ANN ARBOR — It was raining roses, everywhere you looked, John Kolesar had one between his teeth, Mark Messner had several stuffed in his belt. The game was over, the crowd was mobbing the field, the players should have been inside already, safe and warm, but this was their last game in Michigan Stadium, they had just clinched a Rose Bowl berth and, aw, heck, so what if a few thousand people wanted to hug them to death?

“I’m usually the first guy in,” said a beaming Kolesar long after Michigan had stuffed Illinois, 38-9, to guarantee a share of the Big Ten title. “But it was like a dream out there; I never wanted it to end.”

Roses for everybody. Emphasis on the everybody. Here was a Michigan group that truly embodied the word “team,” a group playing without its starting quarterback, two tailbacks, and two inside linebackers. And they still won by 29 points.

Geez. Imagine if they were healthy.

“We just promised each other we would not go down,” said Leroy Hoard, who started in place of tailback Tony Boles and galloped for 137 yards and two touchdowns. “Hey. We only had three running backs. We couldn’t afford to go down.”

Right. Not unless they wanted to start recruiting season a little early. Talk about A Star Is Born? Judy Garland would have been exhausted on Saturday. Demetrius Brown stepped in for injured quarterback Michael Taylor and went eight-of-14 for 101 yards, one touchdown and no — read our lips — no interceptions. Erick Anderson, stepped in for injured linebacker J.J. Grant and took a fake punt 22 yards to spark Michigan’s first scoring drive. Marc Spencer stepped in for linebacker John Milligan and had eight tackles.

There was even a play where tailback Tracy Williams took a handoff near the end zone, leapt into the air, landed on the back of Jarrod Bunch, and rode him across the goal line.

Nothing like leaning on your teammates.

Roses for everybody. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it now, I’ve really been happy with the character of this team,” said a weary but grinning Bo Schembechler, who has now earned his 12th Big Ten championship (only Woody Hayes had more, with 13 )
“They bounced back from a very disappointing start. We really thought we would beat Miami and Notre Dame, we lost both, yet we came back to win the conference title.”

Indeed. They haven’t lost since that last-second field goal by Miami way back in September. And, let’s be honest here, if not for that kick, and the last-second one by the Irish the week before, Michigan would probably be the No. 1 team in the nation right now.

Instead, they settle for No. 1 in their conference, which ain’t too shabby. So dominant were the Wolverines Saturday that it was hard to remember who they were playing. Illinois? Iowa? Indiana? One of those “I” teams. What’s the difference? The way the Wolverines played — the offense bursting out for 10 quick points, the defense refusing to allow a touchdown — they might as well have been hosting Santa and his reindeer.

Discipline? Try 60 minutes of U-M football without a single turnover. Unpredictable? Try a fake punt, a reverse, a go-for-it on fourth-and-goal from outside the 1.

Effective? Well. Isn’t third-down efficiency the best barometer of that? So here was Brown, on third-and-goal, zipping it to Chris Calloway for the first-blood touchdown. Here was safety David Arnold, on third-and-three, intercepting an Illinois pass and choking a drive. Here was Hoard, on two third downs within a sniff of the goal line, converting the yardage that led to next-play touchdowns.

I’d call that effective.

And I’d call it deep. The fact is, this title and this season are a tribute to the recruiting seasons Michigan has put together the last few years. They have stockpiled an army of talented players, thick enough to withstand first strike, second strike, and sometimes even third strike.

“You ran a lot from the wishbone formation today,” someone said to Schembechler afterward, “yet you only had three healthy running backs. What would you have done if one of them got hurt?”

“We’d have scratched the wishbone and gone with two backs,” he barked.
“And if we lost one of those, we’d go with one back. And if we’d lost him, we’d go to no backs.”

And you know what?

I bet they’d have won. Which they did anyway. And now they are headed back to Pasadena for the second time in three years. How nice for the seniors who have put in all the years, Kolesar, Arnold, Brown, Mike Gillette, Mike Husar, John Vitale — and of course, Messner, the defensive lineman who had a fumble recovery to go with his memories on Saturday,

“All those roses coming down, the championship in your hands, when you come to Michigan that’s what you expect,” he said in the locker room afterward. “And you know what? When it happens it’s worth every drop of sweat that came out of your body.”

He laughed and slapped his knee, as if making sure he was really here. Around him players hugged and rubbed each others’ heads. There is something about a Michigan Big Ten championship. It is kind of expected yet always embraced, greeted with both glee and a sense that this was supposed to happen, if they did as they were told. It is a mature acceptance of glory, a tone set by Schembechler, who, naturally, reminded his players that, while this was nice, there is still one more game against Ohio State next weekend in Columbus.

Thanks, Bo.

But hey. It wouldn’t be Michigan without that. Roses for everybody. When the gun sounded Saturday and the field erupted, Messner was right in the middle taking it in, snapping mental pictures. A girl whom he had never met before but who was wearing his number jersey dashed up and handed him a rose. He thanked her, then, concerned that she be trampled, he hoisted her on his shoulders and marched slowly toward safety.

“It was great to be out there,” Messner recalled, “but I missed us singing
‘The Victors!’ Can you believe that? I was stuck outside with all those people, and by the time I made it in, they were finished.”

Don’t worry, Mark.

With this team, someone probably stepped in and sang it for you.

Mitch Albom’s new radio sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” can be heard tonight from 9-11 on WLLZ 98.7-FM. Tonight’s guests are Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Channel 4’s Bernie Smilovitz.

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