Before the Wolverines took the field for the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium in 2011, they heard from Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson.
The two Michigan legends talked about the importance of the rivalry with Notre Dame. They told the team about how to win big games like this. They said these were the types of matchups where legacies are made.
You probably know what happened next. Down by as much as 17, Michigan clawed its way back, capping off a comeback when Roy Roundtree jumped up and caught the ball in the corner of the end zone with two seconds left to lead to an improbable 35-31 win.
But not long after the traditional frenzy of the rivalry with the Fighting Irish reached its apex that night, Notre Dame canceled the series. The two teams added one more home-and-home — with the Fighting Irish’s portion last year and the Wolverines’ on Saturday — but after that, there are no more scheduled games between two of the oldest rivals in college football.
Though most members of the current Michigan team were in middle school — or even elementary school — during the original “Under the Lights,” the program today still has shades of that game. Roundtree is a member of the staff, helping coach wide receivers. Ed Warinner, Notre Dame’s offensive line coach in 2011, now holds the same position with the Wolverines. Pictures of scenes from the game can be found in the locker room, just before running into the tunnel, as well as the museum where press conferences are held and the press box.
That’s not even to mention that Saturday’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m., and while night games at the Big House are not nearly the novelty they were in 2011, there’s no question what people remember when they think about Michigan vs. Notre Dame under the lights.
It’s safe to say most Wolverines today are familiar with the tradition. But on Saturday, Michigan will have its last chance, at least for a while, to etch their names into the legacy.
The original “Under the Lights” was about as hyped as a matchup between two unranked teams could possibly be. For all the shortcomings of then-athletic director Dave Brandon, he pulled out all the stops for that night. Both teams wore retro throwbacks and even the referees got in on the uniform nostalgia. There was a pep rally on the Diag. A special ceremony honoring Howard happened on the field before the game.
For two teams with such storied histories, neither was actually expected to be that good in 2011. Michigan was in its first season under Brady Hoke after three lackluster years of Rich Rodriguez. Notre Dame lost its opener to South Florida, of all teams. Despite that, College GameDay still ticketed the game as its featured matchup.
Maize pom-poms were distributed to nearly 115,000 fans — a record at the time and still the second-largest crowd ever assembled at the stadium. It was a crisp September day, not too hot, not too cold — perfect football weather. The excitement was palpable, and it was every bit the spectacle everyone had hoped.
“I think that’s probably the loudest I’ve ever heard the Big House, since I’ve been there,” then-Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson told The Daily. “Since I came afterwards, I think it’s the loudest I’ve ever heard the Big House.”
Robinson hated night games, because he’d get butterflies all day and come into the game too amped up. Day games didn’t give you as much time to think. Robinson still appreciated the atmosphere, the uniforms, the tradition, but his worry of being too anxious came to fruition, and the Wolverines came out playing sloppy.
They were down 24-7 at the start of the fourth quarter. Even their next touchdown came from a fumble at the goal line that Robinson picked up and ran in.
Somehow, Michigan found its groove and scored two more touchdowns in the quarter, but when the Fighting Irish got the ball back and scored with 30 seconds left, it seemed like the Wolverines’ death knell. To everyone but them.
“One thing about our team, we kinda chilled and got through well,” Robinson said. “We all had that same common goal and the seniors that year was some great seniors and we had great leaders on the team. We’d been through so much and if we could go win the game together, we could do anything together.
“ … (We knew) we could win the game and no matter how much time was on the clock, we could win this. So when they left 30 seconds on the clock, I turned to them, I said, ‘That’s too much time.’ ”
Every Friday, Michigan practiced three plays for situations like this. In the waning seconds against Notre Dame, Hoke called two of them.
And after missing a wide-open Jeremy Gallon on first down, Robinson got a second shot. It was a different playcall, but the same uncovered Gallon. Robinson didn’t miss twice, and the play went for 64 yards.
Down three, the Wolverines were playing for a field goal. But with eight seconds left, Robinson took one last shot.
Roundtree hadn’t been targeted all day. He turned to Robinson.
“I need the ball,” Roundtree said, according to Robinson.
Robinson responded: “I trust you.”
There was no time to doubt. Robinson had to get the ball out quickly so there was still time left to kick a field goal if the pass fell incomplete, and he couldn’t take a sack. So he found Roundtree in the corner of the end zone. Roundtree jumped up, and the rest was history.
“It was probably the loudest I ever heard the Big House,” Robinson said. “It reminded me of — I couldn’t hear myself. I couldn’t hear, everyone was yelling, ‘Get up! Get up! We gotta do our celebration!’ I couldn’t hear it. (Someone) was just grabbing me by the chest like, ‘Get up!’ I’m like, ‘Alright, cool, I’ll get up,’ and I moved and it was like amazing.
“You can’t even put into words the feeling of what happened, and how you felt at that moment.”
The photo of Roundtree’s touchdown is immortalized now. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the locker room from the tunnel.
Roundtree declined to comment for this story, but Michigan players say he still talks about the play sometimes — albeit as merely something that happened “back in his day.” Even eight years later, the history lingers.
“I get to work side by side for two years now with the guy who caught the pass on the last play to win the game,” Warinner said. “ … Just the angst that you have when it happened, but then, because I’m a part of Michigan culture now and I work with Roy, I’m like, ‘Man, what a great play!’ For the rest of his life, he’s a hero.”
The significance of the game — and the play in the pictures plastered everywhere — isn’t lost on the Wolverines. Neither is the gravity of the coming matchup.
Jim Harbaugh said Monday that he’d be open to resuming the rivalry, and that there are already discussions being had. Still, Michigan’s schedule is full through 2028, so even if there is an agreement, chances are the series is over for the near future.
That gives it even more weight in the eyes of the Wolverines, and Roundtree is there as a beacon of that same message Howard and Woodson gave him eight years ago.
“It’s historic and being able to be a part of this game coming up on Saturday,” said senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp. “ … And one of the things that I think is really cool is, this game I don’t think is scheduled for a little bit, so there’s a chance to make a name for yourself, a name for this team, a name for the offense, a name for the defense, historically.
“And they can talk about what happened in this Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2019.”