'That damn game'

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 11:08pm

The "Miracle at Michigan" at the Big House on Sept. 24, 1994, changed Michigan Stadium history forever.

The "Miracle at Michigan" at the Big House on Sept. 24, 1994, changed Michigan Stadium history forever. Buy this photo
Doug Kanter, The Michigan Daily, Sept. 26, 1994

 

Michigan Stadium is usually silent.

It is silent through the offseason. It is silent at night. It is silent today.

And then there are the rare moments of silence when the largest building in football is packed with a crowd of 100,000-plus people who don’t make a sound. For some, that silence can drown out any of the roars from past memories — John Wangler to Anthony Carter in 1979, Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose in 1991, the first night game against Notre Dame in 2011.

That hush descended upon Michigan Stadium on Sept. 24, 1994, when Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart launched a 64-yard Hail Mary to Michael Westbrook, who jumped and caught it in the end zone to cap a remarkable comeback and stun the Wolverines. The play became known as the “Miracle at Michigan,” etched in the minds of both fan bases forever.

Colorado returns to Michigan Stadium this weekend for just the second time since that game and the first time since 1997. To some, the Buffaloes’ first trip is but a memory. To others, it’s not even that.

Just 23 players on Michigan’s current roster were born before the “Miracle at Michigan” in 1994. But the former players, coaches, staff and reporters in attendance will never forget it.

***

‘The world changed’

The battle between No. 4 Michigan and No. 7 Colorado was one of the biggest matchups in the country that week. The Wolverines were coming off a 26-24 victory at Notre Dame two weeks earlier, in which Remy Hamilton kicked a game-winning field goal to improve Michigan to 2-0. The Buffaloes, meanwhile, had trounced then-No. 10 Wisconsin, 55-17, the previous Saturday.

Both rosters featured loads of future NFL talent. Todd Collins quarterbacked the Wolverines, who also boasted a defense led by Steve Morrison, Ty Law, Jarrett Irons and Chuck Winters. Running backs Tyrone Wheatley and Tshimanga Biakabutuka and wide receiver Amani Toomer went on to have long pro careers. Colorado may have had even more offensive firepower, with Kordell Stewart under center, Michael Westbrook and Rae Carruth at wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam at running back.

Jon Falk, equipment manager, 1974-2013: “Everybody knew that it was going to be a tough game. We practiced hard. The focus was really good for the whole week. All the players were psyched, and we went out there. And it was a tough week of practice, and it really was geared to win that daggone game. And to be honest with you, they had some better players than we did. They were pretty daggone good that year.”

The Buffaloes struck first, driving 63 yards in 11 plays for a Salaam touchdown in the opening quarter. After a Michigan field goal, they scored again in the second on a 27-yard pass from Stewart to Westbrook before Biakabutuka answered with a four-yard run that trimmed the deficit to 14-9. Just before halftime, Colorado lined up for its first of two Hail Mary tries.

Chuck Winters, free safety, 1992-1996: “The same exact play that happened at the end of the game, but the difference was that we weren’t on the field right before — like a two-minute drill — so we were fresh. … All the receivers never made it down the field, and I ended up getting the interception going into halftime. We walked into halftime feeling good.”

Michigan came out with new intensity in the second half, running its string of unanswered points to 23 in the third quarter. Wheatley gave the Wolverines the lead, and Hamilton added to it with another field goal. Collins threw a 65-yard bomb to Amani Toomer to make it 26-14 — though, importantly, Michigan missed its second two-point conversion of the game.

Still, that lead stood with three minutes to go in the game. Colorado drew within 26-21 on a one-yard run by Salaam with 2:16 left, and the Wolverines couldn’t run out the clock on the ensuing possession. Colorado took over on its own 15-yard line with 15 seconds to go, and a 21-yard pass from Stewart to Westbrook put the Buffaloes in position for the Hail Mary try with six ticks left.

Steve Morrison, linebacker, 1990-1994: “The thing I remember is just the seconds weren’t flying off the clock. They got more plays than we thought you’d normally get. … It wasn’t like anybody was celebrating early. But we were certainly focused, and we went back on the field and the world changed.”

The two teams called their final plays of the game: “Rocket” for Colorado, “30 Victory” for Michigan, the “30” signifying a three-man front with two defensive ends and one tackle. With just six seconds left, many fans had left the stadium, and on the field, the Wolverines knew a huge victory was within their grasp.

Morrison: “We certainly weren’t thinking we were going to give up a whatever-yard touchdown pass there. I think we were just concerned about finishing the game and doing it the right way. There wasn’t anything in retrospect, looking back, that I saw, you know, ‘That’s a problem’ or ‘We got cocky’ or anything.”

Thomas Guynes, offensive lineman, 1992-1996: “It’s a little bit easier for me to expect the worst, but you’re hoping for the best. That’s where my head was at — not so much that my guys couldn’t do it or anything like that, or there was any doubt. But just the way the momentum shifts were going back and forth, I don’t know, it was weird. It just kind of felt like there might be some shenanigans in the works.”

Colorado wide receiver Michael Westbrook (81) caught the game-winning Hail Mary pass that stunned Michigan.

Colorado wide receiver Michael Westbrook (81) caught the game-winning Hail Mary pass that stunned Michigan. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

The miracle

Colorado lined up with Westbrook, Anderson and Carruth all split wide to the left of Stewart, who was under center. Salaam was in the backfield, with a fourth wideout to the right.

Keith Jackson, play-by-play commentator, on the broadcast: “One more, with six seconds.”

Bob Griese, color commentator, on the broadcast: “I think he just went over and said, ‘Just throw it up.’ ”

Just Michigan’s three linemen were even visible in the TV shot, the rest of the defenders back deep to guard the pass.

Stewart took the snap, and immediately Colorado double-teamed each of Michigan’s defensive linemen: right tackle and guard against left end, center and left guard against defensive tackle, left tackle and running back against right end. The pocket formed around Stewart as all four receivers sprinted toward the end zone.

Jarrett Irons, linebacker, 1992-1996: “My job was to jam the inside receiver and then kind of just fall back in case someone catches something underneath. So I jam my guy and obviously get him out of his route, and I was kind of falling back.”

Winters: “We only rushed three, but we felt like if we rushed three, we would have more guys in coverage, which would allow us to get more jams. Now a different philosophy is, you can rush four and then put more pressure on the quarterback and don’t allow him time.”

Stewart dropped back as far as his own 26. He moved forward, then backward to elude the right end, then forward again to gather momentum. An instant after the last second ran off the clock, he let the ball go with his front foot at the 27-yard line.

Falk: “We were within his grasp two or three times, and then all of a sudden, he had enough room to launch it like a shot. The ball was up in the air, and we’re all standing there, looking at the ball.”

Guynes: “The offensive line, we were on the south side of the sideline. So our bench, before you got to the cutoff on the sideline, was right there, and that pass was thrown into the south end zone. So I was pretty much right there. I just don’t recall seeing it live. I feel like I was sitting on the bench and just waiting to hear, ‘Interception, ball batted down, incomplete pass,’ whatever. I’ll just go grab my helmet and let’s get out of here.”

Morrison: “I was kind of hovering there, and the rocket ball went up in the air. I remember glancing over my shoulder and tracking the ball with my eyes and at the same time trying to run towards it. When I got there (Westbrook) was probably one or two or three yards deep in the end zone. I don’t remember, but I was probably around the 10-yard line, five-yard line. I wasn’t that far. I saw it go in his hands. I had a really good view of it, actually.”

As the ball started to fall, Westbrook, Robinson and Carruth had all gathered around the five-yard line just outside the left hash mark. Michigan had five players in coverage — Winters and Law among them — with Morrison among three stragglers behind them.

Falk: “To be honest with you, I thought it was going to fall at the 15- or 20-yard line. I looked up and I said, ‘There’s no way it’s gonna make it into the end zone.’ But all of a sudden, it was just like the wind (lifted) the ball up, and that ball was headed down, and all of a sudden it just lofted back up in the air.”

With Colorado’s three receivers in position, Robinson, Carruth, Law and Winters all jumped for the ball at the same time around the two-yard line. The ball bounced off their bodies and into the air. Law jumped again to try for the interception, but Westbrook snatched the ball out of the air and fell into the end zone for the touchdown.

Jackson on the broadcast: “Stewart, with time, lets it go … he’s got three people down there … the ball is up in the air … CAUGHT! TOUCHDOWN! CAUGHT BY WESTBROOK FOR A TOUCHDOWN! INCREDIBLE!”

Westbrook, in the following Monday’s edition of the Daily: “I have never had a feeling like this in my life. It was tipped. There was nobody else around. It was just me and the football. All I had to do was catch it.”

Gary Moeller, Michigan head coach 1990-1994: “I can’t believe this one. That’s about what was going through my mind. I can’t believe this.”

Stewart: “I saw the ball go up in the air, and I saw this big ol’ arm come out of nowhere, and it was Michael. … I’m like, ‘This dude went up to get this!’ And before you know it, I looked to the sideline, everybody was running on the field. I saw Rae Carruth jumping in the air, and James Kidd. I was like, ‘Oh my God! We caught that!’”

Winters: “I just figured, ‘OK, I’m gonna take the closest guy to me, and he’s not catching the ball.’ So as I jumped up to swat the ball down, I can kind of see at the time someone coming from my right. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but you watch him and you see his side. I’m trying to knock the ball down and Ty was trying to intercept the ball, and we just collided shoulder pads. From my vision and what I always recall, it appeared that the ball hit right between our shoulder pads. We bumped shoulder pads, and the ball hit directly on our shoulder pads and bounced up in the air, and Mike Westbrook dove and caught it in the end zone.”

Stewart: “This is exactly how we draw it up. Literally. Some people say that. No, I mean, that’s exactly how you draw it up. One hundred percent.”

Falk: “For Kordell Stewart to throw that as high and as long as he did, you gotta give the man credit. It was a heck of a throw. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guy throw a 70-yard pass like that. It was 70 yards in the air.”

Irons: “I don’t think we could have defended it any better, or them doing anything out of the ordinary. We practiced that play — it just was a fluke play, and it happened. We had the right defense that we wanted, and we executed what we were supposed to do. I just think he made a hell of a play.”

Morrison: “I was a coach for a long time. We always looked for a better way to build the mouse trap. We let guys behind us. You just can’t do that. We let a guy with a cannon of an arm throw a ball that still, to this day, I’ve not seen a more beautiful ball. I haven’t. It was pretty spectacular.”

Guynes: “I was probably just sitting there hoping to get out of here with a ‘W.’ I don’t recall seeing it live. What I do recall is when it happened and I saw the ball in the air coming down, I was waiting for somebody to throw off the reaction. I’m hearing this roar coming from the Colorado sideline, and I stood up, and I’m like, ‘Man, they caught the ball.’ That’s when everything kind of kicked in. I stood there for a minute, in disbelief and shock like everybody else, and I just kind of sat back down like, ‘This just happened. These guys came into Michigan Stadium and stole one from us.’ ”

Doug Kanter, Daily photographer: “I remember everyone was just following the ball, and it was going toward the end zone, and I was just shooting, shooting, shooting. Photographers have this thing that if you saw it, then you missed it. I actually was shooting when the ball was coming down, but afterwards, a couple seconds later, I looked up and I still didn’t know whether he had caught it or not or who had caught it.”

Several reporters had already begun to come down from the press box to the concourse through the seats.

Michael Rosenberg, then Daily reporter, now at Sports Illustrated: “If you go at the wrong time, it’s a nightmare, right? Well, I was at the wrong time, because it was the end of the game, but there was nobody moving. It was a wide-open aisle.”

Rachel Bachman, then Daily reporter, now at the Wall Street Journal: “I remember walking down a stadium aisle from the press box, thinking about how I would write the Michigan victory. I was about 30 rows from the field when Stewart launched his pass. When it became clear that Westbrook caught it, the stadium just froze.”

Falk: “I can’t overemphasize how disheartening it was.”

Linebacker Steve Morrison captained the 1994 Michigan team that lost to Colorado.

Linebacker Steve Morrison captained the 1994 Michigan team that lost to Colorado. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

‘You just felt numb’

The Michigan players on the field stood still in shock or remained on the ground. Morrison put his hands on his head. Other players such as Law and free safety Stephen L. King fled the end zone as the Buffaloes stormed from their sideline to where Westbrook had landed.

Guynes: “I remember just sitting on the bench, because I didn’t want to have to run through the Colorado side, and they’re going nuts over there. … I’m taking it all in, and I’m not taking it all in. I’m experiencing it, so to speak, but it’s just not really registering either. … It’s like you know you’re there, but you’re not cognizant of where you’re at, so to speak.”

Morrison: “It’s disbelief, it’s shock, it’s all those things rolled into one. You can’t believe it. That’s exactly how I felt, and probably to this day still feel. You’re stunned by it.”

Winters: “I immediately knew that he had caught the ball, and then just by the reaction of the crowd. I immediately put my head on the ground. I was in awe.”

Irons: “I was on the field for a little bit — I was in shock, obviously — but I got into the locker room, and it was a very somber locker room. We all were in shock. It was horrible.”

Falk: “We were like, ‘What just happened here?’ And the next thing you know, the whole Colorado team came running across that field just running and screaming at us and really putting it in our face to be very honest with you. I was shocked at that — of course, we were all in shock. We just couldn’t believe what happened. We had them.”

Bruce Madej, Michigan sports information director, 1982-2010: “I remember (equipment manager) Bob Bland smacking the desk area, and me just putting my hand on my head, putting it down on the desk area. It just was one of those things that you can’t believe.”

Winters: “Ed Davis and Amani Toomer came over and kind of picked me up, like, ‘Hey, man, let’s get off the field.’ But you could see them running around excited, and some of their fans excited, and you could just hear our fans, they kind of gasped. Almost a sigh of disdain, just ‘Wow, this really just occurred.’ It was just quiet.”

Bachman: “Today fans react immediately: People watch the replay, curse, file out of the stadium. In 30 seconds, memes are up on social media and people at home are flipping channels. That day, people just stood there. There was no replay board. No one had smartphones. People just stared in shock. It seemed like even the scoreboard operator took minutes to put the final points on the board. It probably wasn’t that long, but the entire sequence felt surreal and slow.”

Jackson on the broadcast: “There is no time remaining. There are no flags on the field. Only despair for the maize and blue, joy and exultation for the Buffaloes of Colorado.”

Rosenberg: “It was not like any other game I’ve ever been to, except perhaps the Michigan State game last season. Just the idea that people were there and nobody was moving, and the stadium was just a traffic jam, especially back then, just people trying to get out at the time.”

Jackson on the broadcast: “It’ll be hard, hard, hard to find a play that will be remembered more than this one in the 1994 college football season. … All those who were involved will never forget it, either for the joy of it or for the pain of it.”

Slowly, the Wolverines made their way to the locker room as Stewart and the rest of the Buffaloes raced to the end zone to celebrate.

Madej: “All of a sudden, the sounds of the excitement of the locker room are not there. All you hear are helmets being thrown into the bin. A couple things get tossed on the floor. Disappointment. Disgust.”

Falk: “It was dead quiet. Nobody said a word. (Moeller) walked in, and he didn’t say anything, and he just looked around and said, ‘Let’s get the next one. Let’s start over again tomorrow.’ Because that’s all you could say. It’s just a real numbing loss. … Everybody got dressed and got out of that locker room about as fast as I’ve ever seen everybody out of the locker room.”

Moeller: “(There’s) one thing you don’t want to do, and that’s start finger-pointing this guy, that guy. It’s just, ‘Hey, gentlemen, this is a tough football team. This is a tough football game, and it played like that. And you’ve always got to be ready for all conditions in any game.’ ”

Winters: “Our defensive backs coach, Billy Harris, came in and it was kind of quiet. Everybody was kind of sitting there on their stool at the locker, and I can recall him kicking in the door and just going off. Cursing, blaming people for the loss, ‘It’s your fault! You lost this game!’ That kind of approach for the players, and he went down the line. He was going down the line from each player, and then eventually Lloyd told him, you know, ‘Go into the coaches’ locker room.’ ”

(Asked what Harris said, Winters replied, “I don’t think you can put that in the paper.”)

Irons: “He was going off. He kept saying, ‘30 Victory,’ asking everybody where they were and why did this happen. He was livid. It was a bad locker room.”

Later, Falk went to the visiting coaches’ locker room to see Colorado coach Bill McCartney, who was an assistant at Michigan before he took the Colorado job.

Falk: “I went in to see him after the game. Of course, Bill McCartney is a really religious guy. Very religious. And I walked into the coaches’ locker room after the game, and I said, ‘Well Bill, congratulations, but that was a really tough loss for us.’ And Bill looked at me and he says, ‘Well Jon, you know, the Lord was with us today.’ And I looked back at him and said, ‘The Lord was with you today? Bill, that was nothing but a long pass.’ That’s just the way it went right there.”

Morrison: “My wife now, my girlfriend at the time, as a lot of people tend to do, they leave games early. She had no idea that we lost the game. I saw her back at the apartment, I came right home, and I think I got a ‘Congratulations.’ She obviously didn’t know what happened in the game.”

Tshimanga Biakabutuka scored late in the first half and totaled 81 rushing yards in the 1994 “Miracle at Michigan” game.

Tshimanga Biakabutuka scored late in the first half and totaled 81 rushing yards in the 1994 “Miracle at Michigan” game. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

‘It’s a lifetime thing’

After one of the wildest finishes in college football history, the Wolverines still had eight more regular-season games to play. They fell to No. 7 in the poll, behind the fifth-ranked Buffaloes. They still had a chance for a Big Ten championship, but moving on from the devastating loss proved to be an arduous task.

Morrison: “I don’t know if we did, I’ll be honest. You go back and you say, we played this Notre Dame team and we beat them in the last second, and probably riding as high as a team could have at the time. We’re moving up in the ranks, we’re going to play this team that in our minds, we had them beat. But that only goes so far. Obviously you gotta finish the job.”

Moeller, in the following Tuesday’s edition of the Daily: “You never get over it. You’re not supposed to. It’s a lifetime thing.”

Falk: “That was such a disheartening game that it just took an awful lot out of our football team for the rest of the year.”

Moeller: “Everything in sports doesn’t come out your way, and sometimes you’ve got to live with the tough ones, and not let it conflict with your growing in the next month or the next two years or whatever. You gotta continue to grow and continue to want to do well.”

Without the Hail Mary, Michigan would have finished with its first 3-0 non-conference record since 1986, preparing to take the next step beyond a Big Ten championship.

Rosenberg: “So that Hail Mary changed the story from a breakthrough moment to one of the worst in the team’s history.”

Guynes: “That game screwed our season up, honestly. We won a lot of games still, but I think that game put a funk on us as a team and it was such a tough week afterward because that’s all you saw. So obviously being an athlete, you get home, you’re watching ESPN, and that’s all they keep showing. You’re just like, ‘Dude, let’s move on to something else.’ That funk lingered over that Michigan football team for that season.”

Rosenberg: “If they had just held on and won that, people would have said, ‘Is this the best team in the country?’ Because they would have accomplished more than anyone else. Now, you could argue that these things kind of even out — I mean, they barely won one the week before, and they lost that one — but to lose one like that, it was in the stadium, it was silence.”

In the following two weeks, Michigan beat Iowa and Michigan State but then welcomed No. 3 Penn State to Ann Arbor. Still reeling from the Colorado game, the Wolverines lost a close one, 31-24, and the Nittany Lions finished undefeated to win the Big Ten.

Morrison: “We played Penn State, which had a fantastic offense that year, probably one of the better ones ever, and we needed a stop late, and we didn’t get it. I can’t help but think we just didn’t have a lot of confidence in our ability as a team for finishing. You can hide that, fake it all you want, but I still think it had something to do with the way (we lost). I think we were a better team than an 8-4 team, I really do.”

Michigan’s last two losses came against Wisconsin and Ohio State, and the Wolverines finished 8-4 by beating Colorado State in the Holiday Bowl. But the two teams that beat them by a touchdown or less — 12-0 Penn State and 11-1 Colorado — ended up at Nos. 2 and 3 in the polls, respectively.

The Buffaloes’ only loss came on Oct. 29 against eventual national champion Nebraska. The following spring, both teams proved their talent in the NFL Draft, where Colorado had a whopping 10 players selected — including Westbrook and Salaam in the first round — and Michigan had five. Wheatley, Law and offensive tackle Trezelle Jenkins were all first-rounders. The miraculous play that connected the teams in college followed them for years.

Morrison: “Ironically enough, when I played professionally in Indianapolis two years later, my roommate was from Colorado. He was an offensive lineman. We were sitting on the couch that night, and he gets his rookie card or baseball card delivered to the house, his first one, and he starts reading the back. And it says something to the effect of ‘Helped Colorado beat Michigan on a last-second Hail Mary pass by leveling hard-charging linebacker Steve Morrison.’ I swear to God, it’s on his card. Couldn’t make this stuff up. And I’m like, ‘You had somebody make this. This can’t happen. We’re roommates now.’ That was probably one of the first times I got a chance to actually laugh about it and actually put it behind you.”

Most of those involved with the game 22 years ago did so, but all of them are still left with the sour taste of a life-changing defeat.

Tyrone Wheatley, running back, 1991-1994: “I was there and I was on the sidelines and I thought we had the game won. And to have a Detroit native come in the freaking building and steal one from us and go back to Colorado wasn’t a great feel. Just certain things you kind of carry with you and it sticks with you, and I didn’t play that much in that game. You’re just like, ‘Man, if I was healthy, maybe could have helped a little bit.’ It’s still a bad feeling. I think that was also a year that we had national contention aspirations and things of that such, so just a bad taste.”

Morrison: “God bless the Big Ten Network, but when that came out, that game was on. And people would call, ‘Hey, you’re on TV right now! And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK. It’s either the Michigan State game when we lost — that, the Penn State game where we lost or the Colorado game. Which one is it? Because I’m not watching any of them. For a long time.’ ”

Madej: “We’ve had our fair share of great wins. I was on the field when Anthony Carter scored that touchdown against Indiana. I remember in the press box watching the catch by Desmond Howard against Notre Dame. Last-minute field goals, last-minute touchdowns, last-minute plays. It goes both ways. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. And unfortunately, that day, the buffalo got us.”

Guynes: “Never been in that situation since then as a player. I made it to the (NFL) and bounced around, went to the CFL, NFL Europe, arena ball and stuff, so played a lot more football after U-M, but nothing to that magnitude of emotional ‘What the hell?’ And that’s all I can really call it is just an emotional ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”

In May 1995, eight months after the Colorado game, Moeller resigned after a drunken incident at a restaurant in suburban Detroit. His defensive coordinator, Carr, took over. Michigan lost four games in each of Carr’s first two seasons before breaking out with an undefeated season and national championship in 1997.

Asked if he ever thinks about what could have happened if the Wolverines had beaten Colorado, Moeller said, “Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, but they don’t erase ’em and change the plays very often. … Boy, if the kids could have gotten that one, what a great record that could have been, or a great win that could be.”

With the tailspin of the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years still more than a decade away, the “Miracle at Michigan” didn’t permanently stunt the team’s momentum, but it represented a key point in the trajectory of the program.

Rosenberg: “That game might have changed the course of Michigan football if you think about it. Because that team was really good. They finished 8-4, which was like the apocalypse at that time in Michigan’s history. … They lost to Penn State, which was one of the two best teams, but they were in it with them. I don’t know, if they win that game, maybe they go 10-2, or whatever it is, and Moeller doesn’t feel as stressed and doesn’t have the incident next May. Who knows what happens? … Even if the incident does happen, if they had a better year, maybe they keep him.”

The Buffaloes are back in town this weekend for the teams’ third meeting since that 1994 classic. McCartney retired after that season, and Colorado has had more than its share of struggle in the two decades since, going 117-141. The program maintained decent success under Rick Neuheisel from 1995 to 1998, but it has gone through seven head coaches since McCartney, suffered four double-digit loss seasons and not had a winning season since 2005.

And while both programs have shifted several times since they created a miracle, this weekend’s matchup brings back memories for everyone who stood in silent Michigan Stadium that day.

Falk: “That damn game lives in my soul. It really does. Every time I see Colorado, every time we play Colorado, I want to beat them as bad as I can for them to remember the day they beat us.”