The expectations of a national championship run weren’t there when the 1997 Michigan football game gathered. The Wolverines were only ranked 13th in preseason polls, and they hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl—or any other major bowl since 1992.
Michigan gave fans quick reasons to believe something special might be in the works though. They opened the season against 8th-ranked Colorado. The defense, led by cornerback Charles Woodson, intercepted four passes. Quarterback Brian Griese hooked up future All-American tight end Jerame Tuman five times for 126 yards. The Wolverines took a 10-0 lead in the first half and then opened the game up in the third quarter, on their way to a 27-3 win that vaulted them into the Top 10.
They followed it up with an easy rout of Baylor and then a home victory over a mediocre Notre Dame squad that was in the first year of the long post-Lou Holtz drop to mediocrity. While Michigan trailed this game 14-7 at half, they again used a strong third quarter to turn it around and win 21-14. The last weekend of September concluded with Michigan 3-0 and ranked sixth in the nation.
After coasting past Indiana and Northwestern, Michigan faced consecutive games against ranked opponents in Iowa and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes came to Ann Arbor and were ready to play. After a scoreless first quarter—the Wolverines would be notoriously poor at getting their offense going at the start of games—Iowa’s Tavian Banks took off on a 53-yard touchdown run. Then UM quarterback Brian Griese was intercepted, the ball returned to the 1-yard line and another touchdown ensued. While Michigan got a touchdown of their own, Iowa then scored on special teams, with a punt return for a touchdown to make the halftime score 21-7.
Griese brought the team back and tied the game at 21-21 when the special teams coverage again went awry. After the tying touchdown, a long kickoff return set up a go-ahead field goal for Iowa in the fourth quarter. Griese again brought his team back and found Tuman on a short touchdown pass with 2:55 left. Iowa came back and reached the Michigan 15-yard line, trailing by four points. Michigan’s Sam Sword came up with the interception that preserved the win and the undefeated season.
One week later it was a road test at Michigan State, and the Wolverines trailed 7-3 in the second quarter. Woodson was dominating on the defensive side and his versatility as a receiver on offense was starting to get him some dark-horse mention as a Heisman contender.
Given the traditional bias against defensive players, it was tough to take the talk seriously at this time, but there was no question of Woodson’s ability to transform a game. He intercepted two passes in this game, including a one-hander on the sideline where he came down inbounds. Michigan’s offense drove 95 yards for a touchdown, they nudged out to a 13-7 lead and then put it away with ten points in the final quarter.
After a 24-3 win over Minnesota on November 1, Michigan’s tough part of the schedule now awaited. Penn State was also undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. Ohio State was having another big year, and nestled in between these two games was a trip to play a Wisconsin team who wasn’t necessarily better than Michigan State or Iowa, but they were good enough to win at home with Michigan in a sandwich schedule spot.
What Lloyd Carr had going for him in his third year as head coach was a defense that was considered the best in the nation. Woodson was a playmaker extraordinaire, and players like defensive lineman Glen Steele, and linebackers James Hall and Dhari Jones went along with Sword to comprise a fearsome unit. Griese played a no-mistakes style that fit into this style perfectly, and as he would get opportunity to demonstrate, the quarterback could still step it up when he needed to.
Michigan began the big month of November by stunning the nation at Penn State. That the now-#4 Wolverines were able to win this game was not a shock. They were seen as the better team thanks to defensive dominance, and had the game not been in Happy Valley, a rout wouldn’t have caught everyone off-guard. But on November 8 this team known for its slow starts, came out and hit on all cylinders.
The first drive of the game produced a field goal. Then Griese threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-0. In the second quarter, Griese hooked up with Woodson for one touchdown and Tuman for another. It was 24-0 at halftime and it ended 34-8. The impressive quality of the win, along with the fact that top-ranked Nebraska needed a miracle to escape at Missouri, moved the Wolverines into the top spot in the polls with Florida State at #2.
One Saturday later I was in the hospital with my aunt when we heard there was no hope of her making a comeback from breast cancer. On TV in the Milwaukee-area hospital was the Wisconsin-Michigan game, so for obvious reasons this is a game I remember where I was for (well, I actually remember where I was for almost any game, be it a serious reason or trivial).
Michigan again started fast offensively with an 80-yard drive to start the game. Griese threw a touchdown pass to Tai Streets, although the extra point was missed. For a brief stretch in the third quarter it looked like that missing point might matter, when Wisconsin’s Mike Samuel led an 80-yard drive of his own to bring the Badgers within 16-10. But Michigan scored ten points in the fourth quarter, pulled ahead by sixteen points, and ended up with a 26-16 win.
The traditional season-ending game with Ohio State was all that stood between Michigan and perfection. The Buckeyes were 9-1 and ranked #4 themselves. The Buckeyes could play their way into the national title picture with a win in Ann Arbor and at minimum, could steal the Rose Bowl bid.
But Woodson made his pitch to the Heisman voters with a brilliant performance. He caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Griese. He returned a punt 78 yards for another score. He stopped an Ohio State drive with an interception inside the 10-yard line. Michigan got out to a 20-0 lead (more extra point problems) and hung on 20-14 when Steele sacked Buckeye quarterback Joe Germaine twice on Ohio State’s last chance.
Michigan was going to the Rose Bowl ranked #1 and set to claim that long-sought national championship. But first it was a time to collect some hardware. Woodson picked up the Heisman Trophy, beating out Tennessee’s Peyton Manning to win the award. Woodson is the last defensive player to win the honor and his special teams’ and offensive prowess demonstrated just how much a defensive player has to do outside his regular position to win the award.
Washington State was the team who stood in Michigan’s way of a national championship. While the name Ryan Leaf is a joke among football fans today, a synonym for a bad high draft pick, there was a reason the quarterback was highly regarded out of college. He was at the helm of the #2 offense in the country, creating a perfect clash with the country’s best defense.
In the early part of the game, each side landed its blows. Leaf threw a first-quarter touchdown pass, but Woodson got an interception on the next possession and Griese followed by throwing a 53-yard scoring pass to Streets. The game was tied 7-7 at half.
Pasadena has been the site of bad bowl game memories for Michigan fans, and it looked like this year might become the worst. Leaf engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter—the best defense in the nation let someone go the length of the field. But today the special teams problems belonged to someone else and the Cougars missed the extra point, keeping the game 13-7. When Griese again hit Streets from 50-plus yards, that missed PAT was the difference in the game.
Michigan drove it to the 23-yard line in the fourth quarter and Griese threw his third touchdown pass of the game, hitting Tuman and stretching the lead to 21-13. With a little more than seven minutes left, Washington State got a field goal.
Griese, whose father Bob was in the broadcast booth for ABC, alongside Washington State alum Keith Jackson, came up with the play of his life, scrambling for a first down on 3rd-and-11. “And the last time Brian Griese ran that fast, his daddy was chasing him with a stick,” Jackson exclaimed.
Three more times Michigan converted third downs of six yards or more. By the time they punted it away, there was no time for Washington State to do anything else. Jackson spoke for all reasonable fans, when he told his broadcast partner that it was okay to let the emotions flow on the air. And even those of us who aren’t Michigan fans knew their fans had earned the right to let their own emotions flow. The national championship had been a long time coming.
The title may have been a long time coming, but Nebraska was still undefeated and would play Tennessee in the Orange Bowl the following night. Cornhusker head coach Tom Osborne gave his team a political boost by announcing his retirement. Could there be a sympathy vote for Nebraska?
Nebraska beat the Vols badly and was able to claim the coaches’ poll, while Michigan won the writers’ poll. It was a fair ending, and in no way diminished what the 1997 Michigan Wolverines accomplished, in bringing the national title to Ann Arbor.