 offensive line. 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 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. The holes were huge!”

Indeed. Michigan was gaining yardage so fast, the guys moving the chains had to stop for oxygen. All five starters on the offensive line — Tom Dohring, Dean Dingman, Matt Elliott, Steve Everitt and Greg Skrepenak — were voted MVPs of this game, partly, I think, because the guys who vote were afraid of what they 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.

Question: Were the Wolverines this good or Ole Miss this bad? Probably both. Michigan has had great talent a long time, but even so, 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 postgame 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.”

And he meant it. The Wolverines went to the air early, and when the first drive died with an interception, they refused to go conservative; they came right back and went deep again. Such a gunner’s attitude is different from previous January appearances by U-M. Then again: 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, a sophomore, 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 he has that 180 spin move down pretty well, too.

“I practice that,” Howard said, with a big smile. “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 other things: Moeller — if you count the Hall of Fame Bowl he coached when Bo Schembechler was ill — is now 2-0 in bowl games. Do we have a trend here? He has most of his offense coming back, and most of his defense, too (which, it goes without saying, did a remarkable job Tuesday, holding the Rebels to three points). And remember, this season’s Wolverines, 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 dangerously good. And they know it.

“I think anything less than a Rose Bowl or a national championship next year,” said Grbac, mulling over the day’s events, “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 season is the possibility of bash in the offensive line, dash in the backfield and flash in the receiving corps.

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