By Andy Staples
September 12, 2009

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez watched his freshman quarterback bop toward the bus Saturday morning, seemingly without a care in the world. Suddenly, Tate Forcier stopped cold.

"Aw!" Rodriguez remembered Forcier saying. "I forgot to brush my teeth."

Rodriguez thought of the men in gold helmets and the 110,000 souls waiting for the Wolverines to arrive at Michigan Stadium and gulped. "That's what he's thinking about," Rodriguez said, "when we're getting on the bus to go to the Big House and play Notre Dame?"

Rodriguez, the gruff son of a West Virginia coal miner, had staked his future on a laid-back Californian who was home-schooled so he could spend more time practicing football. Going into the most important game of his Michigan tenure, the fershman holding the keys to Rodriguez's offense didn't seem to appreciate the seriousness of his predicament."I've been like that my whole life," Forcier said. "Ever since I was a a little kid, I never got nervous. ... Sometimes coaches get upset with me because I'm never serious. That's part of my game."

The gravity of the moment didn't bother Forcier then, and it didn't bother him Saturday afternoon when the Wolverines faced second-and-goal from the four, trailing by three with no timeouts and 16 seconds remaining. Forcier had just thrown the game-winning touchdown. Unfortunately, receiver LaTerryal Savoy had dropped it. The elation-to-despair cycle might have crushed some freshmen, but Forcier and tailback Brandon Minor cracked jokes between plays. Who knows? Maybe Forcier was still thinking about his grimy teeth.

He came to the line and looked to his left. Receiver Greg Matthews faced one-on-one coverage. Forcier called for the snap. Matthews sold a slant to his defender, then planted and raced for the corner of the end zone. Forcier's pass hit him just as he crossed the goal line with 11 seconds remaining. A cheer rose from those 110,000, and it didn't stop swelling even after the last whistle blew on a 38-34 win. It continued as they streamed out of the stadium and into the night. They might still be yelling.

Don't believe what you read. In spite of a Detroit Free Press story two weeks ago in which several former players accused Rodriguez of forcing his players to work longer than the NCAA allows, Rodriguez never was in danger of losing this team. If anything, the accusations galvanized the team behind Rodriguez. But inside the locker room, one pressing question remained. Had Michigan truly improved? Had the Wolverines left 3-9 in 2008 and turned a page?

The 31-7 opening-day win against Western Michigan provided some optimism. But it didn't provide answers. Saturday's win did. Notre Dame, ranked No. 18 entering Saturday, was neither overrated nor underrated. The Fighting Irish are an above-average team with a schedule that should allow them to win enough games to play in a BCS bowl thanks to a sweet deal made when the system was created. Some of their players -- quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, to name a few -- are downright excellent. "Geez," Rodriguez said. "Did you see the size of their linemen? They could eat peanuts off our guys' heads."

Yet there was Forcier, all 188 pounds of him, squirting through the defense for a 31-yard touchdown run to open the fourth quarter. There was Forcier, forgetting the crippling interception that wasn't his fault but still allowed the Fighting Irish to take the lead. There was Forcier, scrambling to free himself for a 17-yard pass to Savoy to set up the winning score.

Forcier (240 passing yards, 70 rushing yards, three total touchdowns) always possessed a confidence bordering on cockiness. It's part of the reason so many schools offered him scholarships. During his recruitment, Forcier told coaches he could start as a freshman. Rodriguez believed him.

Though his numbers weren't as gaudy, Forcier outdueled Clausen (25-of-42, 336 yards, three touchdowns), who became less dangerous after Floyd (seven catches, 131 yards, one touchdown) left the game midway through the fourth quarter to get stitches in his knee.

Clausen, who got drilled by the Wolverines, 38-0, as a freshman in 2007, nearly led the Irish to victory. When he executed a backyard-perfect Statue of Liberty handoff to Armando Allen for a two-point conversion to take a three-point lead with 5:13 remaining, it seemed Notre Dame finally had vanquished Michigan.

"I said you could have won the game," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "That doesn't mean you should have won the game." Rodriguez disagreed. "Both teams," he said, "deserved to win today."

Notre Dame has all its pieces in place in year five of the Weis era. In his second year, Rodriguez has cobbled together a lineup of youngsters and players who got thumped last year. And Rodriguez won. What does that say about the future in Ann Arbor?

"All those summer workouts paid off," Minor said without the slightest trace of irony in his voice. "We really benefitted in the end."

And while some of Michigan's fans waited until after the game to fork over $7 for their maize "All in for Michigan" rally towels, the players on the roster trusted in Rod all along. While those outside the program saw his tearful press conference to address the allegations as a sign of weakness, they saw a coach who cared.

Saturday, Rodriguez's father, Vince, sat front and center at a very different kind of press conference Saturday. The elder Rodriguez hadn't attended a game since the Wolverines' win against Wisconsin a year ago. Back in Grant Town, W. Va., the turmoil bothered Vince and Rodriguez's mother, Arleen. Vince had pushed all three of his children to get an education so they could stay out of mines like Federal No. 1, where Vince spent much of his 14-year mining career. Yet somehow Rich kept getting covered in soot. Rich didn't complain, but his parents stewed for him."His mother, it's harder on her than me," Vince said. "I can just walk away. She can't."

Fortunately, Rodriguez trusted his players as much as they trusted him. Facing fourth-and-14 from the 50 with a little more than three minutes remaining, the offensive mastermind considered sending Forcier out one more time. He started to send out the punt team. Then he called it back. Then, just as quickly, he sent it out again. He would trust coordinator Greg Robinson's defense -- which had allowed 477 yards to that point -- to force a punt. Without Floyd, the Irish weren't as dynamic, but Clausen nearly sealed the win, anyway. He had freshman receiver Shaquelle Evans wide open on the right sideline on third-and-10, but Evans didn't turn around in time to catch the pass.

With 2:13 on the clock, Forcier trotted back on the field. He was 57 yards from the end zone, but if the Wolverines could only get close enough to force overtime with a field goal, whatever. He wasn't worried. He never is.

"Everyone kept saying a freshman can't do it," he said. "I did it."

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