#1 vs. #2: Five years since the last one (Mich vs. OSU, 2006)

Written Ramblings by JS & DJ

Will we see the game of the century on Saturday??

Cue up the Armageddon soundtrack – “Don’t wanna close my eyes, don’t wanna fall asleep cuz I miss you …” The mothership (ESPN) has referred to this weekend’s game between LSU and ‘Bama as Armageddon, that’s why I put up the words of Steven Tyler’s classic song from the 90s. Is the #1 LSU vs. #2 Alabama matchup on Saturday the game of the century?? There can’t just be one specific game of the century, it can be a collection games. This one might make it onto the list though. ESPN will break down all kinds of matchups between these two teams and let the viewers know everything about Les Miles’ obsession with eating grass during the games. This game is considered to be the de facto national semifinal. These are the two best teams right now and that won’t change after the SEC championship game. Don’t be surprised to see them in an all SEC BCS title game in January because that would be a pollster’s dream (can’t blame them).

What does a fan do before a matchup between #1 and #2 during the regular season? Do you prepare for the game differently? Does it just seem different than any other game? Mississippi State cancelled class a few weeks ago on a Thursday b/c they wanted the students to get ready for the visiting #1 LSU team. Alabama probably won’t cancel class but there probably has been a differeng buzz around the campus the whole week. How do the students handle it? How does a fan that is away from the campus handle it?

In order to understand how a fan feels before their teams plays in such a monumental matchup, we asked one of our writers JS (Michigan alum) to recollect the last time the top two teams faced off during the regular season. The game had BCS title implications (similar to this one), not to mention it is a big rivalry to begin with. The game was #1 Ohio State vs. #2 Michigan in 2006.

This is our way of getting ready for this weekend’s monster matchup … recollecting the last time this happened in college football. The following is JS’ recollection of the days leading up to the game and the game itself.

November 18th, 2006. That was the date of arguable the most hyped and biggest game in the storied Michigan / Ohio State rivalry. Ohio State was number one in the AP/Coaches/BCS and Michigan was number two in the AP/Coaches/BCS. This was a de facto national championship semi-final where the winner would go to the national championship game. Former Ohio State John Cooper stated: “How big is this game between Ohio State and Michigan? The loser of this game is going to the Rose Bowl.” Compounded with this game was the death of legendary (and that’s not hyperbole) head coach Bo Schembechler and this game took on monumental proportions in the lore of not only Michigan and Ohio State, but college football as well.

To understand the 2006 game, you have to look back at the 2005 season. Michigan underachieved like no other, finishing up a 7-5 season with a wild loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. Hopes were decently high for the 2006 squad – a squad loaded with NFL talent (7 offensive players, 8 defensive players, and 1 special teams player are all on NFL rosters right now) would hopefully break through and make a name for themselves. While having 8-4, 9-3 and 10-2 seasons are considered great for many teams; those are disappointing results for Michigan. A Big 10 and national championship are the goals for every Michigan team and while Michigan had recent Big 10 titles (2003 and 2004) they haven’t sniffed the national championship scene since the late 90s/early 2000s. It all changed in against Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was at the height of its hype machine with Heisman hopeful Brady Quinn and the schematic wizard Charlie Weis. Michigan had beat up two relative crème puffs in Vanderbilt and Central Michigan en route to a top ten rating (#10). Notre Dame was completely overrated as the number two team in the country. There were considerable discussions about whether or not Notre Dame could contend for the national championship and they all ended that day. Michigan started with a defensive touchdown as the ball bounced out of John Carlson’s name and right into Prescott Burgess’ hand for a pick six. They forced a punt and Michigan got the ball back only to promptly have Henne throw a pick right back to ND. They got down to the one yard line and scored two plays later. That was the closest ND would get to Michigan for the rest of the day.

While Mario Manningham had his breakout game against Penn State in 2005 (winning TD pass with one second left), this game was arguable the one that put him on the national stage. He burned the ND secondary for three touchdowns, the first one where he was ten yards past the closest ND defender on a double move and Henne hit him in stride for a touchdown. That play ignited Michigan’s fire and the defense also responded with incredible fervor as they hurried Brady Quinn into three interceptions and a fumble that LaMarr Woodley returned for a touchdown to ice the game. The final score was 47 – 21 and it wasn’t even that close. Michigan dominated that game and subsequently ended ND’s title hopes, exposing their lack of defense and lack of good receivers. That night, all of Sportscenter was abuzz with how overrated ND was and how teams better be ready for Michigan.

Remember the time when Michigan had a defense?

Michigan would then leave a trail of bodies in their wake as the defense played out of their minds. A lot of their success was deemed to be from defensive coordinator Ron English but everyone knew that it was from the insane amount of talent on the roster. The biggest example of the defensive dominance was against Penn State. This was a huge game because it was considered the last obstacle* between an epic showdown between Ohio State. It was also a night game at Beaver Stadium – one of the most raucous college football settings in the nation. The cherry on the top was the fact that this was the first and only time Michigan stars Chad Henne and Steve Breaston would play in their home state of Pennsylvania. It was considered a sin to go leave Joe Paterno’s state and play for another school. Ironically, Henne left because Paterno had recruited Anthony Morelli, another 5 star quarterback recruit and he knew he had a chance at early playing time at Michigan. The scene was set for a possible upset but that would not come to pass.

This game was a defensive slugfest right from the beginning. Michigan’s offense found success but not nearly as easily as it had found before. Eventually, Michigan would find pay dirt with an absolute laser from Henne to Adrian Arrington. The real story was the defense. They obliterated blockers to get to running backs and the quarterbacks. Yes, I said plural for quarterbacks. Alan Branch hit Anthony Morelli so hard that he sustained a concussion and had to leave the game. The backup, Daryll Clark, came in and on the very next series, also got knocked out by the Michigan defense and the third string walk on had to come in and play the game. Hilariously, he was the only one that led Penn State to any touchdowns. Michigan ended up winning the game 17 – 10 but there was no score for the dominant defensive performance that Michigan had just unloaded on Penn State.

*Side note – Ball State was the last home game this season. Who was their coach? Former Michigan assistant and current Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. All of Michigan thought they were going to be just another easy victim but they did not go quietly into the night. The final score was actually very close – 34 – 26 and everyone came away impressed with Ball State. Perhaps the seeds were planted in this game that Brady Hoke would actually be a good coach in the future? Hmmm…..

Penn State hasn't had much luck against Michigan in the '00s.

After a warm up game against Indiana, the big show down against Ohio State was looming. Nothing could have made this game any bigger. And then Friday, November 17th, Bo Schembechler passed away from heart complications. I remember exactly where I was at that moment. I was getting ready for my senior design class in engineering and I had ESPN on in the background. All of sudden, the breaking news graphic flashed on the screen and it flashed to Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit. Since I knew they were calling the Michigan game, I immediately stopped everything I was doing to see what happened. I was wondering if someone got suspended or if someone had gotten hurt during a practice before the game. The news was even graver – Brent had the unfortunate job of reporting that Bo had died that day. Just one day before, Thursday night, he had given the Michigan team a speech to fire them up for the Ohio State game. He had been feeling a little ill and Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s coach at that time, had told him that it was okay if he skipped the meeting to rest up. Bo would have none of it and delivered a speech to the team as planned. A game that had enormous implications in the college football landscape just took completely new meaning for a far greater audience.

The University of Michigan, the city of Ann Arbor and the entire college football world was floored with this news. A true collegiate giant had passed away hours before one of the biggest games in school history. Rarely had such a momentous event become a solemn one. Walking around campus was surreal – students were openly weeping walking around the Diag, to class and even in class. Hell, I was crying on the bus that took me to class. Later that night, a candlelight vigil was held for Bo – a testament to a man who had done so much for the entire university, not just the football team. Almost immediately afterwards, the mindset became “we HAVE to win this game for Bo.”

The night seemed to linger forever until the sun finally broke through. A 3:30 ET kick off seemed like it was never going to get here but sure enough, time kept moving and the moment at hand was here. There was a great promo for the game shot with Keith Jackson, the voice of college football, with Charles Woodson and AJ Hawk, each extolling the virtues of their team. Then, there was the tribute to Bo, a man Keith knew personally, and a moment of silence that followed. I remember the announcer mentioned that Bo was also an Ohio State alumnus, as sort of a way to quell the crowd from possibly booing. The stadium was littered with signs from Michigan fans all with one simple message “Win for Bo.”

Michigan received the kickoff and drove down the field, with surprising ease against Ohio State’s vaunted defense and ended it with a Mike Hart touchdown. Ohio State, led by eventual Heisman winner Troy Smith, responded with a drive of their own. Smith represented Michigan’s kryptonite – a dual threat quarterback that could beat us with his arm and legs (I find this supremely ironic considering who our quarterback is now). That was on display all game – sacks against any other team became quarterback hurries or pressures. Michigan’s defense made plays, but not enough and they got gashed by a couple of big plays, including a 52 yard TD run by true freshman Chris “Beanie” Wells. Smith was his normal, aggravating self; dodging Michigan defenders left and right and completing dump off passes everywhere. While the game seemed close, you definitely couldn’t tell by the score. Ohio State jumped out to a 14-point lead two different points in the first half, which ended with OSU leading 28-14.

Michigan’s defense began showing up and forced punts by Ohio State and scored 10 unanswered points, closing the gap to 28-24 with 8:41 left in the third quarter. However, on the very next drive, OSU scored on a 56 yard touchdown run by Antonio Pittman, on a play that was virtually identical to the long touchdown run of the first quarter. After trading punts Michigan finally struck again with another Mike Hard touchdown plunge to close to score to 35-31. All of Michigan knew that this was where the defense needed to make their stand. If this game needed a signature moment, it was on this drive. The defense delivered that signature moment. Unfortunately, it was in the form of an absolute back breaking 15 yard personal foul penalty on Shawn Crable for a hit on Troy Smith. Smith was headed towards the sideline and just before he was out of bounds, Crable came out of nowhere and laid him out. This was a completely subjective call – could have gone either way (I’m completely serious – no sarcasm) but it happened to go against us. This extended the drive and OSU would capitalize with another touchdown pass. Michigan would not give up, as they drove down and scored a touchdown and two point conversion to make the score 42-39. With a little more than two minutes left, Michigan attempted an onside kick and they did not recover.

Game over.

As the week went on, there was a murmur that there could potentially be a rematch in the national championship game. Michigan still had a high BCS standing and if things fell their way then the first ever championship game between conference foes would be played. The dream nearly came true as UCLA upset USC as Brent Musberger exclaimed “joy rains down in Ann Arbor!” The euphoria would not last as Florida won the SEC championship and went on to leapfrog the Wolverines in the BCS standings and earned the right to face Ohio State for the national championship. Michigan would later drop to three and would face USC in the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize.

What happened during the week of the 2006 Michigan vs. Ohio State football game was larger than life. History was made and hearts were broken. Being able to look back on that week in the present time makes me appreciate it just what had transpired. While on the losing of history, I can honestly say that I was happy to be a part of it. The magnitude of the moment will never be duplicated again but I can’t wait for the next time Michigan plays in another 1 vs. 2 match up. Hopefully, it will be for the BCS National Championship.

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