By late afternoon the cold rain that had been falling since dawn had gotten inside their ponchos and slickers and was running in rivulets down their spines. Worse, their hip flasks were all but empty and the team they had come to cheer, Michigan, was trailing 24-19. Little wonder, then, that Notre Dame's Raghib (Rocket) Ismail had this to say about the crowd at Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium last Saturday: "That was 105,000 people? They didn't sound like 105,000 people."
On at least one occasion, they did. It came with 4:08 remaining in the game between the No. 1-ranked Irish, the defending national champions, and the No. 2-ranked Wolverines. A quarterback named Elvis had thrown his second touchdown pass of the day—it also happened to be the second TD pass of his collegiate career—to move Michigan to within five points of Notre Dame. Hope had been resurrected, and the Wolverine faithful rocked the house. More than four minutes remained in which to pull out a win and spare Michigan coach Bo Schembechler the ignominy of three straight losses to the Irish—not to mention the ignominy of three straight losses to any school. Four minutes—an eternity!—to hold Notre Dame on downs, score again and preserve the Wolverines' chances for the 1989 national championship. Four minutes to keep up with the Michigan basketball team.
The decibels mounted. Then, during a TV timeout, the kickoff units trotted onto the field. Suddenly—eerily—the roar abated, dissolving into little more than an anxious buzz. It was as if 95,000 Wolverine fans—there were at least 10,000 Irish rooters present—had simultaneously had the same chilling thought: Oh God, that's right. We have to kick off again.
Their dread was well-founded. Despite limiting the Notre Dame offense to 10 points, the Wolverines were destined to lose by that 24-19 score. The instrument of their defeat would be Ismail, a 5'10", 175-pound sophomore flanker, who had two kickoff returns of 88 and 92 yards for touchdowns. Rocket was equally astonishing off the field. At the press conference after the game, he wondered what everyone was so excited about. "After the season," he predicted, "people probably won't even remember this."
September 24, 1989
What? You mean the season isn't over? It's just the middle of September? The way the Michigan-Notre Dame match was being hyped—the Game of the Century, the Earliest Encounter Ever between the Nos. 1 and 2, the Revenge of the 'Rines, Schembechler's Last Stand—you couldn't be sure what day it would be when you woke up the morning after the game: Sept. 17 or Jan. 2.
For more than a week it had been clear that the Wolverines considered this game something special. Schembechler's customary pregame paranoia—practices are almost always closed and players are not made available to the press—was even more pronounced. The condition of Michigan quarterback Michael Taylor, who had injured his right (throwing) shoulder on the second day of practice, was shrouded in secrecy. Could Taylor throw? Could he throw without pain? Bo answered all queries with the same stock response: "Michael? Oh, he'll be fine."
By contrast, it was business as usual down in South Bend. The Irish, who had defeated Virginia 36-13 in their opener on Aug. 31, weren't exactly blasè about playing Michigan in Ann Arbor. Nor were they in a lather. "We've played in so many big games the last couple of years, this is just another game for us," said cornerback Todd Lyght. Asked in the middle of the week if the hype had begun to take its toll on him, senior linebacker Ned Bolcar rocked back in his chair and said, "Oh, I don't know. Is the hype getting to you? Go down to the Grotto. Say a prayer."
On Monday, Sept. 11, quarterback Tony Rice called a meeting of the offense after one of the lousiest practices in recent memory. At the meeting it was pointed out that certain players were doing little more than going through the motions. "We said the sign of a great team is that even when you're not feeling good, you still dig down deep," Ismail said. "We said that if we expect to do anything this year, practices like that couldn't continue."
Tuesday's workout was much improved. On Wednesday, coach Lou Holtz treated the troops to an aural bombardment. To simulate conditions in Michigan Stadium, he had the Wolverines' fight song, The Victors, blasted from enormous speakers in Notre Dame's indoor practice facility. At one point, guard Tim Grunhard asked Holtz, "Could you turn that down? It's giving me a headache." Sorry, replied Holtz. On the next play, Grunhard missed a line call and went the wrong way.
Holtz had a rough week. His wife, Beth, had left for Florida to tend to her ailing father. "I have nobody to talk to," complained Holtz. He was sleeping poorly and not eating much. He could not rid his mind of thoughts of Michigan's fearsome trio of backs—Leroy Hoard, Tony Boles and Jarrod Bunch. "Can we tackle them?" he wondered aloud. Holtz was also obsessed by the Wolverines' mammoth offensive linemen, who average 295 pounds from tackle to tackle. "I worry about them pushing us around or beating us up," he said. He was especially concerned about the possibility of having to put backup defensive end Eric Jones, at 220 pounds, over 320-pound Michigan tackle Greg Skrepenak. "I've never had a player give up 100 pounds before," Holtz said. "And Jones missed breakfast this morning. Can you believe that? He should have eaten breakfast three times, under assumed names."
Worse yet, game day dawned rainy and cold—weather that favored a running team. The question of whether or not Taylor could pass seemed moot; if Skrepenak & Co. manhandled the Notre Dame front five as Holtz feared, Michigan wouldn't need to throw. Hoard, Boles and Bunch would run for all the yardage the Wolverines would need.
Of course, Holtz was just up to his usual poor-mouthing. What he hadn't mentioned was that Michigan's center Steve Everitt and right guard Joe Cocozzo were starting their first games and would spend the afternoon in the company of Notre Dame's All-America nosetackle and human groundhog Chris (Zorro) Zorich. Still, Schembechler was confident. "I'm not saying Zorich won't make any plays," he said last Friday, "but they're ready for him. Listen, it's not like these guys aren't shaving yet. They're good!"
Schembechler was especially high on Everitt, who had caught his eye last spring. With a week remaining in spring drills, Everitt mashed several fingers on his right hand in a door. So he learned how to snap lefthanded and started in the spring game. "I think he's going to be a great one," said Schembechler, adding sternly, "and we are not going to have a long afternoon up front!"
Wishing failed to make it so. Boles, Bunch and Hoard totaled a puny 85 yards rushing against the Irish. And the blocking of Michigan's offensive line turned out to be one of Schembechler's biggest disappointments. "We're going to get yelled at tomorrow in films," said Skrepenak after the game. The Notre Dame defensive front three of Zorro, Jeff Alm and Bob Dahl "read which way you're going and then roll off you," said Skrepenak. "You can't get into them as much as you'd like. You feel like you want to kill somebody, and you find yourself flat on your face."
Schembechler mulishly ordered the Wolverines to bang the ball up the gut, and three of their first four possessions ended in punts. When Michigan finally got on the board 25 seconds before half-time—on a nine-yard pass from Taylor to flanker Chris Calloway—kicker J.D. Carlson bounced his extra-point attempt off the left upright, leaving Michigan behind 7-6. Carlson's miss was quickly forgotten, however, after the second-half kickoff.
Ismail gathered in the ball at the Irish 12 and began to move. "Our front line opened up a decent-sized crease, and the second wall, our wedge, picked off the guys that were left," he said. One hip fake later, Ismail was at midfield with one man to beat. But what was this? That man, speedy freshman defensive back Corwin Brown, was closing in on Ismail. That lasted about two seconds. Rocket kicked in his afterburners and, shortly thereafter, found himself in the end zone.
"It was kind of like a boxer getting knocked down," said Michigan linebacker J.J. Grant of Ismail's first strike. "Then we got back up on one knee and got punched again." That second punch was Rocket's other kickoff return for a TD, which Holtz had been certain would not happen.
It occurred after Notre Dame had increased its lead to 17-6 in the third period on a 30-yard field goal by Craig Hentrich and Michigan had scored early in the fourth period on a five-yard touchdown pass from substitute quarterback Elvis Grbac to tight end Derrick Walker while Bolcar was nearly climbing up Walker's back. That made the score 17-12; the two-point conversion try, a Grbac pass in the coffin corner to Desmond Howard fell incomplete. As Notre Dame prepared to receive the kickoff with 12:58 left in the game, Holtz sounded the alarm. "Move up," he told the kickoff-return team. "He's going to squib it."
"He" was the Wolverines' second-string kicker, Gulam Khan, whom Schembechler had inserted in the game, presumably to communicate his displeasure with Carlson. Khan, an aspiring medical student from Shaker Heights, Ohio, did not squib it. He sent his first varsity kickoff, a majestic end-over-ender, high and deep and directly into the arms of Rocket. "Truthfully, we were kind of surprised they would kick it to me again," Ismail said later. After all, it had been 32 years since anyone had returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan—and it seemed unlikely to happen again so soon.
For his encore, which covered 92 yards, Ismail actually had to shake three tacklers. Linebacker Tim Williams, closing in from the right, hit Ismail with a forearm but could not bring him down. Neither could linebacker Brian Townsend, who did somewhat better—he got both arms around Rocket's legs but couldn't hang on. A moment later defensive back Lance Dottin dove at his waist but fell away as if an electric current were coursing through Ismail. And then he was gone. "I felt someone on my legs," said Ismail after the game, "then I saw [teammate] Rodney Culver level somebody." Alas, that somebody was Khan, the kicker, feebly attempting to avert disaster. Culver broke Khan's left arm with the block.
After Ismail's first touchdown, Michigan's troubles had apparently been compounded. While trying to scramble for a first down on third-and-eight, Taylor took a Bolcar helmet between the shoulder blades and had to be helped off the field. The 6'5" Grbac, a carpenter's son from Willoughby Hills, Ohio, who is a redshirt freshman, began warming up. "My parents are both from Yugoslavia," he explained later. "I think Elvis is a popular name there." In his first series, Grbac missed two open receivers, and Michigan had to punt. When Taylor was still not ready after Notre Dame's next possession, the Wolverines' hopes seemed finished.
Not so. It turned out that Grbac has a powerful and accurate right arm. Boom! He zinged a 19-yard rope to Greg McMurtry over the middle. Next, trying to elude a heavy rush, he sidearmed a grounder toward Bunch. Then a holding call left Michigan with a second-and-20. Grbac hung in the pocket until McMurtry found a seam in Notre Dame's zone and Grbac hit him with a perfect, 23-yard touch pass. Eight plays, and four passes, later, Grbac found Walker in the end zone. After misfiring on his first two throws, Grbac completed 17 of his next 19 for 134 yards and two touchdowns. "That kid's going to be a good quarterback," predicted Bolcar, who was responsible, in a way, for Grbac's presence on the field. "What am I saying? He is a good quarterback."
With 4:08 remaining, the now infamous Michigan kickoff team took the field. Suspicions that Schembechler would call for an onside kick were confirmed by the peculiar way Carlson placed the ball on the tee. "It was straight up and down," said Ismail. A dead giveaway.
Poor Carlson. Already in Schembechler's doghouse for the missed point after, his onside kick failed to travel the required 10 yards. It didn't go even five yards. It bounced a couple of times on the soggy rug and then stopped rolling three yards away. "That looked like one of Gerald Ford's tee shots," remarked one Michigan-based wag. The Irish took over, and that was the ball game.
"This does not ruin our season," said a subdued Schembechler, who stubbornly insisted that no mythical national championship could ever be as important to him as a Big Ten title or a Rose Bowl win. Yet his disappointment Saturday was deeply felt. Schembechler is 60 years old and has a bad heart. He has hinted he'll be out of the game before long. These Wolverines most likely represent his last chance at a national title after 27 years of coaching, first at Miami of Ohio, then at Michigan.
"Give Notre Dame credit," Schembechler said. "The Irish came up to our stadium and just beat us." He saved special praise for Rocket: "He may be the best I've seen. He is faster than the speed of sound."
Indeed, Ismail's virtuoso performance had half the people in Michigan Stadium comparing him to Tim Brown, the former return specialist for the Irish who won the 1987 Heisman and is now playing for the Los Angeles Raiders. The other half were asking, "Tim who?"