The Climb, Part III: The Stop

Submitted by Dr. Sap on September 18th, 2017 at 11:14 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.]


Sept. 27, 1997: Michigan 21, Notre Dame 14, 3-0 (0-0 Big Ten)

Materials: WH video


[Sara Stillman/The Michigan Daily, via the UM Bentley Historical Library]

Game 3 for 1997 Michigan was way too tight for comfort against a team with nothing to lose. Notre Dame had not made good on Beano Cook’s promise to win two national championships and two Heismans for quaterback Ron Powlus, but they had all of that talent still.

This wasn’t Lou Holtz’s Fighting Irish anymore. Holtz had stepped down and ND promoted Defensive Coordinator Bob Davie to be the man in charge. To fill his old job, Davie called on his friend Greg Mattison, who’d coached DL in Davie’s Texas A&M defenses, to do the unthinkable: abandon Michigan for Notre Dame.

Mattison had been Jack Harbaugh’s DC at Western Michigan, with stints at Navy and Texas A&M before Gary Moeller, on Harbaugh’s advice, put Greg in line to perhaps one day be the head man at Michigan. When Mo had to go, Carr pegged Mattison, not linebackers/special teams coach, former Michigan player, and much longer-time assistant Jim Herrmann, as Carr’s replacement. Mattison had recruited half of this young defensive front, and designed the 4-3 under defense. Also consider important offensive pieces like Chris Floyd, Chris Howard, Jerame Tuman, and Mark Campbell, not to mention Steve Hutchinson, came to Michigan as defensive or two-way players. This betrayal did not go over well in Ann Arbor.

[After the JUMP: Lloyd does not bite his thumb at Mattison, sir]

After three games, the Irish were on the wrong end of a 1-2 record heading into Ann Arbor, beating Georgia Tech before getting pasted by to two up-and-coming Big Ten coaches: first year Purdue coach Joe Tiller with his wild spread passing offense, and Michigan State’s Nick Saban, who in his third season finally looked ready to compete on a national stage. Notre Dame was still searching to find their rhythm and big play threat on offense. The defense was suspect and all this added up to the Irish being a 14-point underdog against the #6 ranked Wolverines.

Wanting to form his own identity as the Head Irishman, Davie switched the Blue and Gold to run more of a pro-style offense and not rely on the option game like Holtz had done so effectively years before. He fired longtime Holtz assistant Joe Moore (who then successfully sued the school for age discrimination! and hired Jim Colletto. Davie wanted the Irish to get back to tough, Midwest, smash-mouth-style football and who better to install that offense but Jim Colletto, the former Head Coach at Purdue?

It was the first game between Teacher (of Football, Michigan) and Student (Notre Dame) since 1994. Six of the previous seven games had been decided by five points or less. It was also the first time since 1978 that these two teams would feature senior QBs (actually 5th year senior signal-callers).

Enough of the backdrop – let’s hear what the Voice of College Football, Keith Jackson, had to say about this game:

The buildup and excitement for this tilt was big. It was pitched as a measuring stick of sorts for both teams: could ND even their record at 2-2 with an upset victory in Ann Arbor? Was Michigan’s defense really that good, and could they win their third game in a row? Would the Irish lose their third game in a row for the first time in decades? Could Michigan fergodsakes learn how to throw the ball?

The fans were excited about this matchup, but so were the players. They knew what was at stake and were looking forward to leaving their own legacy for each school’s storied programs.

The game started out with Notre Dame’s QB Ron Powlus using varying and hard snap counts to prevent the Wolverines from timing their blitzes and to keep the Michigan defense off balance. He also waited until the last few seconds to snap the ball to try and get the Michigan defense to declare its formation, strategy and intentions. It worked as the Irish moved downfield thanks in part to a long pass play to 6’-5” Malcolm Johnson over 6’-1” Andre Weathers. A few plays later, Bobby Brown felt it was his prerogative to score a TD to give the Irish a 7-0 lead. It was the first touchdown the Wolverines had given up in the first quarter in 27 games.

Notre Dame had just went 78 yards in 12 plays and looked sharp. Now it was time to see if the Michigan offense could respond with a drive and points against the Irish Defense and their new man in charge.

While Davie had hired Colleto to be his OC, the ND Coach tabbed friend and former coaching mate, Greg Mattison, to run his defense. Mattison was on the Wolverine staff in 1996 and his departure to become the Irish DC did not sit well with the Maize and Blue. As he liked to do, Mattison’s primary objective was to stop the run and make offenses one-dimensional, and pass the ball.

In the first quarter he did just that. After 15 minutes of play, Michigan was stymied and the Irish led, 7-0.

Thankfully, the Wolverines did not, I repeat, DID NOT continue to try and run/pound their collective heads against the wall that was Greg Mattison’s defense. Brian Griese connected with Russell Shaw, Tai Streets, and Jerame Tuman and those passes set up Clarence Williams’ 4-yard touchdown run that tied the score at, 7-7. Chris Ziemann and Jon Jansen blocked so well on the play that Williams could have walked into the endzone to cap that 11 play, 66-yard scoring drive.

Later in the 2nd quarter, Michigan downed a punt at the ND 2-yard line. With the Irish huddling in the shadow of their own goalposts, the Wolverines and their fans were licking their collective chops anxious for a stop or even better, a turnover. Unfortunately, Ron Powlus and the Irish would have none of that, as they marched 98 yards in 11 plays and took a 14-7 lead on Tony Driver’s 2-yard run, just before the half ended.

It was stunning. Davie and his Golden Domers had played almost a perfect first half. Powlus was 11 of 14 for 138 yards with one TD. The Irish had just marched the length of the field against the vaunted Michigan defense, AND, time of possession in the first half was 2:1 in favor of Notre Dame. YIKES!

On the second play of the 3rd quarter Griese hit Streets on a crossing pattern over the middle for a 41-yard touchdown. The play not only tied the score at, 14-14, but Michigan finally had a big play on offense by someone not named Woodson.

The Michigan Stadium crowd was finally into this game and the Big House was rocking. Notre Dame was reeling as they committed three penalties on their ensuing drive and now momentum had swung back to the Maize and Blue.

Michigan’s next possession was an excellent mix of runs and passes that was capped off by a classic Chris Floyd hammer-like exclamation point as he ran over Irish defenders with an attitude and shoulder that would have made Bo Schembechler smile. In just over five minutes, Michigan had taken control of the game and now lead, 21-14.

All was good in Ann Arbor – for now.

As good as that third quarter was, it was difficult to imagine ANYTHING wrong happening to the Wolverines in the final period of the game. After all, crazy, luck of the Irish stuff only happened in South Bend, right? WRONG!

The first ominous sign of danger happened on the very first play of the fourth quarter when Aaron Shea fumbled the ball after making a great one-handed catch of a Griese pass. With the Irish now in possession at the UM 47-yard line, it was officially time to worry. After Notre Dame moved downfield and set up shop with a first and goal at the Michigan 6-yard line, it was officially panic time!

Tommy Hendricks saved the day when he made an incredible diving interception in the endzone to preserve the 21-14 Wolverine lead. Phew - crisis averted, bullet dodged!

On Michigan’s ensuing possession, Shaw was stripped of the ball and Notre Dame recovered at the Michigan 42-yard line. OMG! Defcon 4 had been reached within minutes as the crowd was now starting to wonder WTF was going on?!?!

Thankfully, Jim Herrmann and the Michigan Defense served up a three and out that calmed everybody wearing Maize and Blue down.

Feeling that the roller-coaster ride was over, it was expected that on their next possession the Wolverines would not take any chances and just run the ball. Sure enough, as Griese went to hand off the ball to Floyd the exchange was less than perfect and before you knew it, the ball was on the ground and Notre Dame had recovered once again, this time at the UM 28-yard line!

If there were sound effects and a multi-media scoreboard back then, I’m sure we would have seen a red flashing light and heard a loud siren sounding because something crazy was going on in the Hole that Yost built and Rockne was now obviously hijacking!!

The game, and all it’s craziness, came down to a 4th & 2 at the Michigan 20-yard line. With only three and a half minutes remaining, this was Notre Dame’s last shot. As Autry Denson tried to run right up the middle, Michigan nose tackle Rob Renes hit Denson low and Sam Sword came in and hit him high for no gain.

"I was right in the middle, just trying to clog up the hole," Sword said. "I just try to create a pile because I knew ten other guys would be right there."

They were.

Ballgame, right? Not quite.

Michigan still needed to run out the clock, and now, if this was at all possible, the Wolverines faced their own 4th & 2. Could they convert, or would Notre Dame somehow miraculously get one more chance to win?

Chris Howard’s clutch running sealed the game and after he ran for the last first down, laid back Lloyd Carr did his best double-ellipsis imitation as the final seconds ticked off the clock.


Did you get the idea that Lloyd was maybe sending a message to a certain D Coordinator on the other sideline?


Defeating the Irish was big, but on the horizon loomed Indiana and the grueling Big Ten Season.


Amaizing Blue

September 18th, 2017 at 11:23 AM ^

You inverted the 2 and the 1 in Michigan's final score in the post title.  I do not want to see us lose a game 12-14 that I thought we had won 20 years ago!  :)

Also, the boxscore you attached was from Baylor.

Love these posts, keep them coming.  Thanks!

Pepto Bismol

September 18th, 2017 at 11:38 AM ^

I love the '97 team. I remember it vividly.  And I haven't read more than 2 sentences of these, simply because of the timing.  I tried today - I just simply don't care right now. 

We're in the middle of the 2017 season.  It's not that I can't compartmentalize, and yes, I can just skip it.  This just seems like a great off-season feature to keep us from eating our own faces off in the spring.  IMHO, it doesn't belong front page in-season.

Appreciate the work all the same, Dr. Sap.  I'll likely return to read in January.


September 18th, 2017 at 11:44 AM ^

I thought he was going to die from shock after that third 4th quarter fumble. Just an amazing defensive effort to thwart three sudden-change scoring opportunities.


September 18th, 2017 at 12:19 PM ^

I was a kid in '97 with no personal memories of the season, so it's been great to learn about each game in this weekly format.

Anyway, I wonder if Mattison and Bob Davie are still somewhat close. A few days ago, I read an article about Davie being investigated for player mistreatment at New Mexico. I didn't realize he was also the former ND coach who stole our Swag Mattison!

Swayze Howell Sheen

September 18th, 2017 at 12:35 PM ^

though I hardly remember it for whatever reason.

Youtube link here

Bonus: GMatt sighting at 55:21!

What's weird is how generally bad ND was the rest of this year, barely a winning record and getting beaten by a lot by MSU, Stanford, a few others.



September 18th, 2017 at 12:37 PM ^

this was the first michigan game i attended, i was 10 years old. I went in a notre dame fan but was converted by everything i experienced that day. The atmosphere of the big house, the band, "victors" and michigan winning certainly helped. my uncle took us out to dinner downtown that night and my fandom was sealed.

Other Andrew

September 18th, 2017 at 1:37 PM ^

Despite the troubles, to me this was the moment that they seemed like they might be a team of destiny.

And that 4th quarter was the loudest I have ever heard Michigan Stadium.

Bluebells and maize

September 18th, 2017 at 2:20 PM ^

I remember that game vividly (was a Soph that year).  Despite a long-standing reputation that Michigan Stadium was big but quiet, I remember that place just rocking as the Defense stood strong on 3 late quick-change situations.  That stand and Woodson's performance against OSU are the defining moments of that magical season for me.

Other Andrew

September 20th, 2017 at 11:34 AM ^

I agree, but would also add the Penn State annihilation game to the list. Considering the stakes, the location, and the opponent (PSU had won the previous three in a row), it was the team's best performance of the year. Sure, PSU choked hard agianst MSU a few weeks later, and didn't really show up to their bowl game (which I think Curtis Enis missed due to receiving a suit from an agent?).