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SportsMonday Column: Brady Hoke and the Big House magic

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 11, 2012

There’s something to that Big House magic.

Brady Hoke must believe it by now. The Michigan football team scraped together an impossible 38-31 overtime victory over Northwestern on Saturday in the hallowed confines of Michigan Stadium.

It pushed Hoke’s home record to a perfect 13-0 since he took over as the Wolverines’ head coach prior to the 2011 season. Those wins include some last-second thrillers like Denard Robinson-to-Roy Roundtree to beat Notre Dame and Brendan Gibbons from 38 to topple Michigan State. And now it includes Roundtree and the desperation tip against the Wildacts to snatch victory from the sure clutches of defeat.

But let’s go back further, back to Hoke’s earlier stint at Michigan. With Hoke on the Michigan sideline, the Wolverines are 58-6 at the Big House. And that track record is littered with classics.

But it all goes back to one game, Hoke’s first loss at Michigan and the bitter taste of defeat. That first one added a personal touch to Saturday’s game.

***

The last time Brady Hoke and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald were at Michigan Stadium together was Oct. 7, 1995.

Hoke was a first-year defensive line coach on the home sideline. Fitzgerald was Northwestern’s burly junior middle linebacker, wearing a white No. 51 jersey and terrorizing Michigan quarterback Brian Griese.

With the Wildcats leading 19-13 and just 1:40 remaining on the clock, Griese and the Michigan offense were 41 yards from the end zone facing a third-and-15. Fitzgerald had ended the previous drive by tipping a pass out of harm’s way.

Fitzgerald, crouched four yards off the line of scrimmage, started slowly off the snap. He waited for a crease, then burst through it. He had a clean shot at Griese as soon as the quarterback finished his seven-step drop. The pass fell more than a few yards short of its intended target in the flat.

“Brian Griese is trying to shake the cobwebs right now,” said play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler. “It’s fourth down.”

Last chance. Northwestern didn’t change a thing. Fitzgerald and Hudhaifa Ismaeli shot the same gap on a delayed blitz and Fitzgerald was free again. Seven steps. Boom.

Griese got rid of the ball again, but it was a lame duck. Defensive back William Bennett dove to make the interception, though he could have just let it fall.

“Griese still down. Fitzgerald hit him again,” Nessler said.

Fitzgerald reached down and swung the quarterback back onto his feet. The day belonged to Fitzgerald, the hero, walking to the sideline with his fist raised high.

***

They were all back on Saturday. The roles were just different.

Hoke was on one sideline, Fitzgerald on the other. Griese, now a color analyst for ESPN, was in the booth.

When Roundtree hauled in his miraculous catch at the nine-yard line, the Big House magic was alive. Fitzgerald, who was jumping up and down just a few minutes earlier, bolted down the visitor sideline. He would have strapped on pads and finished the game if he could. The script mostly played out the same way as it did in 1995 defeat, but suddenly the roles were reversed.

“Big players make big plays in big situations,” Griese crowed after Roundtree’s catch. He knew all about that formula. But Griese forgot to add another “big” into the equation: the Big House.

There was an electricity in the air as the clock wound down and overtime loomed. There’s something about the 12th man at Michigan Stadium that makes opponents, even smart ones, do some stupid things.

Like Charlie Weis throwing instead of running out the clock in 2009. Tommy Rees fumbling and bumbling the ball back to Michigan last fall. And Fitzgerald calling a rugby punt to Jeremy Gallon instead of putting the punt out of bounds, setting up the pass to Roundtree on Saturday.

And Griese forgot the big man on the Michigan sideline — Hoke. Fitzgerald and the Wildcats taught Hoke that sting of defeat once, and he wouldn’t let it happen again, even 17 years later. As Hoke made his way through a sea of players toward the Michigan tunnel, he wore a wry smile.

“Did you know you were going to win?” his wife, Laura, asked.

“Yes,” he said, without a trace of doubt.

With 112,000 strong at his back, he’s seen the pitfalls, he’s seen the most improbable triumphs. He’s got a .906 lifetime record at Michigan Stadium — .770 away from home. That man doesn’t lose at Michigan Stadium.

Perhaps he’s learned of that Big House magic.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.