The Climb, Part VIII: The Trap

Submitted by Dr. Sap on October 30th, 2017 at 10:49 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)]


November 1, 1997: Michigan 24, Minnesota 3

Materials: Articles. WH Highlights

Back in 1997, I don’t think the term “Trap Game” had been used very much, let alone become part of the College Football lexicon. But twenty years ago, with a trip to #2 Penn State looming the following week, the Battle for the Little Brown Jug was definitely a Trap Game for Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines. The Minnesota Golden Gophers were a team in transition with first year coach Glen Mason. Even though they had pushed JoePa to the brink of an upset two weeks earlier, Minnesota was still bringing a butter-knife to a gunfight at Michigan Stadium two decades ago.

The Wolverines were now ranked #4 in the country and everybody was looking forward to a #2 vs #4 matchup the next week in Happy Valley. With the Nittany Lions playing Northwestern’s Wildcats, it was expected that both teams would clash the following week with undefeated records.

If Lloyd Carr’s warnings about how Minnesota pushed Penn State in a one-point loss two weeks prior didn’t get his team’s attention, the Gophers first drive sure did. Shockingly, Glenn Mason figured out that running right up the middle was the best way to move the ball against Jim Herrmann’s Michigan Defense. Before you could say, “Golden Gophers,” Minnesota was sitting on the Michigan doorstep with a first and goal at the UM 9-yard line.

[After THE JUMP: You woke the DeBord]

Yours truly, and the other 106,576 in attendance, were collectively wondering if this was this really happening especially on the first drive of the game?

Yes it was, but once again, Michigan’s D stepped up. A Gopher penalty, a tackle for loss, a throw-away and a run up the middle left Minnesota settling for a 26-yard field goal.

The crisis was averted, but Michigan was still on the short end of a 3-0 score.

Not to worry, as Mike DeBord responded with a 17-play drive that took almost seven minutes off the clock. And of course you know how that first drive ended, don’t you? Yup, another field goal attempt, but this time, Kraig Baker missed the 33-yard kick. Minnesota was still leading, 3-0.

Whenever the offense needed a spark, Woodson got drafted. [Kalbach/UM Bentley Library]

To the Michigan Coaching Staff’s credit, they recognized the offense was looking just as sloppy as the wet grass field at the corner of Stadium and Main. That meant only one thing: time to get Charles Woodson the ball on offense.

On the first play of the second quarter, Woodson took a reverse handoff and scampered 33 yards into the Gopher endzone. It was an impressive run that was equaled only by the excellent blocking of the entire offense—linemen, receivers, backs and even QB Brian Griese got around the edge to help spring Woodson’s scoring dash. The crowd came to life, and that was pretty much it for the Gophers’ chances.

The Michigan D now turned up the intensity and forced the Gophers into a three-and-out on their next possession. Later in the second quarter, Griese connected with Anthony Thomas on a long pass play to the Gopher 9-yard line. Two plays later, Mark Campbell scored on the now patented Griese-Play-Action-Tight-End-Waggle play.

With Michigan now leading, 14-3, Minnesota changed QBs and went with a more option look. Michigan responded by bringing down the safeties, playing with 8 or 9 in the box and leaving both cornerbacks to fend for themselves.

While they did move the ball some, the Gophers ended up facing a 4th down and one at the UM 35-yard line. They tried running the ball up the middle once again, but that wasn’t happening. There was blood in the water and it was quite apparent that this Michigan defense was on fire. Minnesota was not going to score against them no matter who was playing QB!

Unable to generate any points from the Wolverine offense, the Special Teams pitched in when DiAllo Johnson blocked a Gopher punt at the Minnesota 10-yard line.

DiAllo Johnson blocks a Gopher punt in the 2nd quarter. (James Borchuck / Detroit News)

Surely the “O” would hit paydirt after this gift!

Nope. A Griese throw behind Tai Streets on a 3rd down slant was picked off in the endzone and at the end of the half, it was still just a 14-3 Wolverine lead.

Michigan’s first drive of the 3rd quarter stalled when a penalty pushed the offense back and Griese was unable to connect with a wide receiver, again. Luckily, Minnesota went three-and-out as well, but the Gopher punt pinned the Wolverine offense at the UM 8-yard line.

The ensuing drive featured runs by Howard, scrambles by Griese and a big pass play to Campbell. A long pass play for Woodson at the goal line drew a pass interference penalty that gave Michigan great field position. From there, Anthony Thomas went around right end for a 30-yard TD. After driving 92 yards, Michigan was now up, 21-3.

Minnesota changed QB’s once again, but it didn’t matter, as the Gopher offense was going three-and-out regardless of who was under center.

Late in the 3rd quarter, Russell Shaw returned a punt down to the Gopher 15-yard line. A Griese sneak on 4th down kept the drive alive, but on the very next play, #14 would fumble the snap at the 4-yard line as he pulled out from center too early. It was another glaring mistake and/or turnover by the Wolverine offense.

For the game, Michigan would finish with 11 penalties that accounted for 87 yards, certainly not their best performance. Like I said earlier, as sloppy as the field conditions, that was their modus operandi at this point in the season.

With the help of a pass interference call on Woodson (who would play an astounding 70 plays this game), Minnesota actually gained their only first down of the second half. That’s when Sam Sword had seen enough. Later in the drive, he flat-out leveled Gopher QB Corey Sauter on a monstrous collision. It was a textbook hit that just screamed intimidation as the Michigan linebacker literally ran through his tackle—just like the coaches drew it up.

That was it for Minnesota. The Wolverines limited the Gophers to just 10 total yards in the second half.

"It's beginning to sound old, but the defense has been great," said U-M quarterback Griese, who completed 14 of 27 for 171 yards and one touchdown. The Gophers finished with 12 yards passing, and none in the second half.

A Baker 31-yard field goal closed out the scoring and the game, 24-3.

Amazingly, Michigan, the Big Ten's top-rated defense, had not allowed a second-half touchdown or any points in the fourth quarter the entire season.

"As a team, that's one of our goals, not to allow anybody to score on us in the fourth quarter," said Sword, who had a team-best 11 tackles, including two of the Wolverines' five sacks. "If you can shut a team out in the second half, that jacks your team up."

Oh, they were jacked alright! Bring on JoePa and his Nittany Lions!!



October 30th, 2017 at 12:21 PM ^

Is that I was at every single home game and the Rose Bowl that year and really only remember the specifics of the following:

1. The end of the Notre Dame game

2. The last play of the first half of the Iowa game and the whole 2nd half.  Was SURE they were going to blow it after the punt return at the end of the first half

3. The entire Ohio State game

4. The entire Rose Bowl

Colorado, Baylor, Northwestern and Minnesota.  Nothing.  I know I was there but I'll damned if I can recall anything specific about the game at all.


October 30th, 2017 at 1:03 PM ^

The offense was largely methodical in that DeBord way and the defense in large part shut things down.  For a good 90-95% of the season (in terms of game time), the defense was in such total control there wasn't much drama.  Even if an opponent briefly took a lead, I quickly learned that the defense was going to lock things down and start getting turnovers and/or three-and-outs as the DeBord offense eventually clawed its way up to 20 points.

That was a sort of statement of dominance I've rarely seen since.  In hindsight, I feel it was last Michigan team that could get away with what it did before option football took over (McNabb left an impression on me, yes).  A lot of the scores looked rather close for comfort but the defense established a pattern:  Our offense might muddle along for four quarters, but you only get a half because the 2nd half belonged to the Michigan defense.  Iowa was the last real scare I remember; by Penn State I remember going into each game brimming with confidence.  #100 ranked offense?  #2 ranked offense?  Whatever.  It doesn't matter what you do.  We'll somehow get to 20, and you won't.


October 30th, 2017 at 1:12 PM ^

Dr. Sap, fantastic write up as usual! I remember watching the game, I recall a handful of plays, but I forgot how close it was early on. It's like jumping into a time machine with these weekly stories, you almost feel like it is 1997 all over again! When they announced the 10 year through 50 year anniversaries of various Michigan teams and individuals at halftime this past weekend, it got a bit dusty inside the stadium when they announced the 1997 National Championship team. Next week, the air gets a little thinner up the mountain for Judgment Day!!


October 31st, 2017 at 12:22 AM ^

I remember how close Iowa was, however, after Penn State I wasn't worried. I recently watched the Rose Bowl and was shocked how close that was. I didn't remember it that way even though I watched every play live. I guess I had such confidence in the defense that I was never worried even though I probably should have been.