There was no way that the Under the Lights game featuring Notre Dame played in Ann Arbor last Saturday night should have lived up to the hype and literality 17 months of build-up and anticipation. Yet as it turns out, it may actually have.
Oh, who am I kidding, of course it did! It absolutely did!
It lived up to the hype in almost every way for almost everyone involved with the preparation and execution of the event. From the Michigan administration to the coaches and players and fans, in retrospect all signs point to this day/night as a huge success and a game that no Michigan fan will soon forget if to forget ever.
So before Michigan and Brady Hoke officially put the Notre Dame game behind them by taking on Ron English and his Eastern Michigan Eagles this Saturday, let us all take one more look back at how — what many people consider — the greatest game ever played in Ann Arbor came to be and played out on the field.
IN THE BEGINNING
The anticipation began when Dave Brandon officially assumed his post as Michigan athletic director back on March 8th, 2010. A week or so later he made one of his first official statements as athletic director when he announced that on September 10th, 2011 the Michigan Wolverines football team would play their first ever game in the Big House in Ann Arbor under the dark of night…with the help of the newly installed lighting system in the recently renovated Michigan Stadium that is.
“I know that being out there under the lights, in prime-time in front of a national audience is something special. And we want to be a part of things that are special at the University of Michigan,” Brandon said at the time.
The opponent chosen to play against Michigan on this night, Notre Dame.
Unfortunately all the talk of this “night game” would have to wait because at the time then current head coach at Michigan — Rich Rodriguez — was in the process of recruiting and preparing his Michigan team for the upcoming 2010 season. And we all know what comes next so I skip ahead to June 2011.
After making literally his biggest, most crucial decision that would impact Michigan football for years to come – the hiring of the 19th head football coach Brady Hoke – Dave Brandon made his next major announcement regarding the game against Notre Dame as he confirmed in press-conference fashion that Michigan and Notre Dame would wear special “legacy” style uniforms for the event now dubbed “Under the Lights.”
Regardless of how you felt about the uniforms, as the fan reaction was mixed at the time, there was little doubt that every effort was being made to make the game special. It was also announced that ESPN would be carrying this game live.
The anticipation for Under the Lights though peaked when ESPN announced on August 5th, 2011 that their very popular pregame show College GameDay (Built by the Home Depot) would be bringing their act to Ann Arbor in support of this event. For fans, that meant an opportunity to catch a glimpse of Michigan legend Desmond Howard live and in person on set.
Days before the kickoff Brandon stated that he wished he had 50,000 more tickets for the event as the demand was unlike anything seen before.
The hype-train was officially a runaway locomotive and all that Dave Brandon needed to do now was hold on tight and hope that Brady Hoke would field a team capable of living up to all the off-field build-up surrounding game number two of the Michigan 2011 season.
Fans lucky enough to spend their day in Ann Arbor either with or without tickets were treated to one of the most festive day-long celebrations in the history of the Michigan football program. An official fan-fest was set up filed with interactive games. Multiple radio and television shows camped out and were broadcasting from around the stadium. Numerous Michigan greats of old like Chris Perry and Marlon Jackson were on-site mixing with the public. Lloyd Carr was signing autographs. People were smiling. Kids were playing and life was a joy.
All-in-all, things could not have goon smoother. The weather even cooperated too as for the week leading up to the game rain was prevalent in the forecast yet never came.
The last big piece of pregame ceremony on this night was the announcement that Michigan great #21 Desmond Howard would be named Michigan’s first ever “Legend” and in a new Michigan tradition a patch would be added to the #21 jersey in remembrance of the contributions Desmond made during his time in Ann Arbor. Desmond’s #21 jersey would not be retired, but would now prove to be a reminder of the accomplishments #21 achieved and all that will be expected of the players that wear #21 in the future.
17 months of preparation and anticipation was over. The only thing left to do now was toss the coin, choose the sides and kickoff the ball.
And in perfect Michigan 2011 fashion, the defense once again allowed their opponent’s offense — this time Notre Dame — to move up and down the field with not much resistance. Almost halfway into the opening quarter, Michigan found themselves trailing 14-0 with only 6 offensive plays ran compared to Notre Dame’s 17.
Denard Robinson was having his troubles getting into a rhythm and it took the Michigan offense 14 minutes before they picked up their first 1st down of the game. Subsequently though, Denard was intercepted to end the quarter. This quarter was ugly to say the least. Michigan could not get anything going and the defense couldn’t stop anything.
Could it be that all the buildup was for not? The uniforms, the ESPN, the lights? Surely the 2nd quarter had to be better.
And it was, as on Notre Dame’s second possession of the second quarter the Irish QB Tommy Rees threw a pass that was picked off by Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs (who else). Two plays later, Denard Robinson connected on a 43-yard touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway cutting the Irish lead in half making the score 14-0.
Finally a sign of life! And a new game was on. The crowd was energized again and there was a glimmer of hope that all would be alright after all.
But to borrow a phrase “not so fast my friends” as again, the Michigan offense would struggle to maintain a consistent drive and the Wolverine defense allowed Notre Dame consecutive time-consuming drives in return. The first half ended with the good guys trailing 17-7. Not that out of reach, but half-time adjustments were needed or things could get real ugly soon.
The third quarter was highlighted by successive turnovers. First on Notre Dame’s second drive of the half, the Irish fumbled the ball away on a Cierre Wood rushing play. On the subsequent Wolverine drive though, Denard Robinson threw an ill-advised pass which was intercepted and Notre Dame took possession on their 29-yard line. The Michigan defense then surrendered a 7 play 71-yard drive that resulted in a Notre Dame Tommy Reese to TJ Jones 15-yard touchdown which pushed the score to 24-7 in favor of the Irish.
Things again were not looking good. The Michigan offense had yet to find any consistency and Notre Dame’s offense was rolling again. The crowd was restless and time was running out. Michigan needed to make something happen.
And they did.
It was inevitable that Denard Robinson would finally breakout and do something spectacular to remind the 114, 804 fans in attendance of what he was exactly capable of and on a 1st and 10 from the Michigan 17-yardline Denard rolled left, ducked a defender, stood-strong in the grasp of that defender and tossed a perfect strike to a covered Junior Hemingway who then raced 77-yards down the field before being pushed out at the Notre Dame 6-yard line.
And the luck of the Irish must have been with the Maize and Blue this night because, two plays later on a Stephen Hopkins running attempt the ball was fumbled at the goal line and an alert Robinson picked up the lose ball and ran it in for the score. The quick answer to the sustained Notre Dame drive was exactly what Michigan needed. The Wolverines now trailed 24-14 with a quarter to go. The crowd was feeling it now. Something special was happening and it was apparent to all in attendance.
To start the forth quarter, Michigan’s defense made a stand and forced Notre Dame to punt after only 3 plays. On the next possession, Michigan scored again on a 14-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon. The score was now 24-21. The crowd was in a frenzy. Those fans that still believed were exhilarated. Those fans that gave up hope were ashamed. The magic was in the air and it was almost certain to all that Michigan would not be denied on this night.
But again, Notre Dame did their best to stake claim on this night because in their first possession of the 4th quarter the Irish went on a 7 play, 51-yard drive that ended at the Michigan 7 yard line. It ended because the Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Reese dropped back to pass and pretty much just dropped the ball which was then recovered by the Michigan defense. If the Irish scored, the music may have died right there. But they didn’t. And the magic was on again.
3 AND OUT
17 months of preparation and three-and-seven-eights quarters of execution came down to the final three possessions of the first ever night game played under the lights at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
The 24-21 score with 2:16 to go was in favor of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Coach Brian Kelly. Michigan had the ball on their 42-yard line thanks to a 21-yard Jeremy Gallon punt return after the Michigan defense forced an Irish 3-and-out. The previews were now over and the show was about to begin.
The fans were rocking. The Michigan stadium was awash in maize. The crowd in unison vocally sang the refrain from the White Stripes song Seven Nation Army in an almost trance educed state, “Whooohhh-oohh-oohh-ohhh-oooohhh-oooohhhhhh…Whooohhh-oohh-oohh-ohhh-oooohhh-oooohhhhhh!”
Denard stepped under center and took command.
1st down, Denard rushed for 8-yards.
2nd down, incomplete pass.
3rd down, Denard runs for a two yard gain and a first down…new life.
1st down, Denard completes a huge pass to Kelvin Grady for a 27-yard gain down to the Notre Dame 21-yard line. The crowd erupts as Denard lines back up under center.
And then in one of the biggest plays of the game (so-far) and with one of the great individual efforts (so-far) on the next play Denard Robinson took the snap from under center and rolled right, faked a handoff to running back Vincent Smith and appeared to be making a move up field but then suddenly threw across the field back to Smith on the screen and the running back did the rest. Smith evaded two potential tackles then sprinted down the sideline on his way to the end-zone. And for the first time in the game with just over a minute left Michigan had the lead 28-24 and victory was in their grasp.
The crowd was in a frenzied state now. The Michigan marching band was blasting The Victors and even the commentators on the national broadcast were in shock at the events that just transpired on the football field. What a game this turned out to be.
But unfortunately there was that technicality of having to kickoff the football again to Notre Dame to make this game official. And so Michigan did.
Almost by divine intervention, on the next Notre Dame possession, in three plays, utilizing less then :42 seconds of clock time and aided by a Michigan pass interference penalty, the Irish managed to move the ball all the way to the Wolverine 29-yard line. But Notre Dame would have to go for the touchdown to win. And thanks to an aggressive, yet tactically ineffective defensive call by Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, on the next play, Notre Dame wide receiver Theo Reddick broke free on a go route and the Irish QB Tommy Reese hit the wide open man in stride as Notre Dame once again took the lead. Score 31-28.
Aside from any Irish fans in the stadium, the once highly vocal and boisterous crowd was now silent. The stadium was in shock. After the kickoff :30 seconds remained.
As it turns out, :30 seconds was all Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense would need, because the history of this game was not yet to be written in the favor of the Irish.
1st down, Denard pass incomplete.
2nd down, Denard pass…good for 64-yards to Jeremy Gallon and the most epic of first downs…all the way to the Notre Dame 16-yard line. The crowd was back on! Everyone left breathless only moments ago due to the last Notre Dame punch in the gut had life again and the Big House was-a-rocking.
Brady Hoke needing only a field goal to send the game into overtime elected to go for the win with :08 seconds left on the clock.
Denard under center, takes the snap, drops back to pass…the rush caves the pocket in around him, Denard throws up a prayer, up into the air, to the side of the endzone and it’s…it’s…it’s…caught by Roy Roundtree for a touchdown!
Michigan leads once again 34-31…:02 seconds left…the crowd goes wild. Brent Musberger can’t believe what he just saw…neither could almost anyone else. Again The Victors blares across the field and the fans along with the team are in full celebration on the sideline.
This time, the kickoff was only the explanation point to a most unexpected and quite historic game of the ages.
Game over, Michigan wins, 35-31.