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

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jeff George, the celebrated Illinois quarterback, had his hands on his hips. He fidgeted with his helmet strap. “Damn,” he seemed to say, pacing up and down, “this is my time.” It was the final seven minutes. He was the miracle man. The sold-out crowd was waiting breathlessly for his magic, his typical rally to victory. But he was a prisoner of the sideline.

It was his time, but it was Michigan’s ball. And the Wolverines were not giving it back. Seven minutes. Six minutes. Five. Four. And here went Michael Taylor, the Wolverine quarterback, smaller, less famous, but he scampered around right end for 12 yards. And a first down. Then he dashed ahead on an option for 12 yards. And a first down. He kept around right end, curling upfield for 15 yards. And a first down. Suddenly, it was a game of keep-away, and Taylor and Michigan were clearly winning. Without ever completing a pass.

“First downs, first downs, that’s all we kept thinking,” Taylor would say. And do. Five first downs in just over five precious minutes in the fourth quarter, a wonderful, maddening 80-yard drive that culminated in a Tony Boles touchdown and locked this game inside the Wolverines’ safe, 24-10. Taylor clapped his hands. Bo Schembechler yanked off his headphones.

So much for Illinois.

Next showdown, please.

“ROSE BOWL! ROSE BOWL!” the pocket full of Michigan fans were screaming. And why not? Oh sure, there are still two big games left. But this was the major hump, the game everyone was watching. It was the air force (Illinois) against the groundhogs (U-M), No. 8 hosting No. 3. It had daredevil catches by the Illinois receivers, and ricochet running by the U-M tailbacks. Defense that crushed like falling buildings, and offense that struck like a dagger. It had a temper tantrum by Bo on the sideline, and a dash of crazies across the field waving an Illinois flag. But throughout the afternoon, one football truth could not be denied: You cannot score if you do not have the ball. Michigan had it when it really counted, until Boles bounded across the goal line with 2:31 left.

“OK,” the Wolverines finally said, “You can play with it now.”

Illinois came rushing out, an anxious George leading the charge.

He threw an interception.

Next showdown, please. When it got down to the nitty-gritty, we stuffed it in there the old-fashioned way, didn’t we?” said a delighted Schembechler in the locker room after the game. “We blocked well. We ran well.”

He smiled. “I like that.”

Sure he likes it. When the going gets tough, the tough get back to basics. At least if they wear maize and blue. Never mind that Illinois has high tech, all double tight end formations and play-action passing. Michigan was the team in the boots. Get to work. Get dirty. He likes it that way.

So it was that the mammoth Michigan offensive line punched holes in the celebrated Illinois defense, allowed the running backs to collect 266 rushing yards, the most surrendered this season by the Illini. And so it was that the Michigan defense, which had been sloppy last week against lowly Purdue, this time had the concentration of a surgeon, allowing no points in the second half and turning up the juice at precisely the right moment.

Never more than late in the third quarter, when the Illini had the ball on the Michigan 4, fourth and one. They trailed by just a touchdown, and, flushed with confidence and buoyed by the screaming orange crowd, they decided to go for it. Forget the field goal. We can score. With Jeff George at quarterback? The kid is two parts Marino, two parts Elway, and one part Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. Critics may question the call. “But if I had a kid like him,” Schembechler later admitted, “I wouldn’t second-guess anything. He’s the most dangerous guy they got on their team.”

And back he dropped. He looked. No receivers open. With no options, and a coming rush, George zipped a ball to the end zone. Vada Murray deflected it harmlessly, and the crowd expelled a huge gust of hope. It was eyeball to eyeball. Illinois blinked.

Next showdown, please. Every team gets up to play us,”said Boles afterward. He’d enjoyed a banner day, 115 yards on nine carries, including a 73-yard scamper on the second play of the game. No big deal. “We’re used to games like this. We played Notre Dame. Michigan State. We still have Ohio State. This is just another big game.”

Indeed, that may have been the difference on this breezy Saturday. Illinois had been pointing to this showdown since last year. In the final days the Illini fans were dizzy with desire. They were crazy in this town. But excitement and psyche-up don’t necessarily mean victory. Execution does. And Michigan executed.

Yes, George was brilliant. He honored his press clippings, cranking out 22 completions in 38 tries, releasing the ball as if it were burning a hole in his hand. But in the fourth quarter, he made two mistakes; the interception, and a long incompletion on third and 12 when he could have had an easy, shorter, first-down pass. As far as crunch time goes, that was two mistakes more than Taylor made.

Truth is, when they look back on this game, they will remember the fast kid from U-M as the quarterback who delivered, carrying three times for 39 yards in that final delicious drive. Someone asked Taylor if he felt more like a running back than a quarterback down the stretch. “Run or pass,” he laughed, “as long as we stay out there.”

They stay out there. And they stay up there. Michigan is 8-1 on the year, 6-0 in the conference. Don’t be fooled by the margin of victory Saturday. This was a tough game against a tough team, and Michigan proved a lot with its victory.

“We played pretty good, I’ll admit,” said Schembechler, pulling his coat on to leave. “But we’re not in the Rose Bowl yet.” If they get there, let there be no mistake, they will have earned it. One lovely yard at a time. CUTLINE Tony Boles jump-starts the Wolverines with a 73-yard run on the second play of the game. Bo Schembechler, disputing an illegal substitution penalty (above), draws another fourth-quarter flag for protesting too much. At right, Michigan defenders Alex Marshall (left) and Mike Evans celebrate after breaking up an Illinois pass play. That’s Illini quarterback Jeff George picking himself up off the field.


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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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