This is how a guy who has a name like a British aristocrat's, who's small enough to hang from your rearview mirror and who says his greatest catch was of Michael Jackson's hat in a concert crowd lunged into stardom in a single afternoon: Desmond Howard brought a hundred thousand spectators to the swooning point, reduced his Michigan teammates to wiggling their fingers and chanting "hocus-pocus" and made Notre Dame's fleetest defenders look as if they couldn't catch an elevator.
Howard had come to be known—at least around Ann Arbor—as the Magic Man, but after the Wolverines' 24-14 victory over the Irish last Saturday at Michigan Stadium, you can throw that nickname away. It isn't enough. What do you call a guy whose catches resemble death spirals, who fractures defenses with a turn of his hip and who has scored six of his team's eight touchdowns in their first two games? Certainly, you can call him the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Or what about just How, as in Michigan offensive lineman Matt Elliott's wonder-filled observation, "Lord only knows how he does it."
How did Howard catch that seemingly uncatchable 25-yard touchdown pass from Elvis Grbac, against double coverage, with 9:02 left in the game and the Wolverines, their lead having shrunk to 17-14, facing fourth down and a foot? First, he made Notre Dame defensive backs Jeff Burris and Greg Davis disappear with his speed. "I eliminated them," said Howard with a smile. Then he took a couple of smooth strides to run under a ball that seemed impossibly overthrown. He stretched his wispy, 5'9" body to its full length, extended his fingers and pulled in the football as he landed belly down in the back corner of the end zone with Davis clutching at his ankles. Whereupon Howard heard the silence of the crowd, then the roar. "It felt beautiful," he said.
The cheers Howard produced traumatized Notre Dame all afternoon and helped end four years of Irish dominance over Michigan. In the process, the Wolverines established themselves as a team of imposing proportions and glamour, as well as one to be reckoned with in the national championship race. Michigan turned two Irish turnovers into 10 points to take a 17-7 lead at halftime, held the vaunted Notre Dame rushing attack to 78 yards and controlled a bloody line of scrimmage. But most telling was this: The Wolverines possessed the ball for 40:40 and devoured the last 6:30 to deny Notre Dame any chance of mounting another of its remarkable comebacks. "All that stuff about Irish luck?" said Grbac after the game. "That's bull."
September 22, 1991
Along with Howard, who's a junior wide receiver, two others were most responsible for keeping the Irish offense on the sidelines: Grbac, who's a junior, and sophomore tailback Ricky Powers. Grbac ran Michigan's no-huddle attack rhythmically, completing 20 of 22 passes for 190 yards and making flawless checks at the line. Frequently, the audibles came when he saw openings for Powers, who darted for 164 yards on 38 carries.
Grbac made the last of his astute calls from the sideline. As Notre Dame took over at its own 12-yard line with 8:57 remaining and Michigan in front 24-14, he turned to assistant coach Mike Gittleson and said, "If we get the ball back with five minutes to go, we win." He was correct. The Irish floundered at their 49, and with that failure, they lost control of the national championship race.
Notre Dame's four consecutive defeats of Michigan had come in various ways. In 1987, the Irish capitalized on seven Wolverine turnovers to win 26-7. In '88, Notre Dame's Reggie Ho Kicked four field goals, and Mike Gillette's attempt at the game-winning field goal for the Wolverines with no time left just tailed off to the right, so the score remained 19-17 in favor of Notre Dame. In '89, Rocket Ismail set his career ablaze with kickoff returns of 88 and 92 yards for touchdowns in a 24-19 victory. Then, last year, Michigan led 24-14 in the third quarter when a pass from Irish quarterback Rick Mirer bounced off Ismail, over the head of a Michigan defensive back and into the hands of Notre Dame's Lake Dawson for a 45-yard gain that set up a crucial touchdown. Final score: 28-24.
Those experiences left Michigan with "a little hatred, I think," Grbac said. Also with a little fear. Notre Dame has a viper quality that makes the Irish most dangerous when they're most threatened. For instance, the Wolverines never entirely contained Mirer or flanker Tony Smith, whose five catches for 121 yards would have been the game's most outstanding performance were it not for Howard, who, among his other accomplishments, had six receptions for 74 yards. Mirer's 35-yard pass to Smith with 6:47 to play in the third quarter brought the Irish to 17-14. And it brought the following thought to Grbac's mind: Oh, God, this is not happening again?
Going into the game the No. 3 Wolverine players were galled by the notion, which had been engendered by those four straight losses, that the No. 7 Irish might actually be better. They are from the same neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago and Cleveland, or from the same rural communities, out in those stretches of rolling orchards and pasture, where Michigan, Indiana and Illinois sort of melt into each other. So what made Notre Dame so perfect? "I mean I never experienced anything like this," Grbac said before the game. "It's time. It's time to get rid of this Notre Dame thing, to put the Irish where they belong."
In short, if Michigan hoped to confront top-ranked Florida State in Ann Arbor on Sept. 28 with any sort of credibility, it had to stomp on luck and on Notre Dame. Which is just what the Wolverines did with a combination of seniority, conviction and timeliness. The Irish were inexperienced, judging by their standards of the last four years; their defensive line had only one 1990 starter, and their secondary had six sophomores and two seniors filling the first-and second-string slots on the depth chart. These defenders were no match for Michigan's mammoth offensive linemen, led by 6'8", 322-pound tackle Greg Skrepenak. "It's fun watching them play," said Howard of the Wolverines' blockers. "They don't just push. They lay pancakes on guys, knock them down."
Also working in the Wolverines' favor were the facts that Gary Moeller is a more confident coach in his second year in Ann Arbor and that, for a change, Michigan had opened a season with a victory, having defeated Boston College 35-13 on Sept. 7. It felt a lot better to be 1-0 than 0-1, which had been the case since 1987 thanks to the Irish. As Howard pointed out after Saturday's game, for the first time in his career he was undefeated.
Grbac and Howard have known each other since 10th grade, when they were high school teammates in Cleveland. They are mutual admirers, although not close friends. "Elvis is the smartest guy on the football field," Howard said. "He's headsy."
It takes a certain headiness to know how far to throw it to Howard, whose philosophy is, I want them to hold their breaths every time I touch the ball. He has a remarkable ability to reserve his best work for the most important moments. Howard scored four of Michigan's five touchdowns against Boston College, including a game-breaking 93-yard kickoff return. When one of his spectacular plays appears on the game films in meetings, his teammates erupt in shouts of "hocus-pocus." They call such performances the Magic Show.
Future opponents would be well advised to kick away from his reputation. Otherwise they will be able to do little to prevent him from handling the ball; the Wolverines will make sure of that. Against Notre Dame, they gave it to him on a second-quarter reverse, Howard shooting up his own sideline on a 29-yard gasp of a scoring run. He took a handoff from Powers, turned upheld and put a dazzling move on cornerback Rod Smith. No one else came close to touching him. "It was a pitch to Ricky, and Ricky handed off to me," said Howard. "What more do you want?" Where did Smith go when he disappeared, so abruptly faked out of his shoes? "I had to dismiss him," Howard said, once again with a smile.
Moeller had told Howard before the season that double coverage would not be an excuse for failing to make a reception. Triple coverage, yes. According to Moeller, Howard should have the advantage against two defenders, because he has three directions he can go—left, right or downfield. "There are only a few ways they can cover me," Howard said. "In front and behind, or on either side."
Howard's explosiveness is what provoked Moeller to make what is surely one of the bolder calls ever by a Michigan coach on that fourth and inches at the Notre Dame 25. After Moeller signalled the play in, Grbac hunched over the line, surveyed the defense, began calling the signals and then pulled up and called time out, afraid he couldn't get the play off in time. In a sideline huddle with the entire offense, Moeller reaffirmed the pass play. The Wolverines had been stopped a series earlier on the Notre Dame 35 when Powers couldn't convert on a fourth-and-one situation, and Moeller feared another failure would be too costly, "This is our chance," Moeller told his players.
Whether it was a good call is arguable. "When it works," Moeller said later, rolling his eyes. "It takes a guy like Elvis to throw it, and a guy like Desmond to make it work and make me look smart."
Grbac told Howard as they returned to the field, "We've got to make it work, we've got to make this play." Howard had barely missed making a catch on a similar play in the second quarter, the ground jarring the ball loose at the goal line. He reminded himself to tuck the ball away this time. As Grbac got set to take the snap, he saw Burris in single coverage on Howard, who was split right and was to run a basic out pattern.
Grbac took a three-step drop and pumped once. Burris hesitated when he saw Grbac pump. "I stopped moving my feet," Burris said.
Davis, the Irish strong safety, had come over from the middle of the field to help. Grbac let the ball go. "When it left my hand it was kind of wobbly," he said. "It was really high. I thought I'd overthrown it. Des was running as hard as he could, and the ball was just floating."
Burris thought the pass had no chance. "When I saw it go up, I just kept running back," he said. "I thought there was no way he would catch that one."
But Howard had forgotten about everything—including the defenders—except making the catch. He launched himself, grasped the ball and pulled it in. "I couldn't let it go," he said. "It was too big a catch."