'Boos at the start and cheers at the end'
Heading into 2008, the Michigan football team hadn’t had a losing season since the 1960s.
Under coaches Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, the Wolverines developed into a perennial power in the Big Ten, always in the Rose Bowl conversation, and thus, the national spotlight.
But when Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Rich Rodriguez took his place, there was perhaps more doubt around the program than there had ever been. Rodriguez brought with him a spread offense that had never been run at Michigan, and the personnel he inherited was not suited for that play style.
All of those doubts were realized, as the Wolverines sputtered to a 3-9 record.
Even still, there was one bright spot in the season.
On Sept. 28, in the 500th game in the history of Michigan Stadium, Michigan battled back from a 19-0 halftime deficit to beat No. 9 Wisconsin, 27-19, giving hope to a fanbase that had all but lost it.
Ten years later, the memory of that game is interesting. Especially lately, the Wolverines are in a much better spot than they were then. The Badgers are visiting Ann Arbor again this weekend, and Michigan is favored by nine points.
Most Wolverines fans would prefer to erase the memory of the Rodriguez Era. But that one game can be remembered as a positive, an emotional roller coaster and a signature win that the Michigan players from that year can hang their hats on.
This is the story of the largest comeback in the history of Michigan Stadium.
Mark Snyder, former Michigan beat reporter for The Detroit Free Press: Everything was the unknown, because they had changed this whole system, and it was gonna be this read option, and Michigan obviously didn’t have the personnel for that, especially the quarterback. They had Steven Threet as the quarterback, and he had transferred from Georgia Tech, and he was, you know, a pro-style quarterback, and that’s why he had come to Michigan. And he came to Michigan before Lloyd Carr left.
Steven Threet, Michigan quarterback, 2007-2009: I would say that when I did transfer, there wasn’t a discussion specifically my parents, myself and Coach Carr about a transition. Obviously, that was kind of in the wind, not for any reason other than his desires, but that was a possibility. But kind of given the consistency and stability of the University of Michigan football program to that point since the late 1960s, it didn’t seem like there was gonna be a drastic shift.
Kevin Koger, Michigan tight end, 2008-2012: It was a different perspective for me, just because I committed under Coach Carr, but I didn’t play under him. So I get in there, and Rich Rod’s the only thing I know. So it wasn’t weird for me in terms of having a coaching change, but I was just going off a lot of the older guys and how they felt. I think there was a mild uncertainty. I don’t know, unfortunately, how great our buy-in was at that time as a whole. I think there were some guys resistant to the change. I think that had a lot to do with the type of team that we had, and everybody was at fault. It wasn’t just the coaches, we just all weren’t on the same page. And I don’t think guys didn’t play hard or anything like that, I think, you know, we weren’t all on the same page that year, and expectations were high.
The Wolverines began their season with a 25-23 loss to Utah, a 16-6 win over Miami (OH) and a 35-17 loss to Notre Dame, falling to 1-2 before the Big Ten opener.
Koger: I think we always had confidence in ourselves. We always thought that, no matter what happened, like the Notre Dame game, if I remember correctly, we had a bunch of turnovers, you know, so it was a lot of, we felt, self-inflicted wounds. … We did beat Miami (OH), but we felt that the margin of victory should have been a lot bigger than it was. You know, so I think we were a little, not disappointed, but we expected more out of ourselves up to that point.
Snyder: So they go into this game with a chance for an upset, and Michigan, they’re used to big-time wins. … But I don’t think anybody expected they were going to win.
Wisconsin won its first three games of the season, rising to No. 9 in the AP rankings and establishing themselves as Big Ten and National Championship contenders.
Aubrey Pleasant, Wisconsin defensive back, 2005-2008: Yeah we were definitely going for it. I remember we were somewhat rated high, we were 3-0. You know, I feel at that time … I don’t know if (Michigan) started off the way they needed to that year, but we knew it was gonna be a competitive game. We knew we had to solidify ourselves on the road if we wanted to kind of push it through.
Threet: One thing I do remember is I didn’t even realize until we got onto the field and I saw the extra paint (that) it was the 500th game in Michigan Stadium. And that was not like, I didn’t walk into the stadium knowing, ‘Hey, this is 500. Let’s make it special.’
John Thompson, Michigan linebacker, 2004-2008: To us, it was the Big Ten opener. … Win at home, win the Big Ten and then compete for a national championship. In our eyes, it was, ‘Alright, the preseason is over.’ We lost to Utah. Lost to Notre Dame. But the next game was the goal. So just open up the Big Ten, get ready to play and play to win.
The Wolverines began the game as poorly as they could have. In the first half, Threet threw for -7 yards passing, and Michigan turned the ball over five times. The Badgers took a 19-point lead into halftime.
Snyder: It was probably one of the worst halves of football that anyone had seen from Michigan in a long time, and everything that could go wrong went wrong. And so they’re going off the field at halftime, and all of the sudden, it was massive boos.
Thompson: Oh yeah, they were booing. They were booing, because they had a certain expectation. You know, you’re at Michigan, you’re expected to compete at a high level to perform.
Pleasant: Our big thing was that, even though we were winning, we still didn’t feel like we were playing our best, and we just was like, ‘Listen, this don’t happen in Michigan Stadium. With the fans booing, they’re gonna come out ready to go.’ We just needed to finish it out.
Rodriguez, after the game: If there was a hole to crawl into, I’m sure a bunch of us, including myself, would have wanted to crawl into that hole. … If you were anywhere in the Ann Arbor vicinity, you heard that.
Threet: I just remember the environment being, excuse my language, but, ‘Holy shit, what are we doing? We’re way better than this. Whether or not we’re better than the ninth-ranked team in the country at this moment, we’re way better than what we’re putting on the field. Let’s just do what we need to do.’
On the second drive of the second half, Michigan drove down the field, and Threet hit Koger for the Wolverines’ first points of the game, making it 19-7.
Koger: They went one-high safety, and (Pleasant) rolls down and I slip by him and I stay on the seam. And as soon as I get my head around, I see Steven throwing me the ball, so I catch it and scored, and my first thought was the night before we had clam chowder. But freshmen weren’t allowed to eat clam chowder. So I had an agreement with one of the older wide receivers that the next time I score, the next week, I get clam chowder. That next time happened to be the next day. So I was excited, and I was screaming on the field that I get clam chowder the next week.
Snyder: With (Koger’s touchdown), it’s still like, what is the plan for them to get back into the game. What’s gonna happen that’s unique to say, I mean, if you’re gonna make a comeback like that, something’s got to happen.
The teams traded punts back and forth, until the fourth quarter, when Michigan again drove down the field, capping off a 10-play, 84-yard drive with a 34-yard touchdown run from running back Brandon Minor. Wisconsin then took over with the ball on its own 25 with 10:27 remaining in the game.
Threet: The Donovan Warren tipped ball.
Thompson: (Then-sophomore cornerback) Donovan made the play. I just executed. … Without him, I would have been running to the ball tackling.
Brad Nessler, ABC play-by-play analyst, on the live telecast of the game: (Wisconsin quarterback Allan) Evridge, quick slant, tipped up in the air and the ball is intercepted by Michigan! Down the sideline is John Thompson!
Thompson: I see the tight end, he was in my face, so I gave him a move, get up the field, and my whole defense was in front of me.
Koger: Those guys kind of created a convoy down the sideline. … Yeah, so he’s going down the sideline, and the sideline erupted. That’s probably one of the loudest I’ve heard Michigan Stadium. … they intercepted and scored, touchdown, and there was a Wisconsin guy chasing, and there was probably like, seven or eight Michigan guys on one Wisconsin guy, so it kinda looked like the Wisconsin guy got swallowed whole, enveloped by all the Michigan guys, because he was on the ground, and he was underneath them celebrating.
Wisconsin went three-sand-out on its next possession, giving Michigan the ball back on its own 23-yard line, with 8:14 remaining.
Nessler: Big hit on Brandon Minor… No, it’s Threet! Threet! Trying to run away from everybody!
Snyder: I remember this long run by Threet. You know, on a keeper. It must have been 50-something yards. And at that point, I mean, this is not what this guy does. He was athletic. He was sort of athletic, but he’s not like Denard Robinson.
Threet: That was the run system that made Rich Rod famous is the read option. I’m by no means the (former West Virginia quarterback) Pat White that he had previously, but it was a good play design, and I made the read. … Even the announcers think that Minor gets smacked in the background by, they had a really good defensive end at the time, and you know, he took off like a bat out of hell and went right for the running back, so really wish I had scored the touchdown, but I’ll take the 58 yards. You know, what I wasn’t gonna do is fumble. After those turnovers in the first half, there was no chance I was gonna give the ball up on that play. I’ll get caught, which, between friends and family, I still get a little grief for.
Five plays later, Michigan running back Sam McGuffie plunged into the endzone for a three-yard touchdown. The Wolverines led, 27-19. Two possessions later, Wisconsin took over with 1:19 left and started driving…
Nessler: Two receivers to the right, he’s looking that way, throwing that way and it is caught! Touchdown!
The Badgers scored with 13 seconds left and had to go for a two-point conversion.
Threet: I was down there towards the end of the coaches box with my towel, trying to get the crowd as loud as I could. Michael Phelps was on the sideline with us — he was like an honorary captain that game.
Nessler: Wisconsin’s gotta have two. Evridge looks and throws and it’s caught! Travis Beckum! There’s a flag!
Thompson: I saw the flag when it happened. I was on the field. But I didn’t know, I was just playing. And then I was like, ‘Okay we’ve got to line up and go do it again.’
The penalty was an ineligible man downfield call against tight end Travis Beckum, who caught the pass. Wisconsin moved five yards back and tried again.
Nessler: Wisconsin to try to tie it up. Evridge steps up, throws high! Incomplete!
Threet: At that point in time, in my mind, it didn’t matter if it was regulation or overtime, we had too much energy and positive motion, that whether the defense came up like they did on that second two-point conversion try or whether we had to go out there for overtime, there was no doubt in my mind at that point.
Thompson: We felt like we were gonna play until there was no time on the clock. But if we had to go to overtime, we were ready to go.
Pleasant: Don’t let them fool you, every person in fucking Michigan Stadium was sitting on the edge of their seat. They had come back, and we drove it down the field. We literally drove the ball down the field. … It’s not like they came back and then they just punished us. That’s what made us feel so bad, because we were doing well, then they came back and we finally get it to the limit and then we just couldn’t.
Deandre Levy, Wisconsin linebacker, 2005-2008, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: It was embarrassing. I didn’t know how to react. I couldn’t believe this was happening, how we basically gave the game away in the second half.
Snyder: I think everyone felt that that could be the kickstarter for something, because no one in the Michigan fanbase or the Michigan community or whatever had ever gone through the other side of it. They had never experienced a team that just totally fell apart. … They didn’t think that it would be the only highlight for the whole season.
Michigan lost seven of its last eight games and finished 3-9. Wisconsin, on the other hand, lost its next three games and finished the season 7-6.
Pleasant: That was a hurtful game, man, because we lost that game, and we ended up coming to Michigan State that same year, and ended up losing in a very similar fashion. That was a tough year. We came into that year with high hopes.
I mean, it was very obvious that it wasn’t the same Michigan. You have to take into consideration, that when I was leaving high school, if you weren’t a top recruit in the nation, you weren’t even getting a look from Michigan. I mean, let’s just be real. … I don’t know what those fuckin’ Michigan guys were telling you, but don’t let this shit fool you. There was a huge difference. I mean, it wasn’t even the same program.
Thompson: (The interception) is up top. It’s definitely up top. I had things that I had done in my career that I felt like was a good thing, but it didn’t go to show for what that did. I had a fun career at Michigan, but it’s definitely up top as one of the top highlights of my career.
Koger: It was probably more of just a bright spot, of just that season and my career. It’s one of those games, when people ask about, you bring up because it was such a huge comeback at such a pivotal time of the season. Just reflecting on that season, we weren’t very good. We didn’t win a lot of games. But there’s always positives to every situation.
Threet: I lived in New York for six years, so any time I’m at anywhere watching a Michigan game and something comes up, that’s the first memory, is the 58-yard run against top-10 Wisconsin.
Pleasant was hired as a graduate assistant for the Wolverines in 2012, Koger’s senior season.
Pleasant: When I was coaching there, they would ask, like, ‘Were you in that game?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I was in that game.’ And they’re like, ‘Aw man, that was crazy. You remember when they were booing us? Remember trying to get this thing going here or there?’ Yeah, no doubt, it was (brought up). It was.
But at that time, Michigan was still trying to find itself. They were trying to find their brand. They were trying to figure out who they were, offensively and defensively. And that’s the thing that we were joking about at that time. Because you have to imagine, for me being at Michigan, and for me being able to be reflective to them, they really didn’t talk much smack, because Rich Rod wasn’t very successful.
Threet: I don’t think any of the things I remember I want to forget. I think of it as wins and learns, not wins and losses. You know, regardless of what situation. Biggest thing I remember from the Wisconsin game are the boos at halftime and the cheers at the end.
JR Radcliffe of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to the reporting for this story.