Gary Moeller had taken over the storied Michigan Wolverine football program in 1990 and while he enjoyed a good year, going 9-3, getting a share of the Big Ten title and finishing in the Top 10 nationally, he hadn’t done what Wolverine fans wanted the most—go to the Rose Bowl. The 1991 Michigan football team rectified that omission and did it with one of the most electrifying players the program has ever produced.
Desmond Howard has enjoyed his share of success in the game of football. He’s been a Super Bowl MVP (with the Green Bay Packers in 1996). He’s had a terrific career in broadcasting, both as a game analyst and a core participant on the wildly popular college football pregame show Gameday. But it’s fair to say that Desmond was never better than he was in Ann Arbor in 1991.
Howard finished the year with 62 catches for 985 yards, a 15.9 yards-per-catch average. In today’s context, those numbers would be good, but not necessarily jump out. In 1991 they did and especially at a program with the run-heavy emphasis of Michigan. Howard was just as good as a punt returner, averaging 14.1 yards-per-return, a dynamite average in any age. He delivered memorable moments in both roles, as a receiver and a runner, in a season that saw him run away with the Heisman Trophy.
Elvis Grbac was the quarterback and had a nice NFL career ahead of him. In ‘91, he threw 25 touchdowns against just six interceptions, generated 8.2 yards-per-pass and completed 65% of his throws—very high by the standards of 1991. Grbac was the best quarterback in the Big Ten.
The time-honored Wolverine traditions of a physical running game and tough defense were by no means neglected in 1991. Greg Skrepenak, an All-American offensive tackle joined with Matt Elliot to form the core of a line that paved the way for Ricky Powers to rush for nearly 1,200 yards. Powers was supported by Jesse Johnson and an up-and-comer named Tyrone Wheatley that combined for nearly 1,200 of their own.
Defensively, linebacker Erick Anderson won the Butkus Award and defensive tackle Mike Evans was all-conference. Michigan had a great offense, a pretty good defense and they opened the season ranked #2 in the country. They tuned up by pounding a subpar Boston College team, 35-13.
The tuneup was needed, because the next two games would define what the rest of the season was about. Michigan would host seventh-ranked Notre Dame and #1 Florida State over the next three weeks.
Notre Dame had beaten Michigan the last four times in this era when the rivalry was at its zenith. The Wolverines came out of the gate firing, taking a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Howard scored one touchdown on a reverse and Powers ran for another, but the biggest play came on defense—Anderson had chased down Irish tight end Derek Brown when it appeared Brown was on a breakaway to the end zone. On the next play, the Wolverines recovered a fumble.
Michigan had to feel they were re-living a nightmare when Notre Dame cut the lead to 17-14. A year earlier in South Bend, the Wolverines blew a ten-point lead late in the fourth quarter and lost. This time around, they drove to the Irish 25-yard line with nine minutes to go. But facing 4th-and-1, Moeller had a decision to make.
The decision was to go for the throat. Not only did Moeller go for it, but he eschewed a safe running to play on a day when Powers would rush for 177 yards and Michigan controlled the line of scrimmage. Instead, Howard lined up to the right and ran down the sideline. Grbac’s throw was a little long, but Howard completely stretched out his body and made the catch. Touchdown. The game was effectively over and the visual of Howard’s outstretched body pulling in the ball was a Heisman moment.
After a week off, Florida State came rolling in. This was seen as Bobby Bowden’s best team at a time when the legendary coach had yet to win a national championship. The events in Ann Arbor did no one to dissuade anybody of that fact. Howard was locked up by FSU’s outstanding corner Terrell Buckley. The Wolverine defense was lacerated, allowing the most points to any visitor to Michigan stadium. Florida State won 51-31 and it didn’t even feel that close.
Michigan dropped to seventh in the polls. In a year where college football was more predictable than it is now, they were all but out of the national championship race and had to refocus on winning the Big Ten. And there was no time to feel sorry for themselves, because a visit to their toughest conference competition, ninth-ranked Iowa was on deck.
The offenses of both teams opened up in the first half at Iowa City, with each team scoring three touchdowns. Some bad special teams work, combined with coaches chasing points meant there was only successful PAT conversion and the Wolverines led 19-18 at intermission.
Michigan was running the football though and much like the Notre Dame game, would win this battle decisively. That opened things up for Grbac and Howard, who connected on touchdown passes in the late third and early fourth quarters. The result was a 43-24 win.
The Wolverines took that momentum and rolled through a soft part of the league schedule over the next five weeks. They beat Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern. Of these five, only the Hoosiers were any good in 1991 and that was also the only game of the five even remotely competitive. Michigan turned back IU 24-16 in a tough, physical game in Ann Arbor.
There were two games left against ranked teams, at Illinois and then at home against archrival Ohio State. Michigan needed one win to wrap up the Rose Bowl bid and both to clinch the outright conference championship.
They took care of the first with ease. Illini quarterback Jason Verduzco did some talking the press the week leading up to the game, but Michigan’s defense did the talking on the field, with a 20-0 shutout. They were going back to Pasadena.
Howard was pulling away in the Heisman race. Midway through the season the debate between him and Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon had been intense, but the Seminoles had lost a heartbreaker to Miami, and Weldon’s case was fading. Howard would put the finishing touches on his own campaign against Ohio State.
Desmond made two big catches, one a diving catch at the Ohio State 20-yard line, and the other by winning a jump ball against two defenders. Michigan led 17-3, when Howard made his signature play—he returned a punt 93 yards in the end zone and then “struck a pose” in the end zone, extending his arm and lifting his leg to look like the Heisman Trophy itself. It was game, set and match for the award and for the outright Big Ten title.
Michigan was ranked #4 going into the Rose Bowl against Washington, who joined Miami as the two undefeated teams at the top of the polls. The Wolverines had an outside shot at the national title. If they beat the Huskies and Miami lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Michigan would be in good shape to win a vote over #3 Florida (who ended up losing to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl anyway).
But no one believed there was any way Miami would lose a home game to a relatively pedestrian Nebraska team—for that matter, few people believed Michigan would beat Washington, who was coming on strong. And unfortunately for Wolverine fans, that proved to be true.
Howard was held to one catch, Grbac was sacked five times and the running game was shut down. Michigan’s defense kept them in it for a half, down only 13-7. But the avalanche started in the second half and the final was 34-14. The Wolverines finished sixth in the final polls.
The season was still a big success in Ann Arbor. They had beaten Notre Dame, re-assumed their place at the top of the Big Ten and produced a Heisman Trophy. The following year, Michigan made it back to Pasadena and got a revenge win over Washington.