2003 Minnesota: trailing 14-0, Michigan has driven to around midfield. John Navarre chucks a WR screen to Steve Breaston, who throws it back to Navarre. Forty yards later, we all have beards and Michigan is within seven points.
At some point in the 2003 Minnesota game I needed to get off the couch after something enraging had happened. I was on it with my girlfriend at the time and she sort of ended up on the ground as I executed my plan. The couch was low to the ground, she was unharmed, and in the aftermath the incident seemed funny. At the time all I could do was clench and unclench my fists.
Michigan would eventually deploy an all-shotgun offense in the fourth quarter that shredded Minnesota for 24 points and win the game on a Garrett Rivas 33-yarder, but at the time it was grim. It would have been more grim but for the trick play of the decade:
In the aftermath a friend immediately called me screaming "WHAT." It wasn't a question. It was just "WHAT." That. From seven year's distance it appears to be the slowest, most awkward touchdown convoy in school history.
Eventually it was key in Michigan's comeback win and Rose Bowl berth but really it's just here for its sheer improbability. It was one thing to run the transcontinental with Drew Henson; doing it with John Navarre—and getting a touchdown out of it—is pure audacity. This, by the way, is why Minnesota bloggers will never do a Worst Plays of the Decade list.
Penn State, 2006: it's second or third and long or something again, can't remember, doesn't matter, and I'm back in the pocket and I know I'm going to die. My offensive line has proven itself entirely hypothetical at this point. So I'm going to die, and it's not going to have any purpose. But this time I actually get a faint semblance of protection and I manage to find an open receiver—I'd forgotten those even existed—and I hurl it out there. And if Alan Branch hadn't driven his facemask into my shoulder and run through my tiny hoo-man body and left me in a concussed heap on the ground I would have gotten to see a first down. Which would have been nice.
But then I might have had to play the rest of the game instead of getting an emergency cup of pudding repurposed from JoePa's stash. So, yeah. I could go either direction, as long as it's 180 degrees from wherever Branch is going.
When Michigan fans are (unwisely, these days) attempting to tweak their Penn State coworkers this play, and the iconic image from its aftermath, is their go-to option. That's a meaningful statement when you've got most of a decade's worth of gloating to choose from, including another play on this list.
As for the significance of the play, Penn State had bounced back from its early decade malaise in a big way in 2005, going 11-1 with the only loss featured a bit higher on this list. By the time the PSU game rolled around in '06 it was obviously the only thing standing between Michigan and a 1-vs-2 matchup against Ohio State at the end of the season. Michigan's last four opponents would all finish with losing records; the only road game was against Indiana. When Anthony Morelli got blasted out of the game the decks were clear.
More than that, though, Alan Branch being in ur base is emblematic of the first ten games of 2006, when the Michigan defense was 1997 all over again and things were, briefly, back on course.
Notre Dame, 2006: Late in the first quarter, Michigan and Notre Dame are tied 7-7 after exchanging terrible interceptions when Chad Henne drops back to pass and launches one deep. Pat Haden breaks the suspense before the cameraman can catch up to a streaking Manningham by declaring "oh, wide open." When Manningham finally appears he is running under a perfectly thrown ball, all alone.
Michigan entered the 2006 game uncertain of its place in the college football universe after a frustrating 7-5 season this blog nicknamed the "Year of Infinite Pain," if only to highlight how sheltered the Michigan fanbase has been in the aftermath of the last couple years. And if Alan Branch sending Anthony Morelli to his happy place was emblematic of Michigan's run to Football Armageddon, Mario Manningham getting ten yards clear of the nearest Notre Dame cornerback was the moment the Year of Infinite Pain became part of the past:
Manningham would score twice more on deep balls as Michigan leapt out to a commanding lead. They didn't look back until the second quarter of the Ohio State game.
3. Braylonfest Part III
Michigan State, 2004: Braylon Edwards skies over yet another Michigan State defensive back, tying a game in which Michigan trailed by 17 with under nine minutes to go.
Braylon Edwards was the most frustrating great player in Michigan history, prone to terrible drops on easy throws and legendarily not "on the same page" as Lloyd Carr. But he was great, and never greater than the last eight minutes of regulation in the 2004 Michigan State game. If they gave out Heismans for a single game, they would have had to give Edwards two for this one.
It almost wasn't anything, though. In this game Michigan was driving in the third quarter, down 17-10, when Edwards fumbled around the 20. He was creeping towards the goat side of the ledger when DeAndra Cobb ran That Goddamned Counter Draw again and outran Ernest Shazor to the sideline and the endzone. But when you're down 17 with under eight minutes left, what is there to do other than chuck it up and tell the onside kick team that they should try really hard?
I remember many things about that game. I remember being cold as hell as the game dragged on and the heat fled from the stadium. I remember going over to a friend's house afterward and being told by his roommates that they had actually left immediately after the DeAndra Cobb TD. I remember another friend telling me that a State friend of his had turned the game off as soon as Michigan hit the field goal to get within 14—he didn't even wait for the onside kick. I remember turning around and jovially telling the State fans behind me that it was good that MSU missed their last-second 52-yard field goal attempt to win after a terrible PI call, because if it had gone in there was no way they were getting out of the stadium alive. But mostly I remember the shadows that gave the whole enterprise an otherworldly feel. It's without question the best game I've ever been to.
The pick here is the game-tying touchdown, as at that point victory seemed inevitable and the comeback was complete. Without it, the others are just coulda-been plays like the Mike Hart touchdown in the Horror.
2. Phil Brabbs is absolutely not going to make this field goal
Washington, 2002: Phil Brabbs hits a 44 yard field goal as time expires to beat Washington.
I've interacted with Phil Brabbs a little bit since he came down with cancer and I've read his blog and am wearing his bracelet, so I have a little insight here. The bracelet says DOMINATE and his blog has pictures of him DOMINATING various things from hospital ice cream to IVs to chemo drugs. Sometimes he makes his adorable children DOMINATE things. He's kind of like anthropomorphized Brawndo. So I'm betting that when Brabbs strolled onto the field after a preposterous sequence of events set him up with a potential game-winning field goal in the 2002 season opener, he was totally psyched to dominate himself some 44-yard field goal.
In this, he was utterly alone.
I'm sure his parents and wife tell him that they just knew he'd hit it, but after a career debut in which he missed 36 and 42 yard field goals badly enough for Michigan to send out Troy Neinberg on a 27-yarder that he shanked, no one in Michigan Stadium thought a 44-yard field goal with no time left on the clock was going in. This includes those nearest and dearest to him. I was just hoping it went forward.
Naturally, Brabbs did this:
Though Washington would end up one of the country's biggest disappointments at 7-6, they entered Michigan Stadium a top ten opponent. The moment the kick actually went through the actual uprights and everyone looked at the guy under the crossbar to make sure they hadn't hallucinated it, then looked at the other guy under the crossbar to make sure the first guy hadn't been hallucinating too, promised grand things. (That would fall apart in a ridiculous loss at Notre Dame in two weeks.)
Penn State, 2005: With one second on the clock, Mario Manningham catches a deep slant to beat Penn State 27-25. 86 = 1, as Michigan State would learn in 2007.
Why is this number one? It didn't end up mattering, and it was already clear it wouldn't since Michigan was already 3-3 and headed nowhere in 2005. It was the end of a classic game that swung dramatically from one side to the other, but other games were better and meant more.
I think it's that :01 on the clock, the knowledge that that second was precarious, fought for by Lloyd Carr after the clock ran after a Michigan timeout, preserved by Steve Breaston's best Tyrone Butterfield impression, and ironically Joe Paterno's fault for getting his team an extra two seconds on what they thought was their game-winning drive. Michigan was living on borrowed time. It seemed like they'd been given a chance to go back and right wrongs. Scott Bakula was at quarterback.
Meanwhile, Michigan was locked in an existential crisis unknown for decades. The 1984 season could be written off as a fluke since Jim Harbaugh's broken leg threw everything into disarray and Michigan bounced right back afterwards; 2005 was entirely different. Michigan had never been 3-3 in my recollection. My brother and I spent a large chunk of the game being bitterly cynical about everything. We felt justified about it after the killer Henne fumble/botched extra point for two combination. We'd collectively decided to dull the pain by withdrawing emotionally. This was working for a while, and then the team decided to give the middle finger to the cosmic middle finger, getting off the mat twice. The culmination:
In the end, the game served as a reminder that bitterness is no fun, faith is rewarded, the kids on the field are more resilient than we are, and sometimes they can let us borrow some of that. A lot of the plays on this list were diminished by subsequent events in which Michigan failed to live up to the promise they had in that one moment, but this one has been magnified by the awful last couple of years. It promises a light at the end of the tunnel.
Drew Henson bootlegs his way into the OSU endzone to seal the win (2000) … Chris Perry puts the OSU game beyond doubt with a slashing bounceout TD to make it 35-21 (2003) … Breaston returns a punt for a touchdown against Indiana … Northwestern … Illinois … etc … Manningham's worm after the ND game (2006) … Chris Perry punches it against Penn State in to seal a win in Michigan Stadium's first OT game (2002) … Ron Zook seals the Outback Bowl by calling a reverse pass that Victor Hobson intercepts (2002) … Alain Kashama beats the Sex Cannon to a fumbled ball in the endzone, finally fulfilling four years of Canadian Reggie White hype (2002 Outback) … Jacob Stewart picks off Asad Abdul-Kaliq in the Buffalo Stampede game and returns it for a touchdown (2002) … Garrett Rivas finishes the Buffalo Stampede game with a field goal (2002) … Chad Henne hits Tyler Ecker for a game-winning touchdown against Minnesota and executes nailcoeds.exe (2004) … Braylonfest Part I … Braylonfest Part II … Braylonfest Part IV … Brian Thompson recovers an onside kick, greatly aiding Braylonfest parts II through IV … Jason Avant's catch against Northwestern (2003) … Marquise Walker's catch against Iowa (2001) … Jerome Jackson pops through a nonexistent hole against Iowa to establish himself useful, then scores the game-winning TD (2005) … the snap sails over Jimmy Clausen's head on the first play of the game (2007) … Michigan cracks open the Battle of Who Could Care Less against Illinois with a reverse pass (2007) … Manningham outruns Justin King to tie Penn State (2005) … Mike Hart drags Penn State tacklers for five of the most impressive eight yards of his career (2005) … Lamarr Woodley kicks off Yakety Sax (2006) … Prescott Burgess returns a Brady Quinn interception for a TD(2006) … Mike Hart levels Sean Lee on a blitz pickup (2007) … Arrington's catch against Florida (2007) … A ludicrous Ryan Mallett decision—pitch it backwards to Carson Butler as he's being sacked—works out (2007) … Steven Threet takes off on a 60-yard jaunt against Wisconsin (2008) … Denard Robinson fumbles the first snap as Michigan's quarterback and WOOPs his way for a touchdown (2009) … Darryl Stonum returns a kickoff for a touchdown against Notre Dame (2009) … Forcier hits Greg Mathews on a circle route to win against Notre Dame (2009) … Tate Forcier hits Martavious Odoms on a perfect seam for the game-winning points against Indiana (2009) … Forcier's mansome final drive in the rain to tie Michigan State (2009) … Brandon Graham demolishes Glenn Winston (2009) … Brandon Graham demolishes Everybody (2009).
A major reason this series came together is the tireless effort of Wolverine Historian, who put together video for almost everything on the list. Also a hat tip to parkinggod, who had HD of last year's ND game, and akarpo, who helped out with some of the clipping last year.