The Climb, Part VI: Gut Check

Submitted by Dr. Sap on October 16th, 2017 at 4:06 PM

[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, Vengeance]


October 18, 1997: #5 Michigan 28, #15 Iowa 24

Materials: WH Video, articles


Sara Stillman/The Michigan Daily (via UM Bentley Library)

On the journey to undefeated, there’s always some moment you can point at when it seemed the fun was going to be over. Football seasons are long and weird, and even the greatest teams are more than capable of blowing one to a merely good one. For Michigan in 1997, a team that relied on its defense so much they rarely scored without starting in good field position, that moment came down 21-7 to an excellent Hawkeyes team.

Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes boasted the #3 scoring offense in the country, as well as the leading rusher in the nation in Tavian Banks. They also had wide receiver/do-it-all athlete Tim Dwight whom Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said would be the fastest guy on the field.

Fry once again had put together a solid Iowa team and Lloyd knew it. He also knew that in-state rival Michigan State—which had been climbing back to national relevance under Nick Saban—was looming on the UM schedule. Carr wanted his #5-ranked Wolverines to focus on #15 Iowa this week and worry about Michigan State the week after.

"The key to success in anything you do is being focused on the task at hand," Carr said. "We'll find out how good I was at making sure they remained focused. There are a lot of things in coaching that you don't have control over, and you certainly don't have control over what the players think and what they read and what they hear and how much time they spend on those things.

"What you hope as a coach is that they understand in achieving their goals it's very important to take care of today. Because if you don't, we all know what the results are."

It was a nice thought, if completely unheeded.

As for Hayden Fry, he had his own worries. The Head Hawkeye was expecting All-American cornerback Charles Woodson to be covering the dangerous Tim Dwight on almost every play, and in his usual humorous way, had an answer for that possibility.

"I'm hopeful they'll just sic Woodson on Dwight, and then we'll know exactly where he is on every play. If they do that, I'll just have Dwight come over and sit next to me on the bench. Then we won't have to worry about Woodson at all."

Cute. But would cute cut it against Herrmann’s Harassers?



In the first quarter, both offenses couldn’t get untracked as each team alternated a few three-and-outs before Michigan’s Brian Griese threw only his second interception of the season. In looking at the play again, I’d have to pin this one on wideout Russell Shaw as he didn’t flatten out his out-cut on his route. This failure in execution would prove to be an ominous sign for the Wolverine offense in the first half.

Iowa was not able to capitalize on the turnover and Michigan dodged a bullet – for the time being.

The following Wolverine drive was stunted by a phantom pass interference call on Shaw and things got worse when Iowa blocked the ensuing punt. Just like that, the Hawkeyes were in business at the UM 18-yard line.

That’s when Marcus Ray decided it was his turn to step up and lead the defense. On second down, #29 jumped in front of a pass at the Michigan 1-yard to thwart Hayden Fry and his Hawkeyes. It was a tremendous football play that showed just how talented and football-savvy this defensive unit was.

The first quarter ended, 0-0, and most maize and blue fans were hoping the next fifteen minutes would be different for the home team. It would get worse.

Later in the second quarter, Griese looked for Tai Streets near the Hawkeye goal line, but an apparent miscommunication between the QB and the WR lead to another INT, this time at the Iowa 5-yard line. UGH!

Tavian Banks finally broke a long run and rumbled 53 yards to put the Hawkeyes up, 7-0. The Michigan Stadium crowd was shocked, stunned and silent!

An intentional grounding call against Griese ended the next Michigan drive and now there were whispers in the big bowl – “What’s going on here? What’s up with our QB?”

Griese seemed to settle down on the next drive as he threaded the needle on a beautiful 16-yard TD pass to Streets and now, with just under 5 minutes to play in the first half, the score was tied at 7-7.

On Iowa’s next possession, Marcus Ray did it again. This time, he baited Iowa QB Matt Sherman into throwing his second interception of the game.

clip_image002James Borchuck/Detroit News

"I was hoping I could make a couple plays this week," Ray said. "I just want to get in the groove of helping our team get turnovers and help us win. I felt like the more plays I make playing my position, the better our defense can probably play."

Not to be outdone by his counterpart, Griese went ahead and threw his third interception of the first half on the next Wolverine drive when he locked in on Shaw the entire pattern. To make matters worse, Iowa returned the ball to the UM 1-yard line.

The Hawkeyes scored on the next play, but James Hall blocked the PAT to hold the Iowa lead to just, 13-7. A minor consolation for those Michigan fans at the game.

If you can believe it, Chris Howard was stripped of the ball on the first play of Michigan’s next possession and once again Iowa had great field position, this time at the UM 42-yard line.

Once again the Wolverine D stood tall and drove the Hawkeyes back 5 yards in the three plays.

The ensuing Iowa punt pinned Michigan at their own 4-yard line.

With just 1:08 left in the second quarter, you expected Lloyd Carr and company to just run out the clock and head into the locker room only down by six points. Right?

Well, three straight running plays only netted 3 yards and two timeouts by Iowa meant Michigan had to punt the ball back to Iowa with only 18 seconds remaining in the first half.

What can happen in 18 seconds?

Tim Dwight. He returned the ensuing punt and weaved his way through what seemed to be the entire Michigan Kick Team for the touchdown.

If THAT wasn’t bad enough, with no time left on the clock, Iowa went for two points and got it!

As the Wolverines left the field, the Michigan Stadium crowd serenaded the home team with a loud chorus of boos as they headed into the locker room on the wrong end of the 21-7 score.


At halftime, Carr pulled Griese aside and told him what he already knew: "I said, 'Brian, this is why you're here. It's your time.'"

"I knew Coach wanted to yell at me, so there really was no point," Griese said of his halftime chat with Lloyd Carr. "I knew, at that point, it was up to me. We were down because of me and I knew I had to lead us back. Nobody else was going to do it but me."

He did just that. With laser focus and tremendous poise, Griese gathered himself and stepped up. He led Michigan to three scoring drives in the final thirty minutes. The first TD was an 11-yard pass to Shaw. The second score Griese kept it himself on a QB sneak from the one-yard line that tied the score at, 21-21.

After Tim Dwight returned the kickoff 72 yards, Iowa settled for a 38-yard field goal, to go up, 24-21 with only 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

From this point on, both defenses stiffened and it looked like Michigan might finally lose their first game of the season.

Now it was time for UM Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord to finally get his act together. With the aid of several Hawkeye penalties, he called a great drive using an excellent mix of runs and passes to set up a third and goal from the Iowa 2-yard line. Griese then hit Jerame Tuman in the endzone for the TD and with just 2:55 left in the game, Michigan was up, 28-24.

Photo courtesy of: James Borchuck (Detroit News)

After shutting down the Hawkeye passing game for three quarters (Iowa had only gained 14 yards through the air after 45 minutes), Michigan was asked to do it one more time.

Amazingly enough, Sherman finally completed a couple of big pass plays and before you knew it, there were 41 seconds remaining and Iowa was on the Michigan 26-yard line.

That’s when it Glen Steele came up the middle to force an off-balance throw, and Sam Sword’s found a gift:

"We knew they were going to try to get Dwight behind the linebackers," Sword said. "We worked on that play all week. I tried to knock Dwight off his course. I had no idea where he was. I dove and tried to come up with a play for this defense."

Afterwards, the scene in the Michigan locker room looked and sounded like this:

Bring on Sparty! Ain’t nobody beating this band of Wolverines!!



October 16th, 2017 at 4:39 PM ^

I had stepped outside to get a jump on halftime when Michigan was running down clock on the second half (either to get some food or wait in a line for the restroom, I forget which) and only heard the gasps from the crowd when Dwight scored. It looked like the same kind of loss that had bitten the team against Northwestern in prior years, squandering a good undefeated start.

It wasn't.

I once got an A writing a college paper whose thesis was that this game was the key moment of the entire season. Ah, youth.


October 16th, 2017 at 4:50 PM ^

I was a young lad at this time (12).  I was absolutely certain at halftime we were gonna lose.  I swear I thought Tim Dwight was the fastest player I had ever seen at the time


October 16th, 2017 at 5:06 PM ^

In 1995 we had started out 5-0 and then went 4-4 the rest of the way. 

In '96, we started out 4-0, then went 4-4 the rest of the way. 

Now in '97 we were 5-0 - and then fell behind 21-7 at the half.  It seemed like we were stuck on this endless loop of frustration . . . and then we broke it!


October 16th, 2017 at 6:38 PM ^

Oh man, the Tim Dwight game! I too thought we were screwed at half. Worse, I was there with my OSU-fan friend and his dad (we were 13 at the time).

I can't remember the specifics... surely that Griese to Tuman TD had to be the patented PA rollout, right? He always hit Tuman on that thing. Total bread & butter play that year.

Great write-up!

Boner Stabone

October 17th, 2017 at 7:43 AM ^

I remember being at this game with my future brother in law and little sister.  We had 2 Hawkeye hillbillies sitting next to us.  One was wearing a purple tank top  and his son had a wife beater shirt on.  They looked like they just strolled in from the farm.  They were talking trash all day, especially when they were up at halftime.

I will never forget my quiet mannered little sister going off on them after Sword's interception to win the game.  They just got up and left while we made fun of them.

Wolverine 73

October 17th, 2017 at 8:18 AM ^

These were the days before you could see every game on TV, and I was out of state and could not watch. I was driving and picked up the game on WJR early in the second half and was dumbfounded by the score, just could not believe we could be losing at home, not with that team. Well, as Griese mounted one of the all time clutch performances at Michigan, my hopes kept rising, cautiously at first. I can’t recall if I felt relief or euphoria when the game ended, probably some of each. Great game and great effort.


October 17th, 2017 at 10:09 AM ^

For the exact reasons stated.  You spend college football season waiting for the shoe to drop.  Sometimes it happens early.  Sometimes it happens late.  Rarely does the show not drop, but the anticipation of that drop is so great, you can never really escape its shadow.