PASADENA, Calif. — As the sun set at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, it also set on one of the greatest careers in Michigan football history. But the nightfall provided a new light into Michigan’s future.
In his last game donning the Maize and Blue, senior Braylon Edwards made his mark whenever he was called upon. As Texas quarterback Vince Young eluded the Michigan defense all over the field, it was Edwards that provided the consistent answer for the Wolverines on the offensive end. Edwards finished with 10 catches for three touchdowns and 109 yards.
If Edwards’s dropped deep pass in the first quarter of last year’s Rose Bowl against Southern Cal represented his junior year, his outstanding performance on Saturday represented a thrilling senior year in which he earned the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. A year ago, people were wondering whether Michigan’s No. 1 was worth the trouble. Now, Edwards is viewed as a model player and ambassador for the University.
“He’s had an All-American year,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He was a great football player on the field, he was a great leader on our team and the thing that I’m very, very proud of — and that I had nothing to do with — is that person off the field. He’s been a great representative of the University of Michigan, and that goes back to the day he came here.”
Against Texas, Edwards showed his ability to do it all, whether it was jumping up and snatching the ball in the corner of the endzone or taking a quick pass and running for a first down. He scored his first touchdown in the second quarter when he caught a deep bomb from freshman quarterback Chad Henne in double coverage, corralling the ball before falling out of bounds. Edwards then helped tie the game at the end of the half when he caught a pass wide open in the back of the endzone on a crucial third-and-goal from the Texas eight. Later in the third quarter, he gave Michigan the lead, when, easily caught a quick slant during the few instances he was in single coverage.
Despite the Wolverines’ loss, Edwards earned any respect he didn’t have from the Longhorns previously.
“My hats off to that guy,” Young said. “(He has) great hands. He took some big hits but popped right back up. That’s the type of athlete I like to see.”
Following the Rose Bowl, Edwards finished the season with 97 receptions for 1,330 yards and 15 touchdowns. He now leaves Ann Arbor with 252 receptions, 3,542 receiving yards, 39 touchdowns and 16 100-yard receiving games — all school records. He is projected to be at least a top-15 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
“I’m very excited that I came back,” Edwards said. “Getting a chance to wear that winged helmet for another season, playing with this great group of guys, being under coach Carr’s tutelage for another year and learning so much more than football (and) learning life lessons — it allowed me to mature as a man and allowed me to leave the nest and go out in the real world.”
When Edwards wasn’t providing the spark, it appeared in sophomore Steve Breaston. His performance reminded Michigan fans of his freshman season, when he became a favorite with his electrifying return ability. Breaston took the game’s opening kickoff down the left sideline before he was taken down from behind at midfield. The return was the beginning of a 315-total-yard performance, breaking a Rose Bowl record previously held by O.J. Simpson.
For Breaston, this year has also been a maturation process but in a different manner. After being a shining star as a redshirt freshman on last season’s team, Breaston never seemed to recover from the surgery he had for a stress fracture in his right foot. He also broke his finger before the Iowa game. Instead of flying free with the ball, Breaston looked sluggish.
Breaston said after the game that he was never able to feel 100 percent with the grind of playing every week. But, following a bye week, Breaston showed glimpses of last season with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown against Northwestern.
After the long layoff, Breaston proved the rust had come off from the opening kickoff against Texas. Carr said Michigan had the opportunity to work more on the kicking game during the long layoff, and it showed. Breaston had three returns of over 40 yards.
Junior wide receiver Jason Avant didn’t play because he was still recovering from surgery on his left knee, but Breaston stepped up as Michigan’s second receiver.
“Steve filled in for Jason (Avant) in terms of emotion,” Edwards said. “From the start — from his kick returns to his 50-yard touchdown to his attitude as he approached the game — he filled that void that Jason had left.”
Breaston’s best play of the day came after found himself wide open on a route on the left side of the field. After catching a pass from Henne, Breaston broke to the right and blew by the Texas defense for a 50-yard score.
“I like him,” Texas co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said. “He’s a smooth route runner, and I see talent in him. It caused me a lick when he caught it and started to go with it. When I saw him with a little green grass, I was worried because I knew he could run.”
Now that Edwards’ college career is complete, Breaston will become one part of the young offensive nucleus for the Wolverines that also includes Henne and running back Mike Hart. Although Edwards has finished writing his Michigan legacy, he knows the tradition of the offense will still carry on.
“It’s pretty sad that I won’t get a chance to play with him anymore, but Steve has to carry the team now — he has to carry the torch,” Edwards said. “Steve is going to have to carry it on all cylinders — on offense and special teams. But he’s the type of guys that can do it.”