The Michigan football program was in a good place in 2000. They were just four years removed from having won the national championship in 1997. They were coming off a 1999 season that was capped by an Orange Bowl victory over Alabama and led by a quarterback named Tom Brady. With Brady now gone, the 2000 Michigan football team wasn’t quite as good and they had some adversity. But in a wide-open year in the Big Ten, these ’00 Wolverines still got a piece of the conference championship and racked up another bowl victory over an SEC opponent.
Drew Henson was behind center. And while a broken right foot cost him the season’s first three games, Henson played well when he returned. His completion percentage of 60.5 percent was tied with the conference’s best QB—a guy named Drew Brees, who was honing his craft at Purdue. Henson’s 8.5 yards-per-attempt was the best among conference starters. And his TD/INT ratio was a sterling 16-4.
Henson’s prime receivers were David Terrell and Marquise Walker. Terrell, soon to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, averaged nearly 16 yards a catch and was All-Big Ten. Walker caught 45 balls at better than 13 yards a pop. The running game was anchored by another all-conference performer. Anthony Thomas rolled up over 1,500 yards. Thomas was backed up by freshman Chris Perry, soon to be one of the league’s top backs. Perry chipped in over 400 yards.
Thomas and Perry ran behind an offensive line that was led by All-American guard Steve Hutchison, who would also become a first-round NFL draft choice and a regular Pro Bowl player at the next level. Jeff Backus was all-conference at tackle. And the Michigan offense ranked 17th nationally in points scored.
The defense didn’t have the same names or all-Big Ten players. On an individual level, Larry Foote was the only all-conference player, and would eventually become a regular with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the end result defensively was close to what the offense was doing—the Michigan D ranked 19th nationally in points allowed.
Expectations were appropriately high and Michigan was ranked #6 in the preseason polls. With Henson still recovering from his foot injury, freshman John Navarre was running the offense in the early going. The Wolverines coasted through tune-up games against Bowling Green and Rice, moved up to #3 in the polls and traveled west to play 14th-ranked UCLA.
A 23-20 loss to the Bruins knocked Michigan down to #10 as Big Ten play began. The first conference game would be at Illinois. The Illini were ranked #19 and just a year later, in 2001, would win this league. The game did not start well. Navarre struggled and Henson was called on to make his season debut in tough spot. Michigan was trailing 21-7 in the third quarter. Henson rallied the troops. Down 31-28, the Wolverines began a final drive. They got a break when Thomas appeared to fumble near the goal line, but was ruled down. Michigan got the touchdown and escaped, 35-31.
Wisconsin was next up, in Ann Arbor. The Badgers were fresh off becoming the first Big Ten team to win consecutive Rose Bowls. They were #17 in this game after an early loss, but it was a game Michigan needed if they were to re-establish pre-eminence in the league.
In a tough defensive game, the Wolverines trailed 10-6 early in the fourth quarter. Henson led a drive that was marked by a couple clutch third-down conversions to Terrell. Henson and Terrell hooked up one more time for the go-ahead TD. Wisconsin missed a late field goal. Michigan had a 13-10 win.
Henson played an excellent game in West Lafayette, going toe-to-toe statistically with Brees. But the close games went against Michigan this time and they dropped a 32-31 heartbreaker. They returned home and the defense spun consecutive shutouts in wins over 58-0 over lowly Indiana and 14-0 over mediocre Michigan State (albeit a Spartan team coached by Nick Saban).
That set up one of the wildest games the Big Ten has ever seen, in Northwestern on the first weekend of November 4. The Wildcats were one of several teams in the hunt for the Rose Bowl, along with Purdue and the time-honored duo of Michigan and Ohio State. Northwestern running back Damien Anderson was on his way to a 2,000-yard season, and at a time when there were just 11 games per year.
After two straight shutouts, the defense went to the other extreme. The Wildcat spread offense rolled up over 650 yards of offense. Henson and the Michigan attack kept pace and managed to lead 51-47, until a touchdown pass with 26 seconds left beat them 54-51.
Penn State was having a rough year and the Wolverines came home to recover with a 33-11 victory. It was time for the season finale with Ohio State and four teams still had a shot at the Rose Bowl.
Michigan was tied for first at 5-2 in the league. Ohio State was also 5-2. But so were Purdue and Northwestern, whom Michigan had lost to. So, the Wolverines needed the Boilermakers to lose to Indiana and the Wildcats to lose to the Illini. If that happened, the winner of Michigan-Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl.
Predictably, that didn’t happen—the Boilers won easily and went to Pasadena. The Wildcats also won. But there was still a share of the conference championship to play for. And this was still Michigan and Ohio State.
The Wolverines played a sound overall game. They outrushed the Buckeyes 149-88. Henson was 14/25 and those fourteen completions went for over 300 yards. Terrell caught five balls for 99 yards, while Walker kicked in five more catches for 70 yards. Michigan’s 38-26 win ensured a Big Ten tri-championship trophy would make its way to Ann Arbor.
There was also a good bowl invite forthcoming. The Wolverines got the Citrus Bowl bid, which went to the top available Big Ten team after the major bowls set their lineup. They were ranked #17 and facing #20 Auburn. The Tigers had the SEC Player of the Year in running back Rudi Johnson and his showdown with Thomas was an anticipated part of this game.
Michigan would own the ground game. Thomas rolled up 182 yards on 32 carries, while Johnson was limited to 85 yards on 25 attempts. Terrell and Henson made more big-play magic together, connecting four times for 136 yards, including a flea-flicker touchdown pass in the first quarter. Henson went 15/20 for 294 yards.
It was an impressive display against the SEC’s top-rated defense and it had the Wolverines leading 31-21 in the fourth quarter. A touchdown by Auburn with just over two minutes to play made it interesting. But Michigan covered the onside kick, ran out the clock and sealed the deal. For the first time in school history, a fourth straight bowl win was in the books.
What’s more, these were bowl wins against good teams. The Auburn win came on top of beating Alabama last year, and the streak had started with a Rose Bowl win that secured a national championship.
In our own era, now in 2022, when Michigan and most of the Big Ten struggles against notable non-conference competition, especially the best of the SEC, this string of postseason success that ended in 2000 really stands out.