- Todd Needle/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 15, 2013
Three hundred and fifteen Saturdays had passed since Michigan Stadium felt just like this, and time seemed to melt and then fuse into one thread. This time it was a third-and-1 from Michigan’s 2-yard line, but it felt like it did when Michigan had a 37-yard field-goal attempt to save a season from destruction before it even began.
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No players remain from the team that lost to Appalachian State in 2007. Michigan’s current freshmen were in sixth grade then. Most probably didn’t watch. But look closely and the past is everywhere in this stadium. The whole place was built in Fielding Yost’s vision: the corner where Braylon seemed to fly, the goal posts torn down in 1969, a loss that still defies belief.
That’s the allure of Michigan, of college sports. Four years pass, and everything is new but it’s the same. No. 98 is gone and then washes up again. Howard’s No. 21 finds its way back too. Michigan coach Brady Hoke likes to say his players represent every Michigan player who has worn the jersey.
3:39 p.m. on a Saturday in 2007 becomes 3:16 p.m. in 2013. Appalachian State lines up in a field-goal block, and Akron lines up on the goal line and it’s as if a stadium had been holding its breath that entire time. The past crashes into the present like a wave, and sometimes it’s easy to get crushed.
Losing isn’t much different from winning. With two plays left, Akron thought Michigan would pinch, but Michigan was waiting wide for the outside pitch; Greg Mattison called the right blitz, and Michigan won. Someone missed an assignment, and Appalachian State blocked the field goal and Michigan lost.
After the game, a coach blamed himself.
“We were not a well-prepared football team,” he said. “That is my job, and I take full responsibility.”
Six years apart, a different coach tells his team the same: “Guys, it’s our fault. Starts with me. Our fault. Our fault. We didn’t do a good enough job preparing you. We will prepare you better, I promise you.”
The first was Lloyd Carr. The next, Brady Hoke. Take out the context, and it’s impossible to tell one from the other.
Michigan still hasn’t dug itself out from the Appalachian State hole. The loss didn’t start the spiral; it was more of a symptom. Remember, though, the Wolverines were national championship contenders at 3:39 p.m. of that day. At 3:40, they weren’t. They went to the Rose Bowl the year before and haven’t been back since.
The memory of the loss had long receded before Saturday, but Michigan was still not out of that hole: still no Big Ten titles, still no Rose Bowls. And then an Akron team even worse than Appalachian State threatened to start the nightmare over again.
On the bus to the game, the Akron coaching staff showed the game tape of Michigan’s game against Notre Dame. They weren’t analyzing plays or looking for tendencies. They wanted to show their players how emotionally draining that game was for Michigan. They wanted to show them Michigan couldn’t possibly come out with that same intensity two weeks in a row.
Akron understood. Part of the deal of 20-year-olds playing football is that sometimes they don’t show up. All that’s left is to survive and move on.
There’s not much to learn from a game like this. Does Michigan seem like a worse team than last week?
In the locker room after the game, Hoke gathered his team and spoke, his voice growing more hoarse as he went on.
“No. 1 goal is to do what?” he said.
“Win,” the team said.
“Did we win?”
“That’s the good part,” Hoke said. “That’s the good part.”
Michigan managed to outrun its past, even if just by four yards. For players after the game, it hardly seemed like a win. But the Wolverines have now survived 315 Saturdays since the worst loss in program history. That’s the only good part, but that’s the only part that matters.