It’s been 18 years since Michigan won in Columbus. Eighteen years, but the memories don’t fade.
Quarterback Drew Henson remembers the postgame riots. Safety Julius Curry recalls the eerie silence of the crowd. Wide receiver David Terrell visualizes his two touchdowns.
This week, current Wolverines who were mere toddlers in 2000 have been asked variations of the same question: What would it mean to overcome that 18-year drought?
Their answers are at once enlightening and meaningless.
At this point, The Game isn’t so much a rivalry as it is a one-sided mental stranglehold. Michigan has won only once in the last 14 years. Saturday is about a win, a Big Ten championship, a College Football Playoff spot — sure — but it’s really about reclamation. Reclamation of a time, like 2000, when the roles were reversed. Reclamation of a mindset.
Nobody on that field or around the program in 2000 thought it would be 18 years later without a win. Saturday, the 2018 iteration of the Wolverines will play at Ohio Stadium with their best chance to beat Ohio State there in 18 years.
Those who remember that game in 2000 best are some of their most ardent supporters.
“Those games make you great. You have no clue how big those games are. 10 years later,” Terrell says, then pauses and laughs when he realizes his mathematical error. “18 years?
“They better win this mother******. You can put the bleeps.”
Lloyd Carr used to tell his team if he could pick one scenario it would be to go down to Columbus, with the Big Ten on the line, and beat Ohio State.
“If we win down there,” he’d say “then we know we’ve earned it.”
As is the case this year, that held true in 2000. Ranked in the pre-season top five, the Wolverines came into the year with national championship aspirations. The highly-touted 1997 recruiting class — highlighted by wide receiver David Terrell, quarterback Drew Henson and running back Anthony Thomas offensively — left the roster chock full of talent.
And yet, Michigan marched into Columbus in late November with three losses by a total of seven points.
“We could have fallen apart that season,” Henson said over the phone this week, “and the guys grinded.”
Added Terrell: We were supposed to really get a national championship with that team. That was really a letdown. … So a lot of frustration goes into that game.”
Though it had been damaged along the way, the Wolverines walked into Columbus with Carr’s ideal scenario intact — a Big Ten title shot on the line. That week, Bo Schembechler hung around the program and formally addressed the team. He’d rattle off dates and victories, Michigan Men of past lore and program turning points.
“If you weren’t already focused, it kind of put everything in perspective of how great of an opportunity you had to play in the rivalry with something on the line,” Henson said.
That was a time when there was a formula to all of this. Michigan was 9-2-1 against Ohio State in the 11 years prior. Beating the Buckeyes was old hat at that point, though that hardly minimized its annual importance.
And when Ohio State took an early 9-0 lead, the time came to buckle down.
Henson and the offense didn’t blink. On the next possession, Henson found Thomas on a slip screen. Thomas weaved his way 70 yards for a touchdown. After an interception from linebacker Larry Foote, Henson threw a 21-yard, cross-field touchdown to Terrell to grab a 14-9 lead.
Late in the third quarter, safety Julius Curry delivered what seemed to be the knockout blow. It came on third and long — a situation the Wolverines defense had prepared for all week.
“In practice, we watched film all week, we were like ‘If we’re going to beat these guys, we’re going to have to defend a curl,’ ” Curry said.” Our coach called the perfect defense. We were in Cover 4, and I told the cornerback to play over top because I’m going to jump the route.”
Not only did Curry jump the curl route — he nearly over-ran the throw. But he adjusted to the ball, snagging it in front of the receiver and taking it back to the end zone for a 31-12 lead.
“I just remember telling the quarterback, ‘I told you I was gonna jump that shit,’ Curry said.
“When I got that interception it was like, you can hear a mouse crawling on the floor — and I just took their cheese. That’s what it’s about: take their damn cheese.”
And yet, the Buckeyes worked their way back into the game. With four minutes left, Ohio State had the ball, down just five, with a chance to steal the game and the Big Ten.
“It was a roller coaster emotionally that game — they were up, we were up, they came back, we went ahead, they came back,” Henson said. “It was one of those games that was probably four hours, but seemed longer.”
With that came plenty of smack talk.
Curry recalls the ref constantly telling him to stop talking and go back to the huddle. Henson remembers Ohio State linebacker Eric Wilhelm chirping guard Steve Hutchinson. As for Terrell?
“You know me, man. I was talking shit out the womb.”
Players heard all week about the Wolverines’ bland offense, about how predictable their scheme was. Run, run, pass. Run, run, bootleg.
Michigan, of course, had the final words.
“We took our basic offense and whooped their ass,” Curry said.
Getting the ball back with three minutes left, the Wolverines had 3rd-and-goal at the two-yard line. Henson appeared to hand the ball off to Thomas, but kept it instead, running a bootleg to the left, hoisting his arms in the air as he crossed the goal line.
Doing it on the road, Henson said, made it all the better.
“It’s just the 60 players, the staff and essentially, like, our parents. Michigan has one small section of the stadium — so it’s as hostile an environment as you could possibly have,” Henson said. “They’re giving up the finger. Grandmas are giving the team bus the finger, they’re throwing snowballs at the team bus. It’s a hostile environment. It’s part of what makes the rivalry special.”
For those who took part in that game, there’s unanimity in their feelings. No, they can’t believe it’s been 18 years. No, they can’t put their finger on one culprit. Yes, they’d love nothing more than to have that streak broken on Saturday.
These are guys still attuned to the program, still hoping to see a restoration of that dominance they lived. They’ll trade texts on Saturday, as they often do. Memories will come flowing back — Remember when Coach Carr said this? What about that play in 2000?
Careers wane. Memories only strengthen.
Nostalgia also has this funny way of hyperbolizing. As the years progress, the crowd gets louder, the smack talk more intense, the emotions stronger. That’s a privilege that group has earned and this one is chasing.
“It’s tough playing at Michigan,” Terrell said. “A lot of expectations when you put that uniform on.”
Saturday, the 2018 team has its chance to join Michigan lore. This is not the end of the season — a potential Big Ten Title Game and College Football Playoff await — but in some ways it has the highest stakes.
Win and you’re legends. Lose and so much is forgotten.
“I want Michigan to just win,” Curry said. “… Our goal said: Just win for better or for worse. That’s it. That was our team goal. Just win. For better or for worse. That’s it. Just win. All this talking? Just win.”
Then he felt compelled to further clarity.
“Hey, when you put that in print make sure it’s in big, bold letters. Just win.”