Golf is the most difficult sport to cover because the action is all over the course. It takes a little knack and a lot of luck to be in the right place at the right time, to catch a charging player at the beginning of a string of birdies or to be on the spot for his or her fatal error. For the final round especially, it’s better just to stay home and watch it all on television.
Covering the Chicago sports scene and picking your spots wouldn’t seem to pose the same challenge. Of the city’s major franchises, only the White Sox posted a winning record this year, which counts both the end of last season and the beginning of this season for the Bulls and Blackhawks. Nevertheless, I managed to misjudge things badly three weeks ago, when I concentrated on the opening of the Bulls’ season and neglected Northwestern’s football game against Michigan, the 54-51 NU victory that put the Wildcats into a tie for the lead in the Big Ten and was promptly declared in some circles as the greatest college football game of all time. While I dug through the Bulls’ wreckage for signs of progress and promise, greatness had been manifested behind me–my fatal error.
Yet thank the sporting gods for television, which once again is coming to the rescue. ESPN Classic, the elysian fields of timeless sporting contests, ran the Northwestern-Michigan game last week under its “Instant Classics” series, with radio reporter Mike Greenberg as host, giving me a chance to atone. I think it’s a little hyperbolic to declare this game the greatest ever–I can think of several national-championship bowl games that deserve to be considered ahead of it–but there’s no denying it was a wild and woolly thrill worthy of being preserved and reexamined.
The idea of watching a game one knows the outcome of might seem ridiculous to some people, but not to me. After all, great plays, books, and music can be enjoyed time after time. Besides, I have to admit to an element of sadism: it’s always a pleasure watching Michigan get beat, and knowing for certain they’re going to be beaten adds an extra sweetness. I remember an NU-Michigan game I saw years back, and the bullying pride those male cheerleaders–the golden blond “Michigan men” in their “maize and blue”–took in the drubbing their team was inflicting, doing pushups to tally the new total every time Michigan scored. If Michigan even bothered sending its band and cheerleaders to this year’s NU game–despite the upstart Wildcats’ 5-1 record in conference play–the ABC telecast never showed them. Yet I imagined the Michigan men doing those pushups all game long, 7 and then 14 and then 21 and 28 and on up to 51–all for naught. Take that, Michigan men.
Northwestern won the coin toss, dismissed the vagaries of the wind and weather, and received. Under second-year coach Randy Walker, the Wildcats have gone to a spread-out attack that’s run up-tempo and without huddles by quarterback Zak Kustok (what a name for a football player!), who takes signs from the sideline (sometimes the coaches seemed to be acting out two maids a-milking) and then relays them to his offense by running up to the line and then back into shotgun formation like a little terrier who scurries along a fence barking at anything that goes by. Michigan was coming off back-to-back shutouts and hadn’t allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season, but Northwestern romped down the field in a series of plays that looked like the Notre Dame box-formation montage in Knute Rockne–All-American, scoring on a quarterback sneak by Kustok to draw first blood.
This touchdown only seemed to get the Wolverines riled. They looked bigger than the Northwestern players across the board–an impression exaggerated by their white jerseys and yellow (please, not maize) pants, hot, expansive colors alongside the black jerseys and purple pants of the Cats–and they rode roughshod, scoring on their first four possessions to open a 28-10 lead. Running back Anthony Thomas pounded away behind the big Michigan offensive line and displayed ample speed whenever he broke into the clear. Even more dangerous was wide receiver David Terrell, who simply outclassed Harold Blackmon, the unfortunate Northwestern cornerback assigned to cover him. Terrell got open at will and scored three of those touchdowns on tosses from Drew Henson, two of them on identical square-outs and another on a post pattern. In addition to the forward pass–an offensive concept recently embraced by the Wolverines, who were known for their “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense in the Bo Schembechler era–Michigan faked end arounds and even end around options. With two offenses like these, it hardly seemed like a Big Ten game at all.
The ESPN Classic edition dispensed with possessions that didn’t lead to a score, which meant the Northwestern offense got precious little screen time early. (Even so, the game was such a scoring festival that the abridged version came in at well over two hours–even the most dramatic classic contests are usually edited down to two hours.) But when ABC announcer Brent Musburger, finally getting a game that fully deserved his manic style, noted that Michigan had also led upstart Purdue 28-10 earlier this year and lost–it’s been that kind of topsy-turvy season in the Big Ten–the Wildcats responded as if they’d overheard him. Running back Damien Anderson, the spitting image of Darnell Autry, who led Northwestern to the Rose Bowl five years ago in the Gary Barnett era, broke free on an option play, bulled over a Michigan player with unexpected strength, and scored. Blackmon recovered an onside kick to give the Cats the ball back, and they turned this possession into a field goal. The defense finally produced a three-and-out series, and Kustok hurried the offense into field-goal range again; the kick made the score 28-23 as the first half ended. The game had already produced 51 points and more than 600 yards of offense.
Michigan again declared its dominance by marching the second-half kickoff for another touchdown, scoring on Henson’s naked bootleg and pass to the tight end–a misdirection play the Bears once copped from the San Francisco 49ers. Down 35-23, the Wildcats looked intimidated, and immediately fell into a third-and-long hole on offense. But Northwestern converted the first down with the help of an unnecessary-roughness penalty on the Wolverines, and went on to score with the help of a pass-interference call at the goal line. Both calls sent Lloyd Carr, latest in a series of red-ass Michigan coaches, into hysterics, while Walker stood across the field looking as pleasant as always, every inch the speech communications professor who’s always winning student popularity surveys. ABC reporter Jack Arute unveiled a secret weapon the Wildcats had hidden on the sideline: not Gatorade but pint bottles of chocolate milk. Aside from a Michigan man, what ogre could possibly root against that?
Northwestern muffed the point after, leaving the score 35-29, and Michigan came right back and scored on a run by Thomas. A face-mask penalty against the Cats during this drive was help the Wolverines didn’t really need. They had established that they could score whenever they pleased. Yet the vaunted Michigan defense still couldn’t contain the Cats. Northwestern’s favorite play was a delay in which Anderson and Kustok met in the backfield like a couple doing their holiday shopping at a crowded mall: One took the ball like a husband hurrying off to deposit packages in the trunk of the car, while the other raced off in the opposite direction like a wife intent on doing more damage with the credit cards. They ran that play and Kustok got snuffed, then they ran it again with Anderson carrying and he scored from just inside midfield. A holding penalty stalled the next Michigan drive and forced the Wolverines to settle for a field goal and a 45-36 lead with the entire fourth quarter to go.
Northwestern again converted a third down with the help of a penalty–this one a face-mask. They drove on and scored on a scramble by Kustok. The Cats were back within a field goal now at 45-43, and the Wolverines looked rattled; they gave up the ball right away, Dwayne Missouri giving Henson a vicious hit and Javiar Collins recovering the fumble. Northwestern then kicked a field goal, and the Cats were back in front for the first time since they led 7-0. On third and nine, Henson hit Terrell on another square-out to get the first down, and hit him again on a quick-pop pass to put the ball on the goal line (alas, poor Blackmon!). Thomas’s end run put Michigan back in front, 51-46. Blackmon saved some small amount of face by swatting away a pass on a two-point conversion attempt.
Almost unbelievably, both defenses suddenly stiffened. Each team was forced to punt, giving the Cats the ball deep in their own territory with three and a half minutes to play. Again they began to move. Kustok hit wide receiver Teddy Johnson on a simple slant pattern he carried all the way to the Michigan eight-yard line. The Wolverines hung tough, snuffing Anderson on third and goal from the six. On fourth down, Kustok hit Johnson again on a quick screen for an apparent touchdown, but though he was supposed to catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage, allowing the offensive line to get in front of him, he caught it just beyond the line, and Northwestern rightfully was called for having ineligible receivers downfield. The ball was moved back and fourth down was repeated. As Michigan came with a ferocious blitz, Kustok retreated and lofted a desperate pass down the sideline to Anderson, who was standing at the goal line, no one near him–and he dropped the ball.
“What?” I thought, watching the tape. “Northwestern is supposed to win this game.” Imagine the even more bitter sense of defeat Northwestern fans must have felt then–to have come so far, to have the game right there, and to drop it on a sandlot mistake by the team’s star running back, who had in an instant gone from hero, with 268 yards rushing, to goat. The Wolverines simply needed to run out the last minute and a half. But the hubris of the Michigan men exacted a final toll. Thomas burst through the line for the first down that would have been all Michigan needed to start taking a knee, but just as he broke into the clear he dropped the ball. Northwestern’s Raheem Covington pounced on it, and the Cats’ offense took the field for a final possession against Michigan’s wearied defense. Kustok hit Johnson to move the ball to the 11-yard line, then hit Sam Simmons on a simple slant for the touchdown. Kustok’s toss to Johnson for a two-point conversion put the Cats up 54-51. (Simmons, by the way, had caught the Hail Mary pass that completed their 21-point comeback against Minnesota the week before to put them in contention for the Big Ten title.)
The game wasn’t done. With 15 seconds to play and the ball on their own 36, the Wolverines completed a couple of quick passes to set up a 57-yard field goal to tie the game. But the snap went through the hands of the holder the same way Kustok’s pass had gone through Anderson’s.
In a storybook world, Northwestern would have gone on to claim the Big Ten title and return to the Rose Bowl, but the following week the Cats, suffering an emotional letdown, got pasted by lowly Iowa in a game that wasn’t even close. They still had a chance to win the Big Ten title last week if they could beat my beloved Illinois while Michigan beat Ohio State and Purdue lost to Indiana. The first two wishes came true early in the day; Northwestern took no prisoners against the Fighting Illini and won going away, while the Wolverines beat their arch rivals. But this was Purdue’s storybook season. The Boilermakers, who’d dealt Northwestern its only other Big Ten loss, beat Indiana to claim the Rose Bowl trip for the first time in 35 years and only the second in school history.
Northwestern fans should have known reality would eventually intrude when they tried to tear down the Dyche Stadium (please, not Ryan Field) goalposts after the Michigan game and the posts wouldn’t budge. But anyone who doubted or still doubts the outcome, believing that it might have been some collective dream of Chicago sports fans, can look for the game again as it joins the ranks of immortal contests running to infinity on ESPN Classic. If this wasn’t the greatest college football game of all time it was still one for the ages, and it’s destined to live forever on cable TV.