The Climb, Part X: The Crucible Comment Count

Dr. Sap November 13th, 2017 at 10:00 AM

[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap is taking us game-by-game through it. Previously: Those Who Stayed (Colorado); The Hit (Baylor); The Stop (Notre Dame); The Captain’s Down(Indiana); Vengeance (Northwestern), Gut Check (Iowa), Six Picks (Michigan State), The Trap (Minnesota), Judgment (Penn State)]


November 15, 1997: #1 Michigan 26, #23 Wisconsin 16

  • also #2 FSU 59, Wake Forest 7
  • also also not that it should matter because they should have lost to lowly Missouri last week so they’re not passing Michigan unless Michigan loses or there’s some crazy B.S.: #3 Nebraska 77, Iowa State 14

Materials: Box Score. Articles. WH Highlights, Entire broadcast by j bakkar:

we’re going transcontinental baby!


Three times since Bo retired, Michigan had been ranked #1 during the season. All three times they had lost the next game. Following their convincing 34-8 victory at Penn State, 9-0 Michigan had finally earned the nation's top ranking in at least one poll – the Associated Press writers' poll that was released on Sunday, the day after Judgment Day. It was the first time in seven years that the Wolverines had earned the top position. In the USA Today / ESPN coaches' poll, the maize and blue moved up one spot to #2, behind Florida State.

"It feels real good," tight end Aaron Shea said. "It's really an exciting feeling. It's hard not to get excited. You just can't think about it. You have to go in like we did at the beginning of the season when no one gave us a chance. Now that we're #1 in the nation, we have to keep the same focus."

Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, whom the players credited for their ability to avoid a letdown week after week, cautioned his squad against getting carried away by the ranking.

"To be ranked at this point in the season creates a pressure," Carr said. "I'm hoping the team and coaches embrace that pressure and use it to our advantage. Being the #1 team can also make you complacent and give you the feeling you're unbeatable. We aren't unbeatable. I certainly hope we won't become complacent."

In the meantime, the Wolverines were after one thing – the Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena, California.

"We're a proud group of guys," tight end Mark Campbell said. "The great thing about this team is we know we still have a lot to do. Our goal wasn't to be 9-0, our goal was to go to the Rose Bowl."

Michigan, historically had not handled the #1 ranking very well:

[After THE JUMP: who’s afraid of a big young Sconny back?]

Early in the week, Wisconsin Coach Barry Alvarez was waiting to find out if battering-ram tailback Ron Dayne would be ready to play against Charles Woodson & Company. He suffered a severely sprained right ankle early in the Iowa game the week before and did not return.

Dayne, who had rushed for an average of 144 yards during the 1997 season (1,295 on 219 carries) and scored 15 touchdowns, missed practice on Tuesday to continue his rehabilitation. He reportedly was limping Monday and complained of soreness.

"We anticipate that he will play," Alvarez told the media on Tuesday.

To have you understand what Michigan was walking into twenty years ago, the most hostile stadium in the country was NOT Ohio Stadium. It was Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI and none of the 1997 Wolverines had ever played there.

"That's one thing we've all thought about is that Madison is one of the toughest places to play," Mark Campbell said. "We hear about kids throwing batteries and everything at you. I'm keeping my helmet on the whole game."

Said Carr: "The (stadium) is filled with red, and their crazy fans are loud and they can be an intimidating factor. One of the real challenges we have is to be able to execute our offense. If you have a preference as a visiting coach, you always would like to get ahead, because that will sometimes quiet the crowd."

On top of all that, Michigan had not fared well against Barry Alvarez and his red & white varmints.

"We have something we want to settle with Wisconsin," quarterback Brian Griese said recalling three consecutive defeats to the Badgers. "There's still a bad taste in our mouths."

Nationally, there was still some convincing Michigan needed to do. Check out this clip:


Remember, this was the second week of November. In Wisconsin. At game time, the temperature was 30 degrees with a 12-degree wind chill factor. It was cold. Remember this, travelers: It’s ALWAYS cold in Wisconsin!

With only two weeks left to play, and no conference championship game, there essentially was a three-team round robin for the B1G title. Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State all were in position for the conference crown. Lose one game, and you were out of contention. Win two games and you were headed to the Rose Bowl.

The stakes were big—like Ron Dayne-big.

Speaking of the Badgers’ bruising running back, after the warm-ups, he ruled himself unable to go. Call it “unfortunate.” Call it “laying down.” Call it “pulling the chute” a la Evil Knievel. Call it whatever you want, in the biggest game of the year, The Great Dayne got to rest up and preserve his 2.1 career YPC against Michigan from being tainted by the Wolverines’ best run defense of his era. Smart fella.

Michigan started the game on offense and surprisingly moved the ball quite well against the Wisconsin defense. Solid runs by Chris Howard and some clutch catches by Tai Streets set up Charles Woodson’s first appearance of the game. Unsurprisingly, Griese threw to Woodson, but instead of running upfield with the ball, #2 threw the ball back to Griese who had nothing but green turf and white jerseys in front of him. It looked like the Wolverine QB would score, but he was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

Woodson almost added a TD Pass to his Heisman Resume had Griese went all
the way on this transcontinental pass. (Photo: James Borchuck/The Detroit News)

No worries, right?

Well, not exactly. After three tries, Michigan still hadn’t punched the ball into the Badger end zone. With the Camp Randall crowd screaming their hearts out, Lloyd Carr decided to go for it on 4th down at the one foot line. The Wolverine O-Line did a great job of blocking as Howard ran into the end zone to put Michigan up top, 7-0.

It was an impressive 80-yard drive that spanned 13 plays and almost six minutes on the clock. Even more impressive is that it wasn’t a field goal to start the game!

Right after that, almost as if on queue, it started to snow.

Wisconsin’s first drive was a very inauspicious, three-and-out.

Michigan’s next drive was highlighted by a long rumbling run by Chris Floyd. That set up a 41-yard field goal attempt by Kraig Baker, which he subsequently hooked left.


To start the second quarter, Griese again hit Woodson with a quick hitch off the line of scrimmage, but this time “The Best Player In The Country Standing Before You” ran for the first down. A couple of strong runs by Anthony Thomas set up, you guessed it, the patented Griese Play-Action Tight End Waggle.

But this time, Mike DeBord added a twist. This time, Griese was given the option of hitting the tight end underneath the coverage, or throwing to the streaking(!!) wide receiver on top of the defense. Griese went deep and hit Tai Streets (who was playing with a dislocated finger on each hand) in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown.

It was an impressive toss that stunned the Camp Randall crowd!

Baker promptly missed his first PAT of the year, so now Michigan was up, 13-0. That would be the last we’d see of Baker.

Sensing the momentum swinging to the other team, Barry Alvarez channeled his former Cornhusker-self and responded with twelve straight running plays. He literally wanted to see how tough this Wolverine defense really was and tried to wear down Jim Herrmann’s Harassers.

An incomplete pass stalled the drive and the Badgers settled for a 33-yard field goal.

Michigan responded on their ensuing drive with more of Charles Woodson. He took another quick hitch for a big gain. Russell Shaw then caught a pass and weaved his way in and out of several Badger defenders all the way down to the Wisconsin 2-yard line.

A touchdown seemed imminent and more than likely the dagger that would have sealed Bucky Badger’s fate. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Wisconsin D stiffened and with a 4th down and goal from the 1-yard line, Lloyd Carr decided to settle for a field goal with Jay Feely attempting the three-pointer. Feely’s kick was good and now Michigan was up, 16-3, with just 15 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

A long kickoff return for Wisconsin somehow set up the Badgers for a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half. Not to worry as Superman, er, Charles Woodson, intercepted the pass to squash any hopes of a touchdown for the home team.

The first half stats reflected Michigan’s dominance over Wisconsin. The Wolverines had amassed 309 yards of offense, while the Badgers had only managed to gain 80. Brian Griese was an impressive 11-12 for 170 yards and one TD pass.

The second half saw Wisconsin take the kickoff and drive the length of the field converting on several 3rd downs and even a 4th down with their quarterback, Mike Samuel, doing his best Scott Frost imitation running the option slowly, but effectively. Samuel then rolled in from the 1-yard line to make the score, 16-10 and suddenly the fans at Camp Randall Stadium realized it was now a one possession game as they roared their approval.

Michigan needed to respond with a time consuming drive that would silence the crowd. A big pass play to Streets in double-coverage was a great start, but three plays later, Michigan punted back to Wisconsin.

The crowd was now belligerent and boisterous! If the Badgers scored on this possession, there was this sense that the game would go down to the final play to decide the outcome. While Samuel did convert another 3rd down on another option run, the Michigan defense stood tall and forced a Badger punt that went out of bounds at the UM 7-yard line. Cue the screaming fans!

The Wolverines had been in this position before. The question was, could they muster another huge drive to turn the tide of momentum?

Someone needed to step up and make plays. That someone was Chris Howard. As Michigan went 85 yards in 19 plays, Howard converted two 3rd downs and one 4th down to keep the drive alive. Griese almost made a catastrophic mistake on 3rd down as he threw into the endzone where his pass was almost intercepted. Luckily it wasn’t and Feely came in to kick a 24-yard field goal to make the score, 19-10.

Howard showed the entire country how clutch & versatile he was
against the Badgers. (Photo: James Borchuck/The Detroit News)

So much for the roaring crowd.

After Wisconsin went three-and-out, Camp Randall Stadium resembled the quiet hospital it was named after.

On Michigan’s next possession, Howard converted another 3rd down and then ripped off a huge run to the Badger 28-yard line. The second half was officially becoming “The Chris Howard Show” as he was doing it all for the maize and blue. #8 then capped off the 10-play drive by darting into the end zone from four yards out. That run prompted Keith Jackson to declare, “That might be your door-slammer, right there!”

It was indeed, as Michigan was now up, 26-10 with just over six minutes remaining in the game.

Wisconsin got a late cheap touchdown on a 4th down pass play where Woodson slipped and fell in the end zone, but that was it for the Badgers.

They went for two points and didn’t get it. They tried an onside kick that didn’t go ten yards, and that was your ballgame!

Michigan's 26-16 victory over Wisconsin left Alvarez saying there was no doubt that the Wolverines were the best team in the country.

"Right now, I don't know how you could vote against them," Alvarez said. "I was sure impressed with them today. They had a lot of publicity about their great defense. And it lived up to its billing. (But) I was just as impressed with their offense. We couldn't get them off the field."

Michigan's defense was good. But the Wolverine offense might have been better this day in Madison.

"One thing we've been able to do all year is get off the field on defense," Alvarez said. "We've been very good on third-down conversions. But they (Michigan) converted them today. I take my hat off to them. They're a very good football team."

"Michigan's defense is excellent," QB Mike Samuel said. "They're so quick. But it's just not their speed, they're physical too. It's why they're #1 in the Big Ten and the country."

Tai Streets had his best game of the season, coming off two games in which he did not have a reception. Streets had five receptions for 108 yards, including the 38-yard touchdown reception from Griese.

"This kid has shown tremendous courage, playing with two hands that have dislocations," Carr said. "One still has not healed. I told him early, 'Tai, you either can't play or you have to endure the pain and discomfort that comes when you catch the ball. You have to make that decision.' He had a tremendous week of practice prior to the Penn State game and then he dropped the ball there. That kid came in here today, and had an outstanding game, and made some tough catches in the crowd."

"Tai Streets stepped up today," Griese said. "He made some great catches where he got hit and held onto the ball. I never lost confidence in Tai. He's a tremendous asset to this team."

"It wasn't our best defensive performance, but our offense was the difference today," Carr said.

Bring on the Buckeyes!!


Other Andrew

November 13th, 2017 at 10:29 AM ^

Love this series. This game often gets overlooked because it is sandwiched between the other two massive showdowns. It's easy to forget how tense this one was. But winning in Madison set the team up for one of the greatest days in the history of the program.

In fact, I can't wait for next week's installment. Bring on David Boston!


November 13th, 2017 at 10:57 AM ^

This was my one trip to Madison and it was a great game to watch.  I will say the Badger fans are a belligerent bunch, but the second the gun sounded, the locals sitting around me were instantly friendly, giving suggestions on places to grab a bite to eat or take in some nightlife.  Overall, a pretty good experience.


November 13th, 2017 at 11:20 AM ^

"Three times since Bo took over, Michigan had been ranked #1 during the season. All three times they had lost the next game."

That's remarkable. Also, except for one season (the subject of this series), that's Michigan in a nutshell during the Bo-Mo-Carr era. Almost always very good. Rarely great. (But still better than RichRod and Hoke ...)


November 13th, 2017 at 11:37 AM ^

One of those times was in 1990, and M lost the #1 ranking when an MSU defensive back interfered with Desmond Howard in the end zone on a 2-point conversion play that would have won the game and the officials failed to call the penalty.  

Reno Drew

November 13th, 2017 at 11:28 AM ^

I was living in Madison and went to the game with a group of Michigan friends.  Having been to the 1993 "stampede" game, we were sort of worried about this being a trap game.   We had great seats right by the Michigan tunnel and I still have photos on my desk of the team coming out on the field.    I just remember being on edge but Michigan just grinding out the win with Howard late in the game.   I also distinctly remember the body language of the team afterwards walking back into the locker room: not a lot of celebrating and they still had a very focused look in their eyes.   I'm usually not too confident about Michigan football but seeing their body language, I knew they were already getting locked in and focused for OSU next week.    An underappreciated game but it was great to see Michigan avoid the trap.  Cocktails and steaks at the Tornado club never tasted so good.  

MMB 82

November 13th, 2017 at 11:31 AM ^

at Caesars Palace. Before the days of ESPN-2-3-U and BTN, if it wasn’t on in your area, it wasn’t on. An impromptu gathering of M fans managed to convince the staff to set up ONE TV for us to see the game, and we went nuts. Totally pissed off the professional gamblers...

Bigly yuge

November 13th, 2017 at 11:32 AM ^

Thank you for doing this series, it brings back great memories. I remember the 1997 season like it was yesterday. I wish the bcs was alive back then so we could've beaten the shit out of Nebraska. Can't wait to read next weeks installment. Fuck Ohio state


November 13th, 2017 at 12:45 PM ^

Man the memories those videos brought back is unreal. 20 years ago.. damn man. We gonna take it to them. I feel like coach Harbaugh is making us a power both physically and mentally that can make these games not as hard as they as they seemed not that long ago.