The Gary Moeller era is probably one of the most underappreciated times in Michigan football history. Moeller succeeded his former boss, Bo Schembechler, but unlike most people who take over for living legends, Moeller produced teams that were pretty strong, and despite his exit in 1994, his era set many of the building blocks that would be in place when Michigan won the national championship in 1997 season.
Still, Wolverine fans will remember the 1990 season for one game, and particularly just one play: The failed 2-point conversion against Michigan State.
Elvis Grbac had just completed a fade to Derrick Alexander in the near corner of the north end zone to bring Michigan within one point. Moeller chose to go for two points, a move that Brady Hoke duplicated more than two decades later. As Grbac took the snap from center, receiver Desmond Howard cut inside on a slant pattern, where Michigan State defensive back Eddie Brown appeared to grab Howard’s waist with his left hand, and as Howard moved past Brown, the Spartan defensive reached with his right and appeared to trip Howard. Still, Howard got the ball, and appeared to land with the ball in his possession, but once he hit the ground, it squirted away.
At first glance, it appeared that 1) Howard caught the pass for a 2-point conversion, 2) Brown had committed a holding infraction against Howard, and 3) Brown had interfered with Howard on the play. Yet, none of those results were called. Instead, the officials ruled the play an incomplete pass. Twenty-four years later, this remains one of the most controversial and surreal plays in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, and in Michigan football history. Despite only taking a few seconds, the play almost seemed to unfold in slow motion. And the result seemed to proceed against all logic, with virtually every observer waiting for some sort of justice…that never occurred.
With six seconds left in the game, Michigan attempted an onsides kick, which worked when Vada Murray recovered in Michigan State territory, giving the Wolverines one final shot at victory. Rather than throwing a pass to the sideline to set up a field goal attempt, Grbac rolled out and launched pass toward the end zone, having narrowly escaped the clutches of the Michigan State defensive line. With a log jam in the end zone, Grbac’s pass was intercepted, and the Wolverines’ chances for victory were finished as well. Despite clearly coming down with the ball after having been held and interfered with, Howard’s catch was ruled incomplete, and the Spartans held on for a 28-27 victory.
Michigan finished the season 9-3, with a win over Ole Miss in the Gator Bowl. Still, few were smiling in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines lost to Iowa by one point just a week after they lost to Michigan State by one point, and any hopes for a Big Ten championship were finished.
As the years went by, Howard went on to become a Michigan Legend, having his jersey dedicated in a ceremony in 2011 in the first night game at Michigan Stadium. After leaving Michigan, Howard won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, adding a Super Bowl MVP trophy to his Heisman Trophy. Since retiring, he’s made a name for himself as part of the CollegeDay crew with ESPN. Derrick Alexander played nine years in the NFL before retiring. Elvis Grbac played nine years in the NFL as well, and has since returned to his alma mater, St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where he serves as an assistant quarterbacks coach.
Thanks to ABC Sports and youtube poster Stephen Barnett for the footage of the game. As always, I own nothing.Jeff Cummins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.