2006 was a good year to be a fan of the University of Michigan Wolverines. Lloyd Carr was still our coach and he was putting the finishing touches on a very successful career. Our team was strong that year; perhaps the strongest team during my lifetime as a Wolverines fan. We had a shutdown defense led by 1st year coordinator Ron English. Along with an offense that could run the ball and beat you through the air, led by Mike Hart and Chad Henne. Times were good.
The Wolverines had steamrolled through the season. Very few games that were even close, let alone in doubt. With an 11-0 record and the #2 ranking in the country, we headed into a showdown with our most bitter rival, Ohio State. All we had to do was beat the Buckeyes and we would be headed to the National Championship game. That was all we had to do.
There was just one problem. The Buckeyes were the #1 team in the nation and a force to be reckoned with. Led by Heisman hopeful Troy Smith, a defense that was just as good as ours and a coach who owned us his entire career, they would not be easy to overcome. That said, if there was a more exciting year for the greatest rivalry in college football, I challenge you to show it to me. We were #2 and they were #1; this had never happened before. What could be better than playing your biggest rival for the chance to go to a national championship? There was belief that this could finally be our year to go all the way.
The day before the biggest game in decades, the unthinkable happened. On November 17, 2006, the University of Michigan lost its heart and soul, the most recognizable figure in the hallowed legacy of the program, Bo Schembechler. The man who cared most about the team and who was loved by everyone who ever loved Michigan, passed away at the age of 77. No one could believe it. For Michigan players, coaches, fans and students it was like losing a family member.
There was little time to mourn. Players had to get on that bus the very same day and head down to Columbus, Ohio for a date with destiny. The passing of Bo was hard, but at the same time it gave us hope and inspiration. The feeling amongst Michigan fans was that the team would overcome the painful loss of their patriarch and win this one for Bo.
The morning of the game I was as excited as ever and had a good feeling about the whole thing. How could we lose when Bo was looking down on us from above. Sentimental stuff aside, I had watched every single game that season and we were really good. Good enough to win in Columbus that day.
On the first drive, the Wolverines offense looked unstoppable. They capped a long scoring drive with a Mike Hart touchdown; things were falling into place. Then reality set in, and the Buckeyes defense handled the Wolverines offense for the rest of the first half. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes offense was firing on all cylinders, and OSU took a 28-14 lead into half time.
Ron English and the Michigan defense made the necessary adjustments at half time and came out on fire. They looked like the ferocious top ten defense that we had all become accustomed to watching. They did enough to give the Michigan offense some time to put some plays together, and the game was 28-24 OSU with 8 1/2 minutes to play in the third. There was hope.
Almost immediately that hope began to fade as Antonio Pittman gashed through the middle of the defense on his was to a 54 yard rushing touchdown. But this game would not end like so many others, with Ohio State beating their opponent into submission; this was Michigan. The defense turned two bad shotgun snaps by the OSU center (who was wearing a cast on his hand) into fumble recoveries. With Mike Hart trucking his way to a touchdown, it was 35-31. There was a real chance the the Wolverines could pull off the upset.
It was 3rd and 15 in Michigan territory with just under 7 minutes to play and Troy Smith was rolling out of the pocket to his right. As he left the field of play, he rocketed a pass across his body. His receiver dove for it but came up just short. It was incomplete and the Buckeyes would have to punt. Giving a Michigan offense, that was just hitting its stride, a chance to come back and take the lead. This was it. This was our moment.
That’s when it happened.
A flag hit the field. How could this be? What happened? There was no obvious pass interference; it didn’t make sense. The announcers said that Michigan linebacker, Shawn Crable, led with his helmet and connected with Smith under the chin as he was heading out of bounds.
What. The. Fuck.
A replay from a different angle came on the screen and sure as shit, plain as day, there it was. Shawn Crable had sucked the life out of every living room and sports bar in Southeast Michigan.
A fresh set of downs for the Buckeyes. The Michigan defense got the job done only to be let down by one bonehead play. This is the type of thing they teach you in middle school football; you don’t lead with your helmet. Especially against the quarterback. Especially in the biggest game of your life!
That’s when my heart broke in two. I was shocked as I sat there on the couch in my friend’s apartment. There was plenty of time left, but in a game where you need to play mistake free football, a mistake like that can be a back breaker. And it was.
I knew it was over after that, regardless of whatever words of encouragement and hope were said across the State of Michigan. With about 2 minutes to go, Michigan even came back and made it 42-39, but after a poor attempt at an onside kick and an OSU recovery, that was it. There were no time outs left for the Wolverines and all Ohio State had to do was get a single first down to end it quickly. They did, of course, and it was over. The heart of every Michigan Wolverines fan was in tattered pieces. We were so close.
Since that fateful Saturday in November 2006, Michigan has had years of bad luck, poor play and unfulfilled expectations. That was the last year that they fielded a team that contended for the honor of being the best team in the country. Through the Rich Rod and Brady Hoke eras, fans of the Maize and Blue have taken some serious shots to their ego and had to admit to themselves that we are, at this point, far inferior to Ohio State, and even Michigan State.
Michigan vs Ohio State is always exciting even when one of the teams isn’t very good. There have been some close games (2013 and 2012) and even a Michigan upset win (2011), but Ohio State has owned the Wolverines for the better part of a decade. But that day, before Shawn Crable broke my heart, we were good enough to win, and damn near did it. We could taste it and then one player lost his focus and gave it one dirty hit. One dirty hit that broke my heart.