Seconds after the Michigan football team sealed the biggest comeback in Michigan Stadium history, an improbable 27-25 win over Wisconsin, sophomore wide receiver Zion Babb had nothing to say.
“Go talk to (redshirt freshman quarterback Steven) Threet,” Babb said. “He’s the man right now. You don’t want to talk to me.”
But Threet had already run to the railing that separated the first row of screaming, face-painted students from the celebrating players on the turf. He climbed on the rail, threw his head back and yelled, disappearing into a mass of fans who mobbed his head and shoulders.
It was hard to believe these were the same fans who had sarcastically cheered for him in the third quarter, when he threw an 11-yard completion to give Michigan positive passing yardage. At halftime, Threet was responsible for three of the Wolverines’ five turnovers and was 2-of-10 for -7 passing yards.
But in the next 30 minutes of play, Threet led his team to 13 first downs, 247 yards of total offense and 27 points.
Threet’s second half was his strongest of the season. The passing game came alive for the first time in the third quarter on an 80-yard, 14-play drive that ended with a 26-yard bullet to freshman tight end Kevin Koger for the Wolverines’ first touchdown. And for the first time this year, Threet and wide receiver Greg Mathews found a rhythm, connecting on mid-range passes for multiple first downs during the third and fourth quarters.
His most impressive play was a 58-yard run in the fourth quarter that set up the Wolverines’ final touchdown.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Threet’s run “surprised a lot of people, maybe even himself” — and one of them was quarterbacks coach Rod Smith.
He really didn’t know Threet had it in him?
Smith just laughed and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I got on him the first time he fumbled and said, ‘Son, you can’t run. You tuck the ball.’ Course, he come off the sidelines huffing and puffing (after the 58-yard run) and said, ‘Coach, I can run.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t, but at least you tucked the ball.’ ”
For two weeks, the Wolverines had talked about how winning the turnover battle was a top priority — but Threet’s first fumble came just three plays into the game.
On a third down and 11 on the Wolverines’ first drive, Threet was running with the ball when he was hit hard by Wisconsin defensive back Chris Maragos and dropped it.
The play was a flashback to the Wolverines’ dismal, six-turnover performance against Notre Dame two weeks ago.
Threet almost lost another fumble in the second quarter, but the ball bounced out-of-bounds before the Badgers could recover it.
And after the Badgers intercepted two passes in the last minute and 15 seconds of the first half, it seemed Threet wouldn’t find his stride any time soon.
Smith told redshirt sophomore quarterback Nick Sheridan at halftime to be ready to play.
“(Threet) had a couple balls go high on him, made a couple poor decisions in the first half,” Smith said. “I think he maybe might get too hyped up sometimes. Steve’s a hyper kid at times so he’s just gotta learn to calm down and play within himself.”
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Threet made mechanical adjustments at halftime.
“Steve knew what he was doing, as far as the decisions go, and there was some technical things why the ball was sailing,” Rodriguez said. “We had him dip his front shoulder a little bit and he had to just relax and hit some passes, because we thought some things were there.”
Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith and running backs coach Fred Jackson both used the word “nonexistent” to describe Threet’s first-half play. But looking at the last two quarters, Smith described his starting quarterback differently.
“He’s a competitor,” Smith said. “He’s got some heart. He’ll fight you, which is what I want. That’s a start, you know what I mean? We’ll keep working on the rest.”
Jackson compared Threet’s composure in the first big win for this young team to another new era, another young quarterback and another huge comeback— Michigan’s 18-17 win over Virginia in Lloyd Carr’s first year as coach.
“The Virginia game was 17-0 with 12 or 13 minutes remaining and (then-freshman quarterback) Scott Dreisbach came to the sideline and said, ‘We’re going to win this game,’ ” Jackson said. “I looked at him a little strange. … That game was a game that was similar to this game, to me.”