When Brady Hoke was introduced as Michigan’s head coach in 2011, he famously said that he would have walked to Ann Arbor to take the job. Initially, some people feared that when Hoke walked to Ann Arbor, charismatic quarterback Denard Robinson would walk away, possibly to a school with a team that featured a more wide-open attach similar to what Michigan used under former coach Rich Rodriguez.
Hoke’s first big victory occurred when Robinson chose to stay and continue his collegiate career at Michigan. His first big victory on the field came in his second game, when Robinson led the Wolverines on a comeback for the ages as the maize and blue hosted Notre Dame in the first night game in the storied history of Michigan Stadium.
Both teams wore “throwback” uniforms for the game, and in Michigan’s case, the jerseys really bore little resemblance to any that Michigan had worn in the past. Playing at night in unusual uniforms in front of a then-record crowd of 114,804, Michigan took the field and produced a win so electrifying that it has to be ranked among the most exciting football games of all time, and is almost certainly the most exciting game in Michigan football history.
It started slowly for Michigan, as Notre Dame took a 14-0 lead. Then Jordan Kovacs jumpstarted spirits when he jumped in front of a receiver to intercept a pass along the sideline, giving Michigan a slight change in momentum. Robinson followed the interception by throwing the kind of pass he threw numerous times at Michigan, literally heaving the ball downfield. Fortunately for Robinson and the Wolverines, wide receiver Junior Hemingway outmaneuvered Notre Dame’s defensive backs to catch the ball, and he dove toward the goal line, just barely getting the ball across the goal line for the touchdown. Suddenly, Michigan had life, and The Big House was rocking.
Undeterred, Notre Dame extended its lead to 24-7 in the third quarter. With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, things looked bleak for Michigan as Robinson appeared to be wrapped up by Notre Dame’s defense, a split-second away from a sack. Amazingly, Robinson stood up with a defender clutching at his ankles, and fired a long strike to Hemingway, who broke a tackle and sprinted 76 yards to the Notre Dame 7-yard line. As play began in the fourth quarter, Robinson scooped up his tailback’s fumble and ran into the end zone, preventing a game-losing turnover and scoring a critical touchdown, all in one motion. Michigan still trailed by 10 points, but anyone who knew the history of this rivalry knew there was plenty of excitement yet to come. The pace of the excitement started to accelerate when Robinson lobbed a pass into the Michigan corner of the south end zone, when Jeremy Gallon jumped back to come down with the ball, and there were only three points separating the two teams. Still, Notre Dame was threatening deep in Michigan territory once again, when quarterback Tommy Rees lost control of the ball, and defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen recovered the ball at the Michigan 10. Robinson went to work immediately, connecting with Hemingway for a 45-yard reception. A late hit was called on Notre Dame defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, giving Michigan a first down at the Notre Dame 30. But the drive went no further, as Robert Blanton intercepted Robinson’s pass in the end zone, temporarily sinking spirits around The Big House. The Irish might have been able to run out the clock, but at that moment, the Michigan defense started to play like a classic Greg Mattison defense, and linebacker Jake Ryan began to develop his legend by tackling a running back for a 3-yard loss on third down. Michigan would get the ball back with slightly less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, an eternity for any offense with Robinson playing quarterback. Michigan advanced to the Notre Dame 21, where Robinson threw a throw-back screen pass to Vincent Smith, who scampered into the end zone to give Michigan the lead with 1:12. Now, Michigan had the lead, but Notre Dame had the ball, and it was time for some Irish offensive heroics. Following a pass interference call against Michigan, Notre Dame had a third down and five yards to go at the Michigan 29. Rees then completed a pass to a wide-open Theo Riddick, who fell into the end zone to give Notre Dame the lead back with just 30 seconds left. On second down, Robinson rolled to his right and found Gallon, who caught the pass in the middle of the field and outraced Irish linebacker Manti Te’o to the sideline, a play that was captured by Don Criqui on a Notre Dame radio broadcast that Michigan fans will listen to for another 50 years. Michigan had the ball on the Notre Dame 16 with just eight seconds left. Logic would dictate that the Wolverines should put the ball in the middle of the field and attempt a field goal. Fortunately for Michigan fans and alumni everywhere, logic wasn’t employed in this situation. With Michigan lined up in a bland, ordinary I-formation, Robinson took the snap from center and lobbed yet another pass toward the corner of the south end zone. This time it was Roy Roundtree who outmaneuvered cornerback Gary Gray, coming back to the ball and coming down with the ball and not just one, but two feet in the end zone, easily a touchdown. Michigan’s fans celebrated as raucously as they ever have at Michigan Stadium. With two seconds left, Michigan squibbed the kickoff, recovering the ball and nearly scoring another touchdown as the game ended.
It’s been only three years, but there simply aren’t enough superlatives to accurately describe the impact of this game. Robinson became a Michigan legend because of the entirety of his career, but Roundtree, Gallon and Hemingway etched their names in Michigan lore largely on their performances in this game. Michigan fans seldom quote Brent Musberger, but he captured the impact of this game when he said, “114,804 were here tonight, and more will say they were with them.”
Thanks to ESPN and youtube member WolverineHistorian. As always, I own no rights to this broadcast or these highights.