I‘m not going to say I told you so, but I saw this classic matchup coming.
It was the season opener against Vanderbilt. When I began writing, all I could think of was the 1997 National Championship team. For some completely illogical reason, I just had that gut feeling.
Unfortunately, one of my fellow editors thought it was too soon to start the National Championship hype.
Well, 12 weeks later, that’s all everyone is talking about, even though the Ohio State-Michigan game has yet to be played.
So, I guess I was just a few months ahead of the pack.
Maybe it was because I’ve been watching Michigan football since I could walk. It could be that the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator during the National Championship campaign, Mike DeBord, returned to the post this year. Or, perhaps, reading newspaper clippings from the 1997 season gave me that special foresight.
You see, starting with the Colorado game, I collected Michigan’s front-page photo from the Grand Rapids Press after each win and taped it to my bedroom wall. Little did I know how many clippings would follow.
I put up the lead photo from the 34-8 win over Penn State with a smile on my face, having anxiously anticipated the showdown against the vaunted Nittany Lion defense, led by LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown. I watched that game at my grandma’s house in Chicago and after the Wolverines demolished Penn State, I was so elated that I had to reenact the contest in her yard the next day.
I almost didn’t think the Iowa win would make it on the wall, especially when Michigan trailed 21-7 at the half. Listening to the game on the radio while in the car, I could only close my eyes and point heavenward when linebacker Sam Sword intercepted a Matt Sherman pass with 31 seconds left to end the game and keep the Wolverines perfect.
But come on, the best and biggest photo came after the Ohio State contest. Buckeye wide receiver David Boston felt the need to run his mouth and taunt Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson that day. Boston sauntering into the end zone after Woodson tripped will forever be seared in memory. Too bad for Boston, so will Woodson’s interception in the fourth quarter.
This year, I feel like I’m watching the 1997 team, just in person and on field turf.
When quarterback Chad Henne bootlegs out of the pocket and hits the tight end dragging across the field, I have to rub my eyes to make sure it isn’t Brian Griese to Jerame Tuman.
When you compare the two quarterbacks, Griese and Henne bear an eerie resemblance to each other – at least in the way they manage the offense. Yes, Henne has put up better numbers over his career and started as a true freshman, while Griese had to wait until his fifth year to start every game. But, under DeBord’s control-the-clock offense, neither turned the ball over much, and both came up with the clutch throw when his team needed it.
If Griese wanted to stretch the field, he looked for his favorite receiver, Tai Streets. Watch ESPN Classic, and you can see how dangerous Streets was when DeBord called his number. All Griese had to do was throw it 10 yards farther than he thought Streets could run, and the receiver would make the catch.
Henne’s go-to man, Mario Manningham, possesses the same speed and ability to get behind the defense. In his one-plus years at Michigan, he’s made the clutch catches and draws double coverage just by trotting on the field. Taking the comparison to the next level, they both share the same number (86). If that’s not enough to convince you, nothing will be.
And then there’s the defense.
Who could forget Sword and the way he patrolled the middle of the field? His biggest hits remind me a lot of the licks a certain middle linebacker puts on opposing running backs. David Harris has the speed, tenacity and grit to mirror the former All-American.
Look at the front four of the 1997 team, and you had defensive end Glen Steele coming off the end. At the time, I never thought I’d see another with the combination of speed and strength that Steele brought to the table.
Hmmm . I think this year’s Wolverine squad boasts a similar force off the edge. Defensive end LaMarr Woodley has been dominate for the Michigan pass rush. Sometimes it seems like no one even attempts to block him, he gets downfield so fast. And when you mix his quickness with his power the way I’ve only seen Steele do, you have a force to be reckoned with. Ask Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn as he rides by in his Gator.
Now, this last one may be a little bit of a stretch. Charles Woodson was hands-down the greatest college football player I ever watched. So, on the surface, Leon Hall looks like he can’t match up with greatness. Woodson had the flair for the dramatic and unbelievable plays, like the one-handed interception on the sideline at Michigan State. Hall, using his attention to detail, steadily locks down his side of the field.
Woodson may have been a more versatile player, but Michigan coach Lloyd Carr calls Hall the most technically sound cornerback he’s ever coached.
So there you have it.
The 2006 Michigan team is just celebrating the 10th anniversary of Carr’s lone national championship a year early.
But even with all of the similarities, this year’s Wolverines don’t want to follow the 1997 squad in every respect. The Rose Bowl just isn’t what it used to be.
I know I never predicted that.
– If you’d like copies of the 1997 Grand Rapids Press front-page photos, Wright will happy to send them to you. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.