1997: Woodson helps Wolverines run away from Ohio State

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 - 1:23am

Cornerback Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown in Michigan's win over Ohio State at Michigan Stadium.

Cornerback Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown in Michigan's win over Ohio State at Michigan Stadium. Buy this photo
Margaret Myers/Daily

From the beginning, the 1997 Michigan football team was different.

The Wolverines won their first game, then their second, then their third and then they just kept winning until they rolled into the last game of the regular season against No. 4 Ohio State. A win would set No. 2 Michigan up for a trip to the Rose Bowl and a possible national title, but it had to get through its longtime rival first.

The game was played on Nov. 22 in front of a then-record crowd of 106,982 at Michigan Stadium. Everyone wanted to see the Wolverines complete their first perfect regular season since 1971.

It began as a classic Big Ten defensive game — the first nine possessions ended in punts. But when Michigan finally broke through, it didn’t look back.

In the second quarter, the Wolverines drove down the field for the game’s first touchdown in just two minutes. Quarterback Brian Griese hit defensive back Charles Woodson running a slant for a 37-yard reception, which set up the score a few plays later.

Despite Woodson being primarily a defensive player, his contributions on offense and special teams during this game helped him lock up the 1997 Heisman Trophy — the first, and only, time a predominately defensive player won the award.

“I was slighted by not winning the (Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back) the year before,” Woodson told the Detroit Free Press in 2017. “So, I felt like I hadn’t been doing enough. Obviously, I didn’t win it, they thought somebody was better, so I had to do more.”

Woodson’s big game continued just before halftime when he returned Brent Bartholomew’s punt 78 yards for Michigan’s second touchdown of the game. He caught the ball at his own 22-yard line, shed blockers until the 40-yard line, and by the time he reached midfield, it was clear he wouldn’t be caught.

The Wolverines headed into halftime with a 13-0 lead after the Buckeyes blocked the extra point on the second touchdown. Then, Woodson added yet another play to his highlight tape from the game with a red zone interception. He picked off Ohio State quarterback Stanley Jackson’s pass from the seven-yard line in the end zone to preserve Michigan’s 13-0 lead.

The Wolverines would stretch the lead to 20 before the Buckeyes finally answered late in the third quarter. Adding scores in the third and beginning of the fourth, Ohio State clawed into Michigan’s lead, but it proved not to be enough to unseat the undefeated Wolverines.

Michigan held on to win, 20-14, and earned its first undefeated regular season in 26 years. The Wolverines and Nebraska finished as the only two undefeated teams in the nation, with Michigan slotted in the top spot of the Associated Press poll after the regular season.

After the game, Woodson stood on the field at Michigan Stadium wearing a white hat that read “1997 Big Ten Champions.” But the defining memory of the image is the red rose he clenched between his teeth for photos. He knew his team — his conquering, undefeated team — was heading to Pasadena as a reward for their efforts.

“It just doesn’t get any better than this,” Woodson said after the game.

Michigan would go on to defeat Washington State in the 1998 Rose Bowl and earn its first national championship since 1948, splitting the title with the Cornhuskers, who finished atop the Coaches Poll.

After feeling slighted by not winning the Thorpe Award the previous year, Woodson would get a second chance at it after the 1997 season and finished his career as one of the Wolverines’ most decorated players. He won the Thorpe, the Walter Camp Award for best college football player, the Bednarik Award for the best defensive player and, of course, the Heisman Trophy.

And it was his performance against Ohio State that set him on the course for all those awards.