We've suffered enough because of that play.
--MICHIGAN COACH LLOYD CARR
Could a simple game twice be so cruel? Carr stood on the
Wolverines' sideline late last Saturday afternoon at Colorado's
Folsom Field, a cold, autumnlike rain bleeding from black
thunderheads. Far to the east a rainbow stretched across the
flatlands at the base of the Rockies. Five seconds remained in
the game, with Michigan leading 20-13 and the ball resting on
the Wolverines' 37-yard line. A new Colorado quarterback, Koy
Detmer, called a last, desperate play--Rocket Right this
time--and sent four wide receivers streaking into the end zone.
Carr felt a familiar chill. "I was sick," he would say later.
Detmer launched a pass into the sky, and Carr watched its flight.
Nearly two years had passed since Kordell Stewart, an old
Buffaloes quarterback, had heaved a tight spiral 73 yards into
the gathering darkness of an Ann Arbor evening on the last play
of these two teams' last game against each other. That ball had
been deflected into the hands of Colorado wideout Michael
Westbrook, who had fallen into the end zone clutching a 27-26
victory. For the Buffs and their fans, the 23 1/2 months
between that game and last Saturday's seemed like a sweet
millisecond. The play--one of the most remarkable ever in
college football --was always fresh in their minds, as if it had
happened yesterday. "It was a part of history, and I was there,"
said Colorado free safety Steve Rosga before Saturday's game.
For Michigan and its backers, those 23 1/2 months seemed a
lifetime of bitter reminders. "I have seen the tape of that play
a thousand times, and I would like to never see it again," said
former Wolverines defensive tackle Trent Zenkewicz, who rushed
Stewart on the play but never reached him.
Eight days before the rematch, Carr sat in a small chair in his
office and vowed, "I am not going to talk about that play." It
was a decision he had reached months earlier and one he didn't
waver from until late Saturday afternoon, when he stood in front
of a spare dressing cubicle, an unlit victory cigar on the bench
behind him. "That Colorado team was as good a football team as
we've played since I've been at Michigan [17 years]," said Carr,
who at the time of the 1994 game was the Wolverines' defensive
coordinator under coach Gary Moeller and thus took much of the
blame for Westbrook's catch. "And we had the game won. It was
the greatest nightmare I've ever experienced in sports. I didn't
sleep for a month. Our kids saw that play forever. It's hard to
let go of something when people won't let you."
September 22, 1996
Indeed, the play--now famous as the Catch--had never loosened
its grip on Michigan. The Wolverines of '94 were also a
fabulously talented team. But after falling to Colorado, they
lost three more games. It was a descent into mediocrity that
wasn't interrupted until a 31-23 upset of Ohio State late last
season. "Mo [Moeller] and I talked about it after the '94
season," Carr said. "There's no question that play affected us
deeply, emotionally." The '94 season was Moeller's last in Ann
Arbor. The next May he resigned under pressure following an
embarrassing display of drunkenness at a restaurant that ended
with him being charged with disorderly conduct and assault and
battery, to which he pleaded no contest.
Moeller's counterpart in the '94 Colorado-Michigan game, Bill
McCartney, also resigned following that season. But in a sense
Stewart's heave gave McCartney's successor wings to fly. Rick
Neuheisel was then Colorado's 33-year-old quarterbacks and
receivers coach, not even the offensive coordinator. Yet there
was an obvious synergy between Neuheisel and Stewart, and
television cameras were drawn to Neuheisel's youthful animation
as he worked the Buffaloes' sideline. As last Saturday's contest
approached, Neuheisel coolly stated that the '94 game "has
nothing to do with this game," but he also swiftly jumped from
his chair at a writer's request and not only recalled Rocket
Left, the winning '94 play, but also diagrammed it, squeaking a
yellow grease pencil on a white board. Neuheisel is now 35 and
the youngest coach of a perennial Top 10 college football team.
That game against Michigan made him a star. "You never know why,
all of a sudden, people decide to put you in the limelight,"
Neuheisel said. "I'm sure that game helped me. I was in the
right place at the right time."
The game also brought Stewart national renown; he's now Slash
Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the star of a slick TV
commercial. It helped elevate Westbrook to the No. 4 slot in the
1995 NFL draft and propel Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam,
who gained 141 yards rushing that day, to the '95 Heisman
Trophy. And it left Neuheisel with a memory of rushing onto the
field, celebrating the magic, looking for players to hug ("like
Jim Valvano," Neuheisel said) and suddenly seeing Moeller
walking off. "I had eye contact with him," Neuheisel said. "He
was in shock. It's not a fair game. Not fair."
As Saturday's game neared an end, Michigan seemed certain to
exact its revenge without having to endure any final dramatics.
With less than 35 seconds left to play, the Wolverines faced a
fourth-and-13 on their own 39-yard line. The clock was running.
All sophomore quarterback Scott Dreisbach had to do was let the
25-second play clock run out, take a five-yard penalty for delay
of game and then kill the final few seconds by backpedaling and
dropping to a knee. Dreisbach had been solid throughout,
throwing for 108 yards without an interception, a steady
performance in his biggest game since a severely sprained thumb
had ended his 1995 season. But on this play, with hostile crowd
noise swelling around him, Dreisbach rushed the snap, bobbled
the ball and took a knee at his own 37 with five ticks on the
clock, leaving Colorado its last chance.
Michigan's defense rolled onto the plastic field. "Nobody said
anything about two years ago," said sophomore cornerback Charles
Woodson later, "but you knew everybody was thinking about it."
Said nosetackle Will Carr, "I thought, Here we go again."
Among the Wolverines defenders was senior linebacker Jarrett
Irons, one of only two Michigan players who was also on the
field for the final play in 1994. He had talked about the pain
of that loss and had tried to explain the twisted psychology
that lets a miracle take place on a play that is so simple to
play defense against. "You keep telling yourself, One more play.
Don't let anybody get behind you," Irons said before the game.
"But in the back of your mind, you're thinking, It's over. The
game is over."
Now Irons was back, having passed up last spring's NFL draft to
take one more crack at helping restore Michigan to the top
echelon of college football. He is older and wiser, chastened by
the loss to Colorado. "I learned that as long as there's time on
the clock, there's a chance," said Irons.
In 1994 the Wolverines rushed only three defenders at Stewart;
this time they sent four at Detmer, who drifted left and threw
into the end zone, toward a cluster of receivers and defensive
backs. "I saw it in the air," said Buffaloes All-America
linebacker Matt Russell afterward, "and some small part of me
thought that twice was too much to ask for, but most of me
thought we would catch it."
Colorado wideout Darrin Chiaverini jumped, as did Woodson. But
highest of all went Michigan senior Chuck Winters, who had
gotten a small piece of the 1994 Hail Mary and, as much as any
of the Wolverines, had never been allowed to forget Westbrook's
catch. He had refused to give interviews in the weeks before
last Saturday's game. This time Winters knocked the ball to the
ground, just out of the reach of Colorado wideout Rae Carruth.
"That was a do-over," Winters later told the syndicated
highlight show Michigan Replay. "I went up and batted it down
Through the rain the Wolverines rushed from the field, through a
corridor of fans in the northwest corner of the end zone. Irons
stopped to hug his father, Gerald, a former linebacker with the
Oakland Raiders who was wearing his son's 1992 Rose Bowl jersey.
Dreisbach burst through the madness, shaking his right fist in
the air, celebrating what he would later call "the biggest game
of my life." And a voice from the middle of the pack shouted
through the storm, "No catch this year, baby!"
Colorado couldn't blame its defeat on any lack of motivation.
McCartney had given an inspirational talk to the Buffaloes on
Friday night--the first time he had addressed them since his
retirement--and he attended the game, another post-departure
first. On Saturday morning the Buffaloes had watched a
videotaped message from Tyronee (Tiger) Bussey, a redshirt
freshman linebacker who is gravely ill with leukemia and back in
a Detroit hospital following his second bone-marrow transplant.
The Colorado players wore his number 56 on their helmets.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Wolverines leading 20-13,
Colorado consumed nearly six minutes marching to the Michigan
eight for what seemed certain to be the tying score. Detmer, a
fifth-year senior and the 23-year-old younger brother of 1990
Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, was brilliant on the drive,
completing eight of 11 passes for 85 yards and once running 13
yards after catching his own flubbed pass attempt. Koy had
feared that he might never play a game this season. After
waiting behind Stewart for most of three years, he started four
games last fall and then tore the anterior cruciate ligament in
his right knee in a win over Texas A&M. Following major surgery
in October he underwent a minor operation on the same knee in
June after suffering a bone chip during noncontact drills. That
second injury, which Detmer at first thought was more serious
than his other one, broke his spirit temporarily. In a phone
conversation with his father, Sonny, a football coach at Mission
(Texas) High, and his mother, Betty, in mid-June, Koy said, "I'm
on crutches again, and I'm afraid I'm going to miss the whole
season." Through the silence that followed, Betty and Sonny
could hear Koy softly sobbing on the other end of the line,
crestfallen at the thought of a career unfulfilled. His joy at
playing again this season was so profound that he wept on the
sideline two weeks ago.
On Saturday, however, Detmer and the Buffaloes fell short. On
second-and-one from the Michigan eight, Colorado was flagged for
a false start, its fifth penalty of the drive and 14th of the
game. Three plays later the Buffaloes turned the ball over on
downs, their last real chance dead of self-inflicted wounds.
Neuheisel was left straddling the fence between the fun that he
has preached since taking the job and the discipline that now
seems necessary. Not only have the Buffaloes been penalized an
astonishing 36 times in three games, including five for
unsportsmanlike conduct against Colorado State on Sept. 7, but
Neuheisel also is concerned that too many of his players are
chasing individual, rather than team goals. "I enjoy these
kids," Neuheisel said before the game, "but it's a me
generation, not just here, but everywhere. The toughest thing in
the world is building all those me's into a we." Colorado is
2-1, struggling. Michigan is 2-0, flying. And the cycle of
celebration and struggle that struck two years ago seems to have
Nearly an hour and a half after the game, student managers
shuffled quietly about the Colorado locker room, sweeping
discarded tape into neat piles and tossing wet towels into
laundry carts. Outside, the rain grew heavier and colder as
darkness approached. Detmer finally walked slowly from the
shower, a white towel wrapped tightly around his waist. He sat
in front of his cubicle and began slowly dressing. There were no
other players in the locker room.
The last pass, it was suggested to him, had a chance; it could
have been caught, as Stewart's had been nearly two years ago in
the gloaming at Michigan. Detmer smiled. "It looked as good as
one of those can ever look," he said. But even as he tried to
offer analysis, the folly of it struck him. "A play like that,"
he said, smiling through a soft stubble, giving himself--and
Colorado--back to the fates, "it's really just a prayer. A pass
like that, it's what, one in a million?"