Thoughts of Michigan football, the Big House, and road trips…

September 20, 2009

Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame.

Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown in Michigan's upset win over Notre Dame.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to score tickets to the showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan in Ann Arbor at the Big House. I have seen a handful of games there before, but none of them had the magintude or scope of this one. Both programs were in desperate need of a signature win. On one hand, Michigan was coming off its worst season ever and an offseason full of questions and scandal, whereas Notre Dame was looking to live up to expectations after several years of top-10 recruing classes fielded a team of talented and experienced players.

The stage was set for a slug-fest of epic proportions, and the weather was forecasted to be a beautiful, sunny day in A2.

The drive from Chicago to Ann Arbor is a long one, and it was made even more ardous due to the stressful night that preceded it. After compiling a hefty happy hour bar tab at one of our local watering holes, my brother’s wife fractured her ankle later in the evening while eating risotto and dancing in the kitchen. At first thought, it looked to be nothing more than a bad sprain, but as it neared midnight, it became evident that it was something more serious. The decision was made to take Megan to the hospital to get it looked at by a trained medical doctor, rather than by the group of inebriated amateurs at the house. With that being said, my brother’s maiden voyage to Michigan Stadium was all but kuput, as leaving his wife at home by herself the night after an emergency room trip was probably not in anyone’s best interest. His duties as a husbanded superseded his love of Michigan football.

And rightfully so. For sick or poorer, for good times and bad…

In stepped my brother’s best friend, Steve-O, to scoop up the extra ticket. He called in a favor to his boss to get the day off, a mere seven hours before we were set to hit the road for the trip to Michigan. After only a handful of hours of stressed sleep time, the two of us piled into my 2003 Mitsubishi Galant, a car not suited for long hauls on the road due to lack of cruise control. As we pulled onto I-94, both Steve-O and I half-joked that we were glad there was no cruise control, because any more creature comforts in the car might put us back to sleep. At least this way, I couldn’t take a second off of paying close attention to how I was driving, hence keeping me awake. Although both of us were a bit hungover and could have used a few more hours of rest, we were both very amped and antsy during the four-plus hour drive and neither of us could hardly sit still nor wait to arrive at our destination.

We pulled into Ann Arbor at about 1:30 p.m., roughly two hours before kickoff. We found some decent parking on a Michigan fan’s lawn for a mere 15 dollars, and trekked about a mile to the stadium. As we neared the intersection of Stadium and Main, the throngs of Maize-and-Blue clad tailgaters grew thicker and thicker, each group more boisterous than the next. Michigan flags flew everywhere, shouts of “Go Blue, Wear Maize” were overheard, and the smell of beer and sausage wafted through the air.

There is nothing like college football tailgating.

After milling about and navigating through the meandering crowds outside of the stadium, we decided to enter through the gates and onto the hallowed grounds of the nation’s largest stadium. We located an M Go Blue shop soon after and each purchased a Maize shirt, unwittingly becoming a part of a larger effort to turn the whole Big House into one enormous MaizeOut. From the outside, Michigan Stadium is not an opposing structure. It only stands a few stories high, but holds over 110,000 fans on a given game day. The reason for this is nearly the entire stadium is sunk into the ground, like a giant crater surrounded by benches. And until recently, that’s all there was – benches. Now, towering on each side of the Big House are brand new private suites that not only give off an imposing image, but help trap the crowd noise in and create a more hostile environment for opposing teams.

We quickly found our seats in section 8, about 80 rows up from the field. While they were basically in the nosebleeds, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house and we actually had a pretty decent vantage point for all the action. The stadium was nearly empty, what with it being over an hour till kickoff. The special teams players were on the field warming up, and both bands were taking their respective places. I called my friend, Chris Larson, to see where he was at.  I had learned earlier in the week that he would be working the sidelines for ABC driving one of the cable cart. Basically, he was getting paid 25 bucks an hour to watch the game from the Michigan bench, as he put it. Sounds like a dream job to me. He had hoped to get us down on the field to watch warmups, but it was not to be. He came up to say hello anyway. It had been probably four years since I had seen him, and it was good to share a laugh with him again.

We sat in our seats and watched the stadium gradually fill it up. One by one, thousand by thousands. On game day, the Big House becomes the third largest city in the state of Michigan. The last group of fans to make their way to their seats was the Michigan student section, which ended up taking up almost a quarter of the stadium. Decked to the nines in Maize, they were loud and boisterous and set the mood and tone for the game to follow. Our section was kitty corner from them, and was a liberal mix of Michigan and ND fans, old and young.  Sitting directly in front of us was a group of four Notre Dame student. They were your basic South Bend dorks but they were friendly and taking our trash talk rather well, and they dished it out back to us too. It became apparent this was going to be a fun game for the both of us.

The Irish took the field to a smattering of boos, and then the home team ran through the tunnel and under the “Go Blue M Club Supports  You!” banner to the standing ovation. Kickoff was near, and the atmosphere in the stadium was electrifying. Michigan won the coin toss and opted to defer, and the crowd let out a deafening roar as the ball was kicked off.

As any college football fan knows, the game that followed was a back-and-forth affair that featured momentum swings, big plays and two of the most hyped quarterbacks in the nation. Notre Dame boasted Jimmy Clausen, a junior who came into Notre Dame as a five star quarterback with an NFL-ready arm who had yet to live up to huge expectations that came with his arrival. On the other hand, Michigan fielded true freshman Tate Forcier, who shouldered the burden of running the spread option and leading the Wolverines out of last season’s miserable funk.

The Wolverines led early 14-3 after an amazing 94-yard kickoff return by Martavious Odoms. The crowd was at a fever pitch, and even though the high-octane Notre Dame offense was moving the ball, the Wolverines defense held its own. The PA announcer recited the final score from East Lansing, “Central Michigan 29, Michigan State 27,” and the crowd cheered with delight. It looked to be a great day to be a Wolverine.

But Notre Dame answered and the momentum shifted quite quickly, and the Irish led 20-14 at halftime. It could have been much worse, but holding penalties relegated ND to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. The Irish fans around us were chirping loudly now, and the hopes of an upset looked more and more like a long shot. Notre Dame had almost double the total yards as Michigan, and other than the special teams play, the Wolverines were being outworked, outmanned and out played. Somewhere in the distance, crazy-ass Lou Holtz was smiling. Someone made note that Matt Millen, the George Bush of NFL general managers that submarined the woeful Lions franchise over the past half-decade, was commentating the game for ABC. Maybe his presence back in the state of Michigan was putting a jinx on this Wolverines squad.

The second half opened with Michigan marching down and scoring on a Forcier touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Koger. It looked like the Wolverines still had plenty of fight in them as they clawed back into it, and you could sense the momentum shift again. After the ND offense stalled again, Michigan was driving, but faced a 4th-and-1 from midfield early in the fourth quarter. Forcier took the snap, held his ground in the pocket, shifted right to elude an Irish defender, than broke through the line and scampered to the endzone right in front us. Bedlam ensued. The crowd was so loud that it drowned out the band as they played “The Victors”.

31-20 Michigan, 14:16 left in the game.

The fourth quarter provided so much excitement, I could barely stand it. Michigan held an 11-point lead, but Clausen and the Irish stormed back to draw within four points on a 21-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, who showed the ball to the Wolverines defense to rub it in. Irish fans (and their coach) bellyached after the game that Michigan got all the calls in their favor, but here was one of several instances were the Irish did not draw a flag on a blatant offense. Michigan was still in the lead and the fans still felt good about the situation, but Forcier committed one of his only mistakes on the ensuing drive and threw an ill-advised pass into the arms of an Irish defender. Notre Dame took over in Michigan territory and the apprehension was felt throughout the stadium. Minutes later, the Irish punched it in on a touchdown run by Armando Allen, and just like that, Notre Dame led. The Irish faithful were jubilant, and their cheers echoed over the somber and silent 100,000 Michigan faithful. Besides the chants from the ND fans, you could hear a pin drop in the Big House. As suddenly as we felt an upset brewing, the air was let out of the stadium like a deflated birthday balloon.

Michigan’s next drive ended in a three-and-out and the Irish took over with just over two minutes left deep into Michigan territory. And here is were the game turned. Instead of running the ball to wind the clock down and make the Wolverines burn their timeouts, the Irish decided to throw on first and second down, both attempts failing to acheive their goal of just a single first down. Notre Dame was forced to punt, and Michigan received one more chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Michigan moved the ball with relative ease, and Forcier overthrew a wide open receiver on the right side side of the field on second down. If the receiver hauls it in, its a touchdown. Game over. See ya. But the ball goes just over his head and falls out of bounds incomplete. The Wolverine drive resumes though, as Forcier brushes it off, and leads Michigan to a first and goal inside the Notre Dame ten-yard line. A field goal ties, a touchdown wins. I am so nervous, I can barely watch. Only seconds remain on the clock, yet it seems like an eternity.

On first down, Forcier finds another wide-open reciever in the end zone, but LaTerryal Savoy drops the pass, the ball fumbled around his hands on onto the turf. A collective yelp from the fans, all on edge, followed by groans of exasperation. 15 seconds left, second down. Savoy blew it, and he knows it. He is instantly pulled to the side lines. The Wolverines run the exact same play and Forcier’s toss finds Greg Matthews in the exact same position.

Except this time, the result is different.

TOUCHDOWN MICHIGAN!!!!

The stadium erupts in a deafening cheer. Strangers are hugging, high-fives are being dealt out like playing cards in Vegas. I am jumping up and down so vigorously that both my camera and my cell phone fall out of my pockets. The sheer delight is beyond words. 38-34 Michigan. Upset is only seconds away. After the ensuing kickoff goes out of the back of the end zone, Notre Dame’s last gasp at the equalizer falls considerably short and the clock strikes zero. The Michigan bench rushes the field and the celebration begins. The dejected Irish trudge off the field, their fans make their way towards the exits with their heads down.

“Bye, thanks for coming!”…”Have a nice drive back to South Bend!”, I say to the Notre Dame faithful. In front of us, the Irish students sit, stunned, heads held in hands. We shake hands, a classy move from both sides. The Michigan team sprints over to the student section and begins a rousing rendition of “The Victors”. The game has been over for 15 minutes, yet no one in Maize and Blue wants to leave yet. Everyone wants to savor the moment. This might be the most important home win for the program since the 2003 victory over Ohio State that sealed the last outright Big Ten title for Michigan. And its another giant step for Michigan’s return to national relevance.

After soaking up the good vibes for a few more minutes, I race down closer to the field to take one final picture of the scoreboard. An ear-to-ear grin stretches across my face as we leave the Big House. Chants and cheers surround us, and I almost feel bad for the remaing Notre Dame fans as the exit the stadium grounds.

Almost.

The game could not have gone any better. I got to see a Michigan game, I got to see them play a nationally-ranked arch-rival, it was a great game all the way around, and it ended with a last-second victory for the good guys.

Needless to say, the drive home seemed a lot easier than the drive there.

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