The Capital One Bowl proved a fitting end to a season that’s defied most every expectation for the Michigan Wolverines football team. Michigan’s 41-35 victory over the Florida Gators will go down in Michigan lore as proof of The Schembechler Doctrine -– even if the Wolverines aren’t champions in the traditional, having-won-a-championship sense of the word.
But certainly the irony of beating a Florida Gators squad that waylaid the rival Ohio State Buckeyes to win last year’s national championship is lost on no one, least of all on the coach who struggled so mightily in recent years against the Buckeyes.
Carr went 1-6 in Big Games against Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Last year was one of the worst, as Carr and the Wolverines capped off what should’ve been a “special” season with two consecutive losses, to OSU in the regular season finale and USC in the Rose Bowl. In some circles, Carr was thought past his time, a great regular season competitor who, with the exception of the 1997 co-national championship, just couldn’t come through in Big Games or in bowl games.
But when Tressel and the seemingly inhuman Buckeyes were embarrassed in the national championship game, 41-14, by the Florida Gators, Carr was granted a reprieve in the minds of Michigan fans (he could’ve done no wrong that would’ve resulted in his being fired, Athletic Director Bill Martin often said). If a well-prepared coach like Tressel could lay an egg in the national championship, then it was understandable that Carr might have his own troubles.
Seeing Ohio State lose last year, in such grand impressive fashion, brought many smiles to the Michigan faithful worldwide. But that joy paled in comparison to the euphoria of defeating the team that destroyed the Buckeyes.
And the joy of sending off a class act with a win in his final game.
The Capital One Bowl, though, wasn’t just about Lloyd Carr. It was about the Big Ten’s pride as a conference, and about the bond between a coach and his players.
Michigan’s victory over the defending-champion Gators chipped away at the conventional wisdom that Big Ten teams just can’t compete with the speedy SEC.
While Appalachian State and Oregon broke the Michigan defense by getting to the perimeter and running through its secondary, Florida’s gameplan on this day depended on an almost Big Ten-like power running attack, led by Heisman winner QB Tim Tebow. Michigan might be liable to give up the occasional big run between the tackles, but if the bulk of a team’s running game depends on crashing straight into defensive tackles like Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, they’re playing right into Michigan’s hands.
And neutralizing a supposed SEC advantage. If Florida had spread the Michigan defense, set up some blocking, and gotten to the perimeter regularly — as it did last year against the Buckeyes — the Wolverines may have looked as hapless against its conference mates did last year. By trying to play power versus power, Urban Meyer played into one of the few strengths of what had been a disappointing defense.
“Those who stay will be… winners”
Seniors returning to the Michigan football team has been tradition since Bo Schembechler uttered the maxim that “those who stay will be champions.”
And so the Capital One Bowl wasn’t just about Lloyd Carr, but also about the players whose faith in Carr led them to turn down NFL millions for the chance to win a national championship.
Jake Long will go on to lock down the left tackle position for some NFL team for a decade. Chad Henne was a regular 1st round projection on draft boards before suffering a separated shoulder this season against Illinois. And Mike Hart, graduating in four short years with a Michigan engineering degree, is pretty much set whether he ends up playing on Sunday or taking weekends off entirely.
But just like every other part of the University of Michigan football season, the Capital One Bowl worked out a bit differently than expected. Hart, the characteristically sure-handed running back, came into the game with 993 consecutive “touches” without losing a fumble, but coughed up and lost two on this day, both at the goal line, costing his Wolverines 14 points that could’ve put the game out of reach. Hart’s contribution on the field — 32 carries, 129 yards, 2 TDs — lit up the box score, and his leadership off of it no doubt affected the final score.
The 2008 Capital One Bowl wasn’t just about winning one for Lloyd. It was about winning one for pride.
Oh, for the sake of momentum
But, win or lose in the Capital One Bowl, change was on the horizon in Ann Arbor.
Michigan fans had already had a happy holiday season, learning just before Christmas that former West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez would take the helm after Carr’s last game.
The knock on Michigan and really any Big Ten team is that they just don’t have the speed to compete with the Pac-10 or SEC. Rodriguez should fix both with his proven ability in recruiting some of America’s speediest players and a spread-option offense that will thrust the Wolverines into the 21st Century.
Rodriguez’s spread-option is a proven success. Combine that with a Michigan name that still attracts top-10 recruiting classes perennially, and there’s no reason the Wolverines can’t compete for the national title year after year. At very least, Michigan may be able to beat the Buckeyes and bring joy to the hearts of the thousands of Michigan alums who fly in from around the world on Football Saturdays to relive — and witness anew — the glory days.
Rodriguez could have coached his new squad for the Capital One Bowl, but preferred let Carr have his moment with the men who’d sacrificed so much to play for him one last time. Carr will take the post of Associate Athletic Director.
When Rodriguez starts on January 2nd, he will have plenty of work to do, given the rumors that star recruit QB Terrelle Pryor is considering Michigan to be his new college home. Pryor is said to be impressed with Rodriguez’s spread-option and was actually considering becoming a Mountaineer before hearing that the coach was headed to Ann Arbor. Halfback Sam McGuffie, a Lloyd Carr recruit, is already a YouTube icon before ever toting the rock as a Wolverine. So the future looks bright for Michigan football.
And all’s well that ends well, for a Michigan legend and the players who believed in him so.