Tim Rohan: History won't care Michigan wasn't supposed to win this game

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By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 11, 2011

One-hundred fourteen thousand, eight hundred and four pairs of eyes slowly turned toward Jeremy Gallon. They widened when they realized no Notre Dame jerseys were in the picture they’ll remember forever.

“Oh my god. Where did he come from?” said one man standing in the South endzone.

From his vantage point, Denard Robinson just threw a pass to no one in particular down the right sideline. Gallon blended in with his teammates on the sideline, until a blue blur came streaking out of nowhere. Just like Michigan had.

The crowd was roaring, woken up from its slumber by a team that needed waking itself. Every maize pom-pon beat the air in unison. The event — the first night game ever, the largest crowd ever, the anticipation building because it seemed everyone who had ever called Ann Arbor home was back in town this weekend — felt larger than life. Under the lights.

And the game was outshining the event.

Now Gallon was wide open, running free.

But Robinson and Gallon had been working on this play all summer. Down by three points. Thirty seconds left. Ball on the 20-yard line.

Gallon runs the slow wheel route, leaking out to the sideline and up the field. If the play is run perfectly, he could surprise everyone. This time, the only defender that could’ve disrupted everything ran to cover Roy Roundtree, who was streaking across the field.

Eight seconds were left on the clock when Gallon ended his sprint at the 16-yard line. Michigan was in field-goal range. Brady Hoke wanted to go for the win.

Why the hell not?

This game, by all possible logical explanations, should have ended horribly wrong for the Michigan Wolverines.

Here was a chance to get Hoke a signature win, add a chapter to a rivalry.

One hundred thousand-plus people would never forget this if Hoke did it right.

And Notre Dame was handing him the game.

Your mind tells you that 400-plus yards of offense should result in more than a 24-7 lead by the fourth quarter, and that Notre Dame was by far the better team at that point — any time quarterback Tommy Rees even looked at Michael Floyd is was a first down and running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray seemed to have a bet as to who could shake more would-be tacklers by the end of the night — but all that talent was wasted by four turnovers.

In your heart, there is no explanation for why Denard Robinson had the ball on the 16-yard line with eight seconds left with a chance to win. It was the kind of game you don’t want to explain, but just consume, like a fine meal.

With a defensive lineman hugging his ankles, Robinson isn’t supposed to throw a frozen rope to Junior Hemingway, leading him perfectly for a 77-yard gain in the third quarter.

Three plays later, the ball isn’t supposed to pop out of Stephen Hopkins’ hands — as he’s about to be stopped short of a touchdown — and direct itself neatly into Robinson’s care for an easy score. 24-14.

Gallon, perhaps the shortest player on the field at 5-foot-8, isn’t supposed to beat anyone on a fade route in the endzone. 24-21.

This night's new logic says otherwise.

The ball isn’t supposed to slip out of Rees’s hand as he follows through on the potential nail-in-the-coffin touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Michigan recovered.

The Wolverines had no business stopping Wood on three third down-and-short situations in the second half. But they did.

Inexplicably, Michigan had a chance — after all of Michael Floyd’s 112 first-half yards, after not getting any pressure on Rees, after Robinson played so erratically in the first half.

By the end, Robinson had 446 total yards, 98.7 percent of Michigan’s offense. But he had help. History keeps the key characters in games like these — Brandin Hawthorne and Jordan Kovacs's third-down heroics, J.T. Floyd’s goal line interception, Hemingway’s two jump-ball catches.

Then there was Gallon, who had six career catches before this night.

And don’t forget the would-be hero, Vincent Smith, who weaved in and out of several Irishmen, scoring a 21-yard screen pass for the go-ahead touchdown with a little more than two minutes left. 28-24.

“I mean, everybody thought the game was — nobody knew what was going on,” said Robinson, just stopping short of saying he thought the game was over when Smith scored.

“Was there still time on the clock? Like I said before, until (it’s) ‘zero, zero’ on the clock, that’s the only time the game is over.”

But 80 yards in 30 seconds? Come on.

Twelve hours earlier ESPN analyst Lee Corso put on the Michigan helmet, striking Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose, picking the Wolverines to win. The city was buzzing, the stadium transformed into the late-night party Dave Brandon planned. Howard was honored before the game. Images flickered across the screen of all of the memories he made. History was blending with the current team’s exciting future.

This first night game was manufactured by Brandon to mean something, and Hoke’s team didn’t hold up its end of the bargain in the first half.

So with eight seconds left, Hoke decided to go for it. He had two timeouts and eight seconds to work with.

“We were at least going to give it a shot to the endzone,” Hoke said. “Why not go for the win? I mean, you play to win.”

When Robinson lofted the ball high toward Roundtree, who was in single coverage, it didn’t matter how Michigan had got there.

No one would remember Robinson’s shaky start — only his high spirals to Gallon and Roundtree, floating against the Big House lights. Notre Dame’s miscues would be a footnote. A detail. Not the story.

Kovacs. Floyd. Hawthorne. Hemingway. Smith. Gallon. Robinson.

And soon to be Roundtree.

He caught the ball, in the corner of the endzone, where every Michigan receiver should dream of catching a game-winning pass.

An unadulterated joy released into the night. Three straight last-minute wins over Notre Dame? On last-second passes? How improbable. Yet, how fitting on this night.

Think about the poor souls that left with Michigan down 17 points. Or with four minutes left, when Robinson threw an interception in the endzone. Or poor Gary Gray, the Notre Dame cornerback who had the best view in the Big House for Roundtree’s and Gallon’s touchdowns.

The record crowd will have the indelible images of a bunch of college kids celebrating with 100,000 of their closest friends and Robinson skipping up and down the sidelines before running to that corner of the Big House where he likes to celebrate.

As "The Victors" boomed into the night sky, one man who can now say he witnessed it all turned to a group of students he had never met and offered a bit of wisdom: “I’m an old (expletive) man, and I’ve been to a lot of (expletive) games in my time, and that was the second-best game I’ve ever seen.

“Savor this moment.”

The details become fuzzy, but the heroes and the result? If you were there, under the lights, you’ll never forget.

—Rohan can’t believe Michigan pulled off the same deal on Notre Dame three years in a row. He can be reached at trohan@umich.edu. Or follow him on Twitter @TimRohan.