“That’s what I’m talking about Brabbs! That’s what I’m talking about!”
Michigan receiver Tyrece Butler’s barks at the end of Saturday’s win at Michigan Stadium were perhaps in reference to something the Wolverines have gained a keen appreciation of early in this 2002 campaign: Second chances.
Saturday’s rematch with Washington (0-1), in which the Wolverines looked to avenge last season’s spectacular 23-18 loss in Seattle, was the first of three opportunities the team has to make up for the 2001 season’s failures. One Wolverine in particular – kicker Phillip Brabbs – learned about second chances (third and fourth chances, actually) when he kicked the game-winning field goal with no time remaining to give Michigan (1-0) a 31-29 win in its first game of the season.
Brabbs, a junior walk-on from Midland, had already missed twice in the game, from distances of 36 and 42 yards. His friend and teammate, Troy Nienburg, had missed from 27 yards away less than 90 seconds before in Nienburg’s own game-winning attempt. But after the Nienburg miss and subsequent Washington three-and-out, the Wolverines were back in position to win the game dramatically, trailing the Huskies by one. Preceding Brabbs’ heroics, Michigan junior quarterback John Navarre completed a fourth-down pass to sophomore Braylon Edwards, who coughed up the ball while being tackled. Edwards believed the pass to be incomplete, but Tyrece Butler heard no whistle, and fell on top of the ball to give the Wolverines a first down with 32 seconds left, and no timeouts. But the fumble recovery was actually the second fortunate turn for Michigan on that play. After a third down draw to running back Chris Perry on third and two, Washington safety Greg Carothers cramped up, causing an injury timeout and an opportunity for Navarre and Co. to regroup for that fourth down attempt. Between the Carothers injury and the Butler recovery, Michigan could sense that things were somehow going to work out.
“The hustle that Tyrece Butler made won the game for us,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said matter-of-factly after the game.
After Butler’s heroics and two incomplete passes, Navarre threw a third – this one on third and 10 from the Washington 42. But before Carr had to give too much thought as to whether he would take one last shot at the endzone from 42 yards out or ask one of his underachieving kickers to attempt what would be nearly a 60 yard field goal, the referee penalized Washington for having 12 men on the field. That set up the Brabbs 44-yarder from the left hash.
Brabbs received words of encouragement from Carr and special teams coach Jim Boccher (both of whom have faith in the claim that Brabbs could have knocked it in from 60, had that been needed), but none from holder Navarre (who claimed that he “looked in Brabbs’ eyes and saw he was ready”) and marched out on the field for his shot at redemption.
“It was all really just a blur,” Brabbs said after the kick. “I think I got tackled right away. There were like 50 guys on top of me.”
The field goal ended an intense day at Michigan Stadium, which saw seven lead changes and more than 800 yards of offense. Late-game dramatics overshadowed an important day for a Michigan team trying not just to take one back from the Huskies, but a team trying to regain its pride and competitive spirit after a miserable end to the 2001 campaign. Navarre threw for 268 yards, including a 45 yard touchdown pass to Edwards, who had a breakout game.
On the other side of the ball, the Michigan defense looked less like one of the nation’s top units and more like the mediocre Michigan defenses that have come before. The bright spot was sophomore cornerback Marlin Jackson, who was matched man-to-man with Washington wideout Reggie Williams – among the best at his position anywhere in the college game. Jackson was still in stride with the progress he made late last season, and kept Williams to just (yes … just) six receptions for 72 yards.
“I’ve been waiting the whole year for that,” Jackson said of his matchup with Williams. But the rest of the Washington passing attack functioned effortlessly, as quarterback Cory Pickett passed for 318 yards and two touchdowns. It took a steady fourth quarter from Navarre and Brabbs’ storybook field goal to keep 2002 from starting out so similarly to 2001.
Second chances. Third chances. Fourth chances. Tenth chances. After Saturday, Michigan players, coaches and fans will give Phillip Brabbs more than a few more shots at redemption as the 2002 season moves on.