Michigan-Notre Dame Football– Looking Back – 2011

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.

Michigan-Notre Dame Football– Looking Back – 1980

There were a lot of historic moments in 1980 before Michigan traveled to Notre Dame for a September football game. In February, the United States won a Gold Medal in ice hockey when a team of largely unknown amateur hockey players stunned the Soviet Red Army team in one of the greatest upsets in sports history. That was the good news. The big news story of 1980 was the Iran Hostage Crisis, which dominated conversations in every coffee shop in the country.

On the football field, Michigan and Notre Dame played a classic game that featured a number of lead changes in the final minutes, something this rivalry is known for. John Wangler took over at quarterback in the second quarter with Michigan trailing 14-0, and threw a pair of touchdown passes in 1:19 to tie the score by halftime. Momentum put on a winged helmet and a number 1 jersey at the beginning of the third quarter, as Anthony Carter returned the second-half kickoff 67 yards, giving Michigan the ball at the Notre Dame 32. Stanley Edwards scored from two yards out to give Michigan the lead. Notre Dame then scored a pair of touchdowns to take a 26-21 lead with a little more than three minutes to go. On Michigan’s final drive, Butch Woolfolk carried for 36 yards to the Notre Dame 4-yard line, and then tipped a pass that was caught Michigan’s Craig Dunaway for a touchdown, giving the Wolverines a 1-point lead with 41 seconds left. 

On the game’s final drive, Notre Dame freshman quarterback Blair Kiel threw a long pass down the sideline that resulted in a controversial pass interference call against Michigan defensive back Marion Body, putting the ball at the Michigan 48. On the next play, Michigan defensive back Jeff Reeves came ever so close to ending the game with an interception. Two passes later, Kiel connected with Tony Hunter, who inadvertently stepped out of bounds at the 34, setting up one of the fateful kicks of all time. Up to the line stepped left-footed kicked Harry Oliver, who kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expires, sending Notre Dame streaming onto the field. 

As the season went on, Michigan recovered quite nicely, reeling off nine consecutive wins, including a victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame wound up losing its last two games to USC and Georgia. 

Oliver bravely fought cancer in later years and passed away in 2007 at the age of 47. But on that day in 1980, Oliver earned his spot in immortality in Notre Dame football, and in this rivalry. 

Thanks to youtube poster BlueGoldIlustrated for the footage. As always, I own no rights to this. 


Michigan-Notre Dame Football – Looking Back – 1992

The 1992 game between Michigan and Notre Dame isn’t reviewed as often as many other games in the series, probably because neither team was able to win, so the game didn’t really add to the glorious tradition of either team. The game ended in a 17-17 tie at South Bend, and both teams to view the game with bittersweet memories.

Early on, it looked as though Notre Dame would pull away. Reggie Brooks ran 20 yards and scored what’s referred to as the “unconscious touchdown” after colliding with Michigan defensive back Coleman Wallace. With Notre Dame leading, 7-0 and threatening, Michigan’s Martin Davis recovered a fumble on a reverse, and the momentum suddenly changed as Michigan went to its two-minute drill, with quarterback Elvis Grbac connecting with tight end Tony McGee and wide receiver Derrick Alexander, arguably two of the most underappreciated players in Michigan history. With a little more than a minute to go, Grbac found Tyrone Wheatley out of the backfield, and Wheatley broke a tackle and skirted 28 yards down the sideline for the tying touchdown. In the third quarter, Michigan made another opportunity for itself when Corwin Brown knocked the ball loose from Jerome Bettis and linebacker Steve Morrison call the ball in midair and returned it near midfield. The drive extended stretched into the fourth quarter, and when Grbac completed a touchdown pass to Alexander in the corner of the end zone, the Wolverines suddenly had a 10-point lead.

The deficit didn’t seem to faze the Irish, who went right back to Bettis, a bulldozer who just happened to hail from Detroit. Following a pass interference penalty on then-freshman cornerback Ty Law, Bettis pounded the ball over the goal line to cut Michigan’s lead to three points. Later, Craig Hentrich made a field goal to tie the score at 17, ending all the scoring, but not the drama.

With Michigan threatening, Notre Dame pressured Grbac, who threw an interception into the waiting arms of Notre Dame defensive back Jeff Burris, giving the Irish the ball with 1:07 left in the game. However, Notre Dame had only one timeout left, while Michigan still had all three. That might have played a part in Irish coach Lou Holtz’s decision to run the ball on back-to-back plays, before quarterback Rick Mirer finally heaved a long pass that was incomplete, leaving only seven seconds on the clock. On the final play of the game, Mirer threw a long pass down the middle of the field that was easily broken up by Brown, ending the game in bizarre fashion.

I was unable to watch the game because of work obligations that day, but I listened to the radio broadcast, and when Michigan was driving with less than two minutes to go, the color commentator on the Notre Dame radio broadcast said that Michigan was “in the catbird’s seat.” Sadly, Grbac’s interception wasted that opportunity. Almost as sad was the fact that I couldn’t get a Michigan radio broadcast in New York City.

From the Notre Dame perspective, fans were thoroughly angry with Holtz, a coach who was revered by the Notre Dame faithful.

At the end of the season, Michigan had finished undefeated, but with three ties to Notre Dame, Illinois and archrival Ohio State. However, the Wolverines won the Rose Bowl, 38-31 over Washington, giving them a final record of 9-0-3. It’s fair to say that team hasn’t received enough recognition over the years. After the 1992 season, Moeller resigned, but he left Lloyd Carr a roster stocked with talent. As we all know, Carr eventually became a living legend in his own right, leading Michigan to a perfect season and a share of the National Championship in the 1997 season. Notre Dame finished the 1992 season with a 10-1-1 record, losing only a midseason game to Stanford. Both teams enjoyed good seasons in 1992, but one team wished that rivalry game in early September had a different ending.

Thanks to NBC and youtube poster Wolverine Devotee. As always, I do not own any rights to this game.

Michigan-Notre Dame Football – Looking Back – 1989

I didn’t see the 1989 game between the two rivals live. My wife and I were on some weekend for engaged Catholic couples, and there were no television sets at the place, which was probably for the best, since people would have watched the game instead of focusing on their relationships, and since I would have likely been the only Michigan fan there. For that matter, let me add a third reason: watching Rocket Ismail return back-to-back kickoffs for touchdowns might have caused a few blood vessels to burst.

Oh yes, Ismail. As individual performances go, his performance in that ’89 game ranks with the greatest individual performances in the history of the series. The shame of it from the Michigan perspective is that the Wolverines had the chance to win that game, but Bo insisted on kicking to Ismail, not once, but twice. Yes, all things considered, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t watch that game.

Still, there were bright spots for Michigan in 1989, such as quarterback Michael Taylor connecting with Chris Calloway on a fade into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, but even then, Michigan missed the point after, and trailed 7-6. Ismail’s first kickoff return gave the Irish some breathing room as the second half opened, but after Taylor left the game with an injury, freshman quarterback Elvis Grbac led the Wolverines on a touchdown drive, completing six of seven passes, including the scoring pass to Derrick Walker. All of sudden, Michigan was right there.

That’s when Bo made the fateful decision to kick off to Ismail again. Again, Grbac led Michigan on another touchdown drive, but Notre Dame recovered the ensuing onsides kick and ran out the clock.

The ’89 game was the last game Bo coached against the Irish. He retired after the season and turned over the reins to long-time assistant Gary Moeller. It was also the last game the rivals would play on the old artificial turf at Michigan Stadium. By the time the Irish returned in 1991, The Big House returned to real grass. Would a slower, real grass surface have helped on a rainy day against Notre Dame in 1989? Maybe. Would it have helped not to kick to Ismail? Absolutely.

Thanks to youtube poster RocketShark, BlueGoldIllustrated and NBC for the footage. As always, I own nothing.

Michigan-Notre Dame Football– Looking Back – 1978

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed five games between Michigan and Ohio State leading up to “The Game” itself. With the end of the Michigan-Notre Dame series only a week away, Phil agreed with me that it would be a good idea to review five memorable games from this rivalry.

Michigan and Notre Dame first met on the gridiron back in 1887, but for this series, I’m going to start with 1978, the first game in the modern era between the teams. There were several interesting sports stories in 1978. Affirmed won the Triple Crown, an achievement that seems more impressive since no horse has won the Triple Crown since then. The New York Yankees topped the Boston Red Sox 5-4 in a one-game playoff to decide the championship of the American League East. That game was so dramatic that it made the Yankees’ ensuing World Series championship seem almost anticlimactic by comparison.

Of course, in college football, all the talk centered about Michigan and Notre Dame, who were about to play each other for the first time since 1943, so the game was dubbed “the reunion game.” Notre Dame entered the game as the defending national champion, while Michigan enjoying its own renaissance, with Bo Schembechler having led the Wolverines to victories over Ohio State in each of the two previous seasons. Both teams entered the 1978 game with outstanding quarterbacks. Joe Montana was named the starting quarterback several games in the 1977 and promptly led the Fighting Irish to the National Championship, punctuated by a 38-10 win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. For Michigan, Rick Leach had emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in school history, establishing himself a threat as both a runner and a passer three decades before that became commonplace. With each team boasting a star quarterback, something had to give.

From the Michigan perspective, the game didn’t start well at all. Notre Dame sandwich a pair of touchdowns around a Rick Leach touchdown run to take a 14-7 lead over Michigan into the locker room at halftime. Michigan took charge in the second half, aided by an opportunistic defense. Leach found Doug Marsh in the corner of the end zone to tie the score at 14, and then linebacker Jerry Meter intercepted a Montana pass, giving the Wolverines the ball at the Notre Dame 35-yard line. As the fourth quarter began, Leach connected with Marsh again on an 18-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan ahead to stay. Nursing a 20-14 lead, Michigan’s Michael Harden stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Montana pass, setting up Michigan at the Notre Dame 40. Leach didn’t waste any time, finding Ralph Clayton for a 40-yard touchdown pass to give the Blue a 26-14 lead. With a little more than a minute left in the game, Michigan defensive lineman Curtis Greer sacked Montana for a safety, and Michigan celebrated the renewal of an old rivalry with a 28-14 win in South Bend. In later years, Montana became the focal point of the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty, leading the Niners to three Super Bowl championships. The Denver Broncos drafted Leach, but he chose baseball over football, and played 10 seasons in the Major Leagues for four teams, including the Detroit Tigers.

As always, thanks to ABC and youtube member Wolverine Historian for the video clip below. Naturally, we don’t own any rights to this footage. Enjoy!