Looking Back is a Special Feature Highlighting
Key Rivalry Games by Jeff Cummins
The fifth installment of this year’s series looking back at the football series between Michigan and Ohio State takes us back to 1999. The economy was roaring, and on the football front, the Wolverines were maddeningly close. So close, but yet so far.
Much of that distance was due to an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback position. Michigan had two excellent quarterbacks. Tom Brady was a fifth-year senior who had a tremendous final season, while sophomore Drew Henson was the top quarterback recruit in the nation in the 1998 recruiting class. In the beginning of the 1998 season, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr let the two players split time at quarterback, which contributed to losses against Michigan State and Illinois. In hindsight, had Tom Brady played the entire way in both of those games, the Wolverines would likely have won both, and there’s a very good chance the Wolverines would have finished with their second perfect season in three years, and their second national championship in three years.
Brady nearly led Michigan back against Michigan State, which led Carr to pick Brady as the starter for the rest of the season. Suddenly, Michigan’s offense became one of the most clutch units in the nation down the stretch. Brady developed a knack for making big plays at big times, and his performance in the final three games of his Michigan career was arguably the most impressive three-game stretch by any quarterback in Michigan history. Against Ohio State, the Wolverines started slowly, and on several occasions, they appeared to be in serious trouble. With fewer than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Ohio State running back Jonathan Well broke a tackle and ran from the Buckeyes’ 18-yard line to the Michigan 5-yard line, where cornerback Todd Howard saved the day, tackling Wells from behind. Michigan trailed by seven points at the time, and it appeared that Ohio State was on the verge of taking a commanding lead. That’s when the Michigan defense rose up and produced a series for the ages. On third down, Michigan safety Tommy Hendricks sacked Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari, who fumbled the ball. Still, Ohio State recovered, and had a shot at a field goal that would a comeback very difficult for Michigan. Following a bad snap, Dan Stultz missed the field goal, and Michigan had dodged a bullet. Suddenly, the Wolverines had new life, and a little momentum.
In the final minute of the third quarter, Michigan linebacker Ian Gold intercepted Bellisari, and returned the ball to the Ohio State 8-yard line. Brady wasted no time; connecting with tight end Shawn Thompson on a play action pass for the tying touchdown. With one quarter to go, the game had the feel of a classic contest between the two arch rivals.
On the ensuing possession, Michigan cornerback James Whitley tackled the football on an Ohio State pass, forcing a fumble that was recovered by safety Cato June. Once the Wolverines took possession, Brady was masterful; deftly mixing the pass and the run. On second down and nine yards to go, Brady connected with sophomore wide receiver Marquise Walker, who dove into the end zone for a touchdown, giving Michigan its first lead of the game. Finally, Michigan had given its defense a lead to protect, and the defense wasn’t about to let this game slip away. On Ohio State’s next possession, Michigan linebacker Dhani Jones sacked Bellisari, grabbing one leg and holding on until his teammates swarmed over Bellisari. On fourth down, Bellisari threw a pass for receiver Reggie Germany, but it fell harmlessly incomplete, as Dhani Jones waved his arms like a referee to signal the incomplete pass. Now, with just over two minutes remaining, the Michigan offense had the chance to put the game away, and the Wolverines delivered, with Brady sneaking for a first down on 3rd and 1 to cement the victory.
In the final moments of the game, several reporters in the press box remarked that this had started slowly, but wound up being a very good game. In essence, the 1999 Wolverines were much the same, finishing the season with five consecutive wins, including three consecutive comeback victories to end the season. Many players went on to prominent careers in the NFL, but this team will always be remembered for being so close to winning so much more. Yet, on the other hand, Michigan fans over the past 20 years would crave that kind of ending to their season. Ultimately, I think most historians will consider the 1999 Wolverines to be successful. On a personal note, this was the second time I attended a game at Michigan Stadium, and the only time I’ve attended a Michigan-Ohio State game. I flew in the day before with a press pass, and arrived at the Pioneer High School parking lot shortly before 9 a.m. I walked on the field before pre-game warmups had even started, and saw a couple of Ohio State players in their sweats, casually throwing a ball around. The day was in the low 40s, with a constant dampness in the air, and a morning dew on the stadium grass. After the game, I was in the postgame press conference in the then Crisler Arena (now the Crisler Center). I stood within a few feet of Brady while he was being interviewed, and I was next to massive guard Steve Hutchinson while he asked an assistant coach how Michigan State had done that day. For obvious reasons, the 1999 game was one of the most memorable in my opinion.
Thanks to ABC Sports, YouTube, and YouTube poster WolverineHistorian. As always, I own nothing, I do not profit in any way from this blog post.