Twenty years ago today, Michigan had one of its greatest comebacks when it beat Iowa. Indeed, this may be the greatest comeback of Michigan football history because the 1997 undefeated season and National Championship depended upon it.
(Edit: Someone pointed out that Dr. Sap has his own review that he posted yesterday. I'm linking to it here. I didn't know it was posted before and my sense is I have some background that makes this more of a deep dive on other points. Here is a link to Dr. Sap's post. He does a much better job on summarizing the game.)
For those under 25 years old, here is some history. In the first half of the 1990s, there was an annoying fact that TV broadcasters would put up whenever Michigan fell behind by two touchdowns or more: Michigan had never won a game when down by 14 points or more. The commentators never gave context.
They never said that Michigan was a fairly dominant team for the previous century that relied upon the run. We just didn’t fall behind that much to inferior teams so a great comeback was not possible. No -- it was just a fact that they put upon the screen.
What made this even more irksome was Notre Dame’s "great" comebacks as well as some of our losses. In 1979 and 1980, Notre Dame's victories were against Michigan (including a game where Bob Crable rushed forward from middle linebacker, lunged up, and used the center's back as a springboard to lift high in the air and block the 42-yard attempt leading to a rule change.)
In 1988, we had also lost to Miami, then-coached by Jimmy Johnson, when Miami scored 17 points in the final 5 minutes 23 seconds in Ann Arbor. Of course, Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary was replayed throughout 1994.**corrected mistake
There was one exception: Lloyd Carr’s first game against Virginia in 1995. Carr replaced Gary Moeller who had to resign in May 1995 after video tapes were released over a drunken outburst at the then-Excalibur Restaurant on April 28 in the suburbs of Detroit. Moeller was arrested on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and assault and battery.
Moeller had won three Big Ten titles (two outright) and four bowl games when he replaced Bo in 1990. Then-defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr was appointed interim coach while the search for a successor began.
Carr did not talk with bravado. "This is one of the saddest days of my life," Carr said, his voice choking and cracking. "because, um, my friend Gary Moeller, a man that I have great respect for, admiration and love, is no longer here.”
There was no statement such as “This is Michigan, fergodsakes.” Carr was honest: “You talk about pressure. You have no idea what pressure is. Trust me.”
Virginia was winning 14-0 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and then went up 17-0. With four second’s left, freshman quarterback Scott Dreisbach lofted a 15-yard pass in the end zone to Mercury Hayes for an 18-17 victory over Virginia as time expired. Mercury Hayes had barely kept one foot in. Lloyd Carr began with a victory.
Dreisbach's 52 pass attempts broke Michigan's single-game record of 47 by Dick Vidmer in 1966 against Michigan State, and his 372 passing yards broke Todd Collins's school record of 352 against Minnesota in 1994.
Now 1997: Michigan entered the Iowa game 5-0 and ranked 5th in both major polls (the AP and Coaches). Michigan began the season ranked a lowly 14th but climbed to 5th with a victory over then No. 8 Colorado followed by victories over Baylor, Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern with an average margin of victory of 24 points per game.
Iowa was 4-1 and ranked 15th in both major polls with the only loss at Ohio State. Iowa had three major offensive weapons: quarterback Matt Sherman, running back Tavian Banks and wide receiver Tim Dwight who was also a kick returner.
In 1997, Dwight was arguably the best kick/punt returner in college football history at that point in time.
The first quarter was bland but it was the end of the second quarter that would lead to the fans loudly booing the players. Michigan tried a hurry-up offense when Iowa’s Ed Gibson intercepted Brian Griese’s pass and returned it 64 yards to the Michigan 1-yard line. Iowa scored the next play, taking a 13-7 lead after James Hall blocked the extra point.
Then, Michigan punted on the last play of the half from its own end zone, and Tim Dwight took the return 61 yards almost untouched for a TD. A 2-point conversion on a pass gave Iowa lead 21-7 at halftime.We were down by 14. Because there was at least one uncalled block in the back by Iowa, the boos may have been at the referees. But don’t kid yourself. People were unhappy with this lackluster performance.
Griese continued to play with good and mediocre moments in the second half. Griese finally connected with Russell Shaw for a 10-yard score with three minutes into the third quarter. Later we got on-board the A-Train (the nickname for Anthony Thomas) to get inside the 5 yard line. Griese snuck in on 3rd and goal. Game was tied.
But Tim Dwight haunted us on the very next play and returned the ball 72 yards to the Michigan 27-yard line. Michigan’s defense was solid but Iowa was close enough for a 38-yard field goal and the lead.
With 2 minutes 55 seconds remaining, Brian Griese passed to tight end Jerame Tuman with a 2-yard touchdown. (Back then, the student section would say, “It’s not a tumor” from Kindergarten Cop when Tuman caught a pass, which I always found weird.)*mistake corrected below
That was the first time Michigan had the lead and Michigan would win. Michigan overcame four turnovers. Griese passed for three scores and ran for one for Michigan.
The next week we played Michigan State and then Minnesota.
Then we played Penn State on what ABC called dubbed “Judgment Day.” On Nov. 8, 1997, you had Florida State, ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll, playing at No. 5 North Carolina. Nebraska, the No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll, traveling to Missouri. And No. 4 Michigan traveling to Penn State, who held the No. 2 spot in the AP poll, and the No. 3 spot in the coaches poll. It was the "Big Ten Game of the Year."
We destroyed Penn State in Happy Valley: 34-8. I mean absolutely destroyed.
It was the most one-sided loss Penn State faced at home since 1931. The defense was unreal: Penn State had three first downs and no third-down conversions in the first half. At the end of the game, Penn State had 300 yards below its previous average per game. Penn State hates Michigan for a reason.
Nebraska barely won on the "Flea Kicker." With the Huskers down 7, quarterback Scott Frost threw a last-second pass toward wingback Shevin Wiggins. The pass was incomplete, but Wiggins was able to kick the ball up in the air before it hit the ground, giving wide receiver Matt Davison time to scoop under the ball for the touchdown. (Yes, it is illegal to kick a ball but it was deemed unintentional or some other poppycock.)
Nebraska tied the game, eventually won in overtime and kept its perfect season alive.
Our dominating performance and Nebraska barely surviving would give us the top ranking.
**correction: I originally said Kordell Stewart won a Heisman i 1995. He did not. The RB on the team did: Rashaan Iman Salaam in 1994.
** correction: The students said "It's not a tumor" for Amani Toomer, not Tuman.