[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, The Hit, The Stop, The Captain’s Down]
October 11, 1997: Michigan 23, Northwestern 6
[Robert Kalbach via UM Bentley Library]
By Week 5 of the 1997 season there were no more doubts as to whether Michigan’s defense was elite. But the offense—and its achingly conservative playcalling—made fans wonder how it would hold up over a season. All it would take is for a particularly bad offensive showing and a few lucky breaks for a scrappy opponent to put an L on the board. And if recent history was any indication, the next foe was a highly likely candidate to do just that.
It was difficult to believe, but in 1995 and 1996, Northwestern was not only the darling of the Big Ten, but all of college football. The nation was gaga over Gary Barnett’s Cinderella Wildcats, led by all-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. They weren’t particularly talented, but those Northwestern teams were hardscrabble, made few mistakes, and on the field got a reputation for, well, exploring the blurry edges between gamesmanship and unsportsmanlike behavior. These weren’t your grandpappy’s gentlemanly purple warriors: the Barnett Cats went to class on the weekdays, then on Saturday they took your lunch money.
En route to two consecutive Big Ten Championships, Northwestern defeated Michigan twice, each time ruining the maize and blue’s undefeated records.
"I don't think it's the R-word as revenge, I think it's the R-word as respect," said U-M fifth-year quarterback Brian Griese on what his teammates hoped to achieve in game #5 of the 1997 season. "We want to make them respect us. We gave away the game both years. They had no reason to respect us.
"Anybody who goes through this week of practice and is not fired up and ready for this team, they don't have red blood in their body. They've won the Big Ten championship the last two years, and we've lost to them the past two years, and if that's not enough motivation for somebody then I don't know what is."
Those teams were embodied by Fitzgerald, who was tough, smart, and knew what you were going to do before you did it. But Fitzgerald was gone now, and nobody knew what was left. Northwestern pummeled Oklahoma 24-0 to start the season in that year’s Pigskin Classic, but then lost to Wake Forest, Rice, Purdue, and Wisconsin while also barely scraping past lowly Duke.
[After THE JUMP: how to cheat a cheater]
The #6 ranked Wolverines were trying to prevent losing to the Cats for the third time in a row—something that hadn’t happened in 60 years. While that certainly was big news, even bigger news that week was that UM Basketball Coach Steve Fisher had been relieved of his duties and was asked to step down by Athletic Director Tom Goss prior to the start of the game.
If that didn’t create a ton of buzz in Ann Arbor, the arrival of the Stanley Cup sure did. On the heels of winning hockey’s championship chalice for the first time in 42 years, Detroit Red Wings and former Michigan Icers Aaron Ward and Mike Knuble paraded Lord Stanley’s Cup onto the field at Michigan Stadium, delaying kickoff by a few minutes. What a sight it was!
As the Wolverines took the field and touched the GO BLUE banner they were greeted on the sideline by their co-captain Eric Mayes who was on crutches. The senior walk-on’s worst fears were confirmed when he was told he had torn his ACL against Indiana the week before. He would never play another football game for the maize and blue.
So, can you imagine the emotions that were teeming on the Michigan sideline? They were an aroused and fired-up band of Wolverines. They wanted to take down Northwestern and smash their glass slipper once and for all.
When the game started, Northwestern’s offense employed a hard snap count and cadence to keep the Wolverine D from timing their blitzes just as the ball was snapped. It worked as Michigan was penalized three times for being offsides. As the Wildcats moved down the field, they appeared to be in good shape with a 1st and goal from the UM 8 yard line. But after a Wildcats penalty and sacks by Josh Williams and Juaquin Feazell, Northwestern had to settle for a 52-yard field goal.
It was an 8 ½ minute drive for Gary Barnett’s team and now it was time for the Michigan offense to respond.
When the offense took the field, they sported a different look across the front line. Chris Ziemann injured his right elbow the week before against Indiana, so Zach Adami moved from center to guard and Steve Frazier would snap the ball from the center spot.
After a couple of pass completions to Jerame Tuman, Michigan’s first drive stalled and then fizzled out with no points when Michigan tried a fake field goal attempt/run by Chris Howard and Northwestern snuffed it out as if they’d known it was coming.
A combo-sack by Charles Woodson and Dhani Jones ended the Wildcats’ second drive and after the first quarter Northwestern was up, 3-0. The first play of the 2nd quarter was a beautiful double-clutch, touch pass by Griese to Tuman down the sideline for a gain of 38 yards. With UM facing a 4th and goal from the NU 2-yard line, Lloyd Carr elected to settle for the 19-yard field goal to tie the game at, 3-3.
After a 23-yard Kraig Baker field goal gave the maize and blue a 6-3 lead, Northwestern was held to a 3-and-out by stout Michigan D. On the ensuing punt, Charles Woodson slipped, tripped and ultimately failed to field the punt that was downed by the Wildcats at the UM 9-yard line. Just like that the field had been flipped and now everyone in the stadium wondered if the Michigan offense could get it in gear.
As they had many times before when they were in trouble, Michigan got a big play out of #2. Woodson caught a crossing route and gained 30 yards to give the Wolverines great field position. Later in the drive, Tuman caught a 10-yard TD pass with just over a minute to go in that half, to give Michigan a 13-3 lead. It was a great throw by Griese as he threaded the needle between four Northwestern defenders before the ball made it to his tight end.
The first play of the 3rd quarter saw Michigan’s leading rusher and receiver, Chris Howard, run for 30 yards and it looked like the Wolverines were rolling. But when Griese was sacked and fumbled on a blindside hit, the mood changed to “concerned” after Northwestern recovered the ball at the UM 44-yard line.
Once again it was time for the defense to step up, and much like they had all year, someone new did just that. Safety Daydrion Taylor asserted himself with a couple of big time hits that thwarted the Wildcats’ promising field position. A 42-yard field goal that doinked in off the left upright made the score, 13-6. The ‘Cats were still hanging around, now only down by one score.
The Michigan Stadium fans were starting to think they had seen this Northwestern Game before, especially after Russell Shaw was stripped of the ball on the next series. That feeling of déjà vu was starting to happen all over again!
The Wolverines were obviously the more talented team, but so far it felt like a massive coaching mismatch: offense or defense Barnett seemed to know exactly what Michigan was doing each play.
That’s because he did. The original article is no longer available at the Freep, and neither is the confession of Northwestern grad assistant David Hansburg, who copped to it years later while an assistant with Colorado. But Nebraska SBNation blog Corn Nation captured its essence:
"There was a guy on their sideline that day, and he had our signals down pat," [Michigan student manager Jonathan] Datz said. "Every time, he would scream into the defense what we're going to do -- pass or run -- and he was almost always right. ...
"They were blowing up draws, calling our counters and destroying our screen passes -- all a big part of our plays that year. I was just screaming mad. [fellow student manager Mike] Youtan and I are thinking to ourselves, 'This guy has us.' "
The crowd’s mood reached a climax when Northwestern successfully pulled off a fake punt near midfield and now it was panic time. Gary Barnett and his purple players had somehow done it again and now the momentum was all on the Wildcats’ sideline.
Dhani Jones put an end to that on the very next play when he sacked the NU QB on 1st down. The result of that drive was another 3-and-out. Phew!
After Northwestern’s best receiver left the game with an injury, and a 47-yard field goal attempt was missed by the ‘Cats on the last play of the 3rd quarter, the maize and blue mood turned to calm, but there was this sense that the game was not quite over.
Everyone remembered that the year before, Michigan led 16-0 going into the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats scored 17 points, to win 17-16.
"It seemed like everyone was going their own separate way instead of coming together as a team," U-M inside linebacker Sam Sword recalled of that fourth-quarter collapse the year prior. "We can't blow a(nother) 16-point, fourth-quarter lead.”
It was still a one possession game with just over 10 minutes to play when Brian Griese and Charles Woodson took matters into their own hands.
The events unfolded like this:
After a 26-yard field goal from Baker made it 23-6, the crowd sensed victory was imminent. And when the wolverine D forced another 3-and-out, the game, and Gary Barnett’s mastery over Michigan, was officially over.
After the game, Lloyd Carr summed up everyone’s feelings when he said: "I don't think any of us wanted to be the Michigan team that lost three in a row to Northwestern."