[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap offered to revisit a game a week so you can re-live it all in real time. These articles are part-story, part videos so make sure you watch those.]
Sept. 20, 1997: Michigan 38, Baylor 3 [Boxscore]. 2-0 (0-0 Big Ten)
Michigan turned to Woodson when the offense needed a spark. [Bob Kalmbach, courtesy UM Bentley Library]
A team is a team, a win is a win, and it’s hard to find fault in a team that wins 38-3. But after a brilliant opening game against an expected national power, Michigan did not exactly thrash an overmatched opponent like they were expected to. The offensive line could not get much push against an overmatched DL. The passing game felt clunky. The defense were playing on their heels. Getting past their big opener might have revised expectations to three losses instead of the usual four, but watching them the next week you’d think it would take a miracle machine to take down the monsters on the back end of the schedule. But then, the Baylor game was also the moment you realized Michigan might have one of those. Offense, defense, or special teams, when the Wolverines needed a big play they could get one. It wasn’t luck. It was the most outstanding player in college football. It was Charles Woodson. And it was totally unfair.
After looking so good against Colorado the week before and moving up in the national Rankings to #8, the game against Baylor was supposed to be no contest. While it pretty much was, looking back, it also proved to be a microcosm of the 1997 season for Lloyd Carr’s team.
Sure Michigan won, 38-3, but to say that the Maize and Blue didn’t look as crisp and as sharp as they did against the Buffaloes was the understatement of the year. The defense held up their end of the bargain by not giving up a touchdown for the second straight game. Even though Chris Howard was moving the chains and freshman Anthony Thomas was moving the pile, the offense was getting bogged down with penalties and dropped passes. It was painfully evident that there was no playmaker on that side of the ball who could hit the homerun. The Special Teams were anything but, as they dropped a snap from a punt, missed a field goal and Charles Woodson even fielded a punt inside the UM 5-yard line and was tackled for no gain. There was plenty of work to do coming out of this game, as the Wolverines looked nothing like a National Championship team at this point in the season.
[Hit THE JUMP unless you are the mother of a Baylor receiver]
Baylor was in transition, with a new coach and a new offense. The Bears were finally moving away from their old veer running attack and implementing more of a pro-style offense. After looking at film of the Wolverines, head coach Dave Roberts had a plan for dealing with Michigan's All-American cornerback Charles Woodson: Spot where he lined up and go the other way.
"My thoughts on him is let's take our worst player and put him at flanker because you're not going to do anything against him," Roberts said. "He's as good as his hype."
Gotta give him credit for recognizing a mismatch when he saw one!
As mentioned earlier, the Wolverine offense didn’t get off to a great start as Chris Howard fumbled on the first play of Michigan’s first series.
Baylor took advantage of the great field position, but had to settle for a field goal when the TD they scored was called back because of a penalty.
Luckily for the Wolverines, that would be the only points of the day for the Bears from Baylor.
While Howard atoned for his early drop with some solid running the rest of the game (he and Anthony Thomas would both top 100 yards rushing in this game), the offense still couldn’t get it in gear and get in the endzone…until they got Charles Woodson the ball. Later in the first quarter on a bubble screen, Woodson darted in and out of tacklers and dove in the endzone to give the Maize and Blue a lead they would never relinquish.
The play seemed to ignite the crowd, the offense and maybe even the coaching staff as the play calling up until that point did not generate much of anything. Jerame Tuman, who ran wild against Colorado, was held to just one catch for 23 yards against Baylor. While QB Brian Griese was throwing some nice balls, his wide-receivers had a difficult time reeling them in. And when the balls were being caught, the offense was shooting itself in the foot by committing 11 penalties for 90 yards. Clearly, championship style football was not being played in Ann Arbor at this point of the season.
The second quarter provided a glimpse of things to come – not only for Woodson, but for the other members of the Michigan Defense.
On the first play in that second period, Baylor called a quick hitch, to the wide side of the field. The pass was laterally thrown about 30 yards and not exactly on a rope. Put all that together, along with mistakenly throwing to #2’s side of the field, and you have a recipe for disaster if you are Baylor.
If you are Michigan and Charles Woodson, it was the perfect time and the perfect storm to lay out an unsuspecting Baylor Bear.
Woodson, displaying tremendous football IQ, knew what was coming. Based on film study, knowing down, distance, field position, player personnel, formation tendancies, pre-snap reads, and oh ya, baiting the offense into thinking he knew NONE of this, the Fremont, OH star was about to show the world that he was not just a cover-corner like Deion Sanders – he could lay the wood when needed.
Initially playing up on the line, probably to try and hear as much of the cadence and pre-snap calls from the Baylor offense, Woodson dropped back into coverage, a good seven yards off the line of scrimmage. Thinking it was still the right call, the Baylor QB proceeded to throw the hitch, a little high to his receiver on the wide side of the field. As soon as the quarterback pivoted to throw, Woodson was already moving with a laser focus on his target – the midsection of the wideout.
Woodson arrived at the same time the ball did and laid out the receiver so hard, he was literally parallel to the ground about three feet in the air before he was planted in the Michigan Stadium sod by Charles.
The play looked and sounded like this:
Charles Woodson is not a normal guy
The crowd and yours truly erupted in unison as it had been a long time since an opponent was “planted” in Goss’s Grass like that!
In one fell swoop, Woodson served notice to all future opponents that not only could he cover you like a blanket, he could mess you up and knock you into tomorrow!
It would be the first of several signature hits this defense would lay on their opponents in 1997. Guys like Glen Steele, Daydrion Taylor and Marcus Ray were just waiting for their turn to plant a few more opponents in the ground. Their time would come soon enough.
This defense was sideline-to-sideline fast, but they were no finesse outfit, either. They played to impose their will on you and to take you out – either mentally or physically. It showed in this game, as Baylor never recovered and never threatened after this play. They were successful running the option with a slow quarterback a few times, but for all intents and purposes this game was over after Woodson’s hit.
Michigan led at the half, 21-3, and with Tom Brady and Jason Kapsner getting reps at the QB spot in the second half, everyone’s favorite walk-on, Tate Schanski, rounded out the scoring with a 1-yard TD run to make the final score, 38-3.
After the game, Baylor Coach Dave Roberts could not contain himself when asked his impressions of Woodson, Michigan's two-way star.
"Gosh, he's awesome," Roberts said. "I don't know how you can prepare to handle him. We tried. Often, he looks like he's running slowly, but with his gait he's probably running a 4.3. He may be the best football player in the country. He may be a first-round draft choice."
Notre Dame was next, and Michigan with their newfound swagger, thanks to Woodson’s big hit, couldn’t wait for the Irish to show up!