Michigan Makes Its Move Behind the power running of Chris Perry, the Wolverines demolished Notre Dame and bulled their way into the national-title picture

September 21, 2003

Take a chill pill, Michigan fans. We know your Wolverines shut
out Notre Dame 38-0 in the Big House last Saturday. But let's
all take a deep, cleansing breath and try to have some
perspective. It's not as if this hasn't happened before. The
Maize and Blue whitewashed the Fighting Irish as recently as
1902. ¶ The truth, of course, is that this is now officially a
Michigan team worth getting excited about. After outscoring
their first two opponents, Central Michigan and Houston, by
95-10, the Wolverines were expecting their first stern test of
the season. A year ago, with many of the same players who made
the trip to Ann Arbor last week, Notre Dame beat Michigan 25-23,
on the margin of a safety the Irish were awarded when a
Wolverines offensive lineman was called for holding in his own
end zone. That cruel and unusual punishment was of a piece with
the bizarre events that have made this series so maddening for
Michigan through the years. We're talking blocked field goals.
Phantom touchdowns. A fierce wind that died, Wolverines fans
swear, the moment Irish kicker Harry Oliver lined up to boot the
winning 51-yarder in 1980. Notre Dame has made a habit of
derailing Michigan's national-title hopes in September.

Not this year.

On a day that saw Wisconsin embarrassed at home by UNLV, Michigan
State edged in the final seconds by gutsy Louisiana Tech, and
Purdue and Ohio State almost beaten by ACC teams, the Wolverines
established themselves as the class of the Big Ten. They did it
with a mobile, attacking defense that held poor Carlyle Holiday,
the Irish quarterback, to a single passing yard in the first
half. Michigan's quarterback, Douglas C. Neidermeyer look-alike
John Navarre, was as sharp as a pledge pin, completing 14 of 21
passes for 199 yards, a touchdown and no picks for the game. He
got help from a breathtaking punt returner named Steve Breaston,
a redshirt freshman who's a Rocket Ismail redux, and from a
tailback who has people around Ann Arbor asking, "Maurice who?"

The Wolverines also did it against a team that seems to have run
low on mojo. Besides having nothing remotely resembling a passing
attack, Notre Dame has lacked, of late, a bona fide Heisman
candidate. Which is not to say that the school with seven of the
stiffed-armed statuettes has no influence on who wins the award.
The Irish, you will recall, practically tied a ribbon around
Carson Palmer's Heisman last November, allowing the USC
quarterback 425 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13
rout. So there was Michigan tailback Chris Perry, using the Notre
Dame defense as a handy trampoline for his '03 Heisman campaign.
The senior from tiny Advance, N.C., rushed for 133 yards, caught
passes for another 44 and scored four touchdowns.

On one highlight-reel play, Perry thrilled the crowd of 111,726,
the largest in NCAA history, by gathering in a screen pass,
turning upfield and hurdling Irish cornerback Jason Beckstrom.
With 549 yards in three games, he is the nation's leading rusher,
and possibly its most relieved: This is a guy who a couple of
years ago was talking about transferring.

Back then he had been anointed by fans and the media as Anthony
Thomas's heir apparent after the A-Train moved on to the Chicago
Bears. But there was Perry in '01, splitting time with B.J.
Askew. When Perry griped once too often about the number of
touches he was getting, Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr, not known
for his gentle bedside manner, said, basically, Kid, if you don't
like it here, go somewhere else.

Who knows what Perry might have been expecting when he confided
in his mother, Irene, that he was thinking of transferring. Maybe
she'd send brownies, along with a list of schools for him to
consider. What she actually said was, "I didn't raise a quitter.
And besides, what are you going to do, start all over somewhere
else?"

It was Irene who had decided, when her Christopher was in the
eighth grade, that he would leave home for high school. "He
wanted to be the Eddie Murphy of Advance, North Carolina," she
says. "I thought, If I don't address this, it's going to get out
of hand." She chose Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy, but Chris,
who didn't like the idea, fell asleep during the admissions test
and was denied entrance. In the car on the way home from that
fiasco he said, "Well, Mom, what are we gonna do now?"

"There are other military academies" came the reply.

Perry landed at Fork Union Academy, in Virginia, where his star
turns in football, basketball and track drew the attention of
college recruiters and further nourished his robust self-esteem.
So what if there were five other tailbacks on the roster when he
arrived at Michigan?

"He was a loud, exuberant freshman," recalls Wolverines senior
center Dave Pearson, straining to be diplomatic. "He expected to
come in here and do a lot."

"When you come to Michigan, there's a process you go through,"
says defensive end Larry Stevens, also a senior. "One thing you
gotta have here is patience."

Patience was not Perry's strong suit. That was a problem in this
tradition-worshipping zip code, where Bo Schembechler's
unapologetically redundant motto--"The team, the team, the
team"--still permeates the football program. "Where I had a
problem with Chris," says Carr, "is that I thought he was more
concerned with how many yards he gained, how many carries he got.
It was, 'Hey, I'm not getting the ball enough.' I got tired of
hearing that."

Irene intervened. She refused to put her seal of approval on her
son's desire to transfer, but she also made a request of Carr. "I
told him I supported him," she says, "and that I wanted him to do
what was best for my son but without breaking his spirit."

As the 2002 season wore on, Askew was relegated to more of a
blocking role, and Perry came on strong, rushing for 1,110 yards
and scoring 14 touchdowns. His life was further stabilized by the
presence of Irene, who moved to Ann Arbor during the season. The
reasons for her relocation were professional as well as personal.
A freelance writer and former newspaper reporter, Irene conceived
and gave birth to a glossy bimonthly, Ann Arbor Magazine, whose
premiere issue came out in May. During a walk on campus with her
son before that, Irene had spied the Schembechler Building and
asked, "Is that man still living?"

"Mom," said Chris, "he's a legend here."

Said Irene, "He'd probably make a good story for our first issue."

So he did. In the article Bo opened up to Irene about his
devastation over his wife's death in 1992 from adrenal cancer,
his subsequent loneliness and his chance meeting several years
ago with the woman who would become his next wife: "God looked
down there and said, 'He's lonely, she's lonely, I'm gonna match
them up.'" Not exactly the sort of quote Schembechler would dole
out to beat writers.

With Irene in town, both Ann Arbor Magazine and the Wolverines
are thriving. The Notre Dame rout is in the books, and the
comparisons are flying between this squad and the 1997 national
champions. This is a deep, experienced team still smarting from
the disappointments of recent seasons. (Michigan players will
tell you that if stud linebacker Carl Diggs hadn't broken his leg
during the Ohio State game last year, Maurice Clarett would not
have led the Buckeyes to victory.) The Wolverines look south at
the turmoil in Columbus this season and think, It's our turn.

There were a still a couple of minutes on the clock when Perry
went up and down the bench shouting at his teammates, "This game
is over. It's time to focus on Oregon!" In a devilish wrinkle in
its schedule, Michigan travels this week to Autzen Stadium, the
notorious decibel factory in Eugene. "That place is loud," says
Stevens, who may be the only Wolverine to have set foot in
Autzen. A Tacoma, Wash., native, he had Pac-10 scholarship offers
but chose to play in the heartland.

"I came here to win a championship," said Stevens, standing
outside Michigan Stadium as night fell after the game. "I haven't
been successful." He looked toward the harvest moon rising in the
east, then finished the thought: "Yet."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN BLUE CRUSH Perry plowed through the Irish for 133 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns; Heisman voters took note. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HOLIDAY IN HELL Stevens and the Wolverines defense held the beleaguered Irish quarterback to just five completions.

SI.com
For more college football coverage, including Tim Layden's
Insider and a photo gallery from the week, go to
si.com/football/ncaa.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)