Meeting of past, future in Wolverines' win over Florida
ORLANDO, Fla. -- This win was for Lloyd, and for Bo, and for the Big Ten, and even for Tom Brady. This win was for smashmouth, for 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, for the "laser, rocket arm," and even for big uglies. Michigan is moving on now, to a shiny new future with a smiling new coach. But before he left -- before Lloyd Carr disappeared into the balmy Florida night -- he gave all Michigan fans something to remember.
And something to dearly miss.
But what will stay with Michigan fans and college football experts was the way the Wolverines' ostensibly outdated offense bulldozed the Gators like a swamp boat in the Everglades. The damage: a 41-35 Capital One Bowl victory for Michigan.
From the opening drive, Florida's defensive line -- so much faster than Ohio State's plodding blockers in last year's BCS title game -- looked like a band of little brothers. Michigan tackle Jake Long and his henchmen crushed the Gators' rush, protecting Chad Henne and opening holes for scatterback Mike Hart.
On the flanks, Michigan receivers Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Greg Matthews had the size to outleap and then outrun Florida's cover corners. Henne looked like Brady and Todd Collins and Brian Griese and Elvis Grbac, all Michigan grads who have succeeded where spread-option quarterbacks have so far failed -- in the NFL. Michigan did not look like a double-digit 'dog. Not at all.
Then the Gators got the ball, and Tebow and Harvin reminded everyone why Urban Meyer is the hot coach with the hot offense, and why his Gators likely will be the preseason No. 1 or 2 entering the fall.
Imagine Michigan fans, watching from snowdrifts back home, pining for the old and craving the new, reminded of their team's sea change by Carr pacing at midfield and new coach Rich Rodriguez watching from the Michigan 15. How could Michigan give up the Henne-Hart-Long way? How could Michigan not copy the Tebow-Harvin show? Arrington looked like Braylon Edwards or even Anthony Carter. But then Tebow looked like Dennis Dixon or even Donovan McNabb. Was this bowl game the end of the beginning? Or the beginning of the end?
The game went back and forth, and Carr skeptics surely waited for the team to run out of gas as it did against Vince Young and Reggie Bush in Rose Bowls past. But that didn't happen. Michigan broke through the Gators' line and pounded Tebow more than once, a painful but clear message from a Big Ten conference that most have completely dismissed in favor of the SEC. Surely even Buckeyes fans grinned a little as Midwest brawn pounded Southeast brains.
And surely Michigan fans thought of former coach Bo Schembechler, much the way Carr himself did in a quiet moment after his final pregame press conference. "He was so resolute," Carr said Sunday. "He was at his very best when things were not going his way."
Things have not gone Carr's way all season. He nearly retired after last year's Rose Bowl drubbing, only to come back and lose to Appalachian State with its mobile quarterback and Oregon with its mobile quarterback -- only to draw Florida and its mobile quarterback. Carr remembered walking up the tunnel from the loss to Oregon and having no real idea what to tell his team. "It was so miserable," he said. "I despise" -- he repeated the word -- "despise losing."
So don't be fooled by his Tennessee drawl or his sleepy-eyed stare -- Carr wanted this game badly. He wanted it for himself, for his players, for his way and for Bo, who died a day before Michigan's dream season collapsed last November in Columbus. Carr exhausted himself in preparation for this game, looking for any way to win the final battle in a war he had, in some ways, already lost. "He wanted to do more and more," said assistant Fred Jackson, who has known Carr since 1977. "He was trying to do everything he possibly could."
This time, despite a defense that still gave up a ton of points, despite mistakes that could have cost the game, "everything he possibly could" was enough. As the sun set, the question of how a traditional Big Ten team can keep up with the SEC and the spread slowly became a question of whether the SEC and the spread are really the answers after all. With the win, Michigan is 6-1 against the SEC in its past seven games. With the loss, Tebow has four glaring defeats as a starter. And count on this: At least a few Ann Arbor people who spent this fall calling for Carr's whistle will spend next fall listening for it.
Asked on the day before his final game about retirement, Carr said: "I just wanted to have an awareness of when it was the right time."
This was the right time: His swarming defense chased a Heisman winner into a final incompletion, leading to a maize and blue mob, and a Gatorade shower, and the sight of a Michigan legend hoisted onto his players' shoulders, while the hot coach with the hot offense watched in silence from across the field.
Carr yelled at his players, telling them to please put him back down on the ground. It was vintage Lloyd -- never above the team. "We definitely wanted to do this for coach Carr," Arrington said. "We wanted to leave his legacy the right way. Coach Carr was like, 'Do this for the team,' and we said, 'No, we're doing this for you.'"
In the locker room afterward, Carr addressed the players. "I told them I loved them," he said, "and most important, I thanked them, because that's what a leader does."
Then the team thanked its coach, singing "Hail to the Victors" -- "the loudest I've ever heard it," Long said. The Wolverines sang for the past, for the present and for an old man with one last war story to tell.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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