Living the dream by seeing two great games in one day
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A journalist is not supposed to cut corners. You cover the event, no matter how long, no matter how one-sided, no matter if you're trying to get out ahead of 111,385 other fans to get onto I-94 so that you get to the Texas-Ohio State game within 30 minutes of the 8 p.m. kickoff.
So what the hell -- I cut the corner. There I was, striding quickly out of Michigan Stadium, pushing my roller suitcase with one hand, pulling my rolling briefcase with the other, snaking through the disgruntled Michigan fans who walked out with 5:00 or so to play, and the Wolverines trailing, 17-3.
That's why you may understand the horror when, shortly after sliding into the back seat of a 2005 Lincoln Town Car, I heard Michigan play-by-play man Frank Beckmann scream that quarterback Chad Henne had completed a 25-yard pass to wide-open freshman Mario Manningham for a touchdown.
|As soon as I melted into the throng of people, however, the difference in the two games became as clear as, well, day and night. Decibels. Lots of them. In the stadium, blocks from the stadium -- it didn't matter. Ohio Stadium, unlike Michigan Stadium, goes straight up. The noise can't escape.|
Notre Dame's lead shrunk to 17-10, 3:47 remained on the clock, and I was heading out of Ann Arbor.
I'm not saying that for the final three minutes-plus I became a Notre Dame fan. But I held my breath so long I turned Michigan blue.
Bottom line -- the gamble worked. I made it to the Ohio Stadium press box 30 minutes before kickoff, and saw from start to finish one of the most exciting early-season games in the last few years. The No. 2 Longhorns overcame three turnovers and a raucous crowd of 105,565 to edge the No. 4 Buckeyes, 25-22.
That's 216,951 people who attended the two games, and I was two of them.
Now, let me explain the Town Car. ESPN.com is not in the habit of hiring drivers for its writers. But the editors bought my idea of fulfilling any college football fan's fantasy -- seeing Notre Dame-Michigan and Texas-Ohio State in the same day. They also understood that if I spent the three hours between Ann Arbor and Columbus typing, they -- and you -- would see the story shortly after the end of the game in the 'Shoe.
Town Car, here I come.
I didn't broadcast my battlefield promotion to the elite. Suffice it to say that when ABC Sports boss Loren Mathews explained to me in the Big House press box Saturday morning how he grabbed a great parking space so that he would be able to make a quick getaway -- he, driving his own rental -- I responded with awkward silence. Then I 'fessed up.
Going in, you think Texas (2-0) and Ohio State (1-1) are a Hollywood one-night stand, two stars who find each other (in front of the cameras, of course) and move on. The two storied programs had never played each other before Saturday night.
No. 3 Michigan (1-1) and No. 20 Notre Dame (2-0), on the other hand, would be Will and Jada, a marriage of big names.
We stare at the Horns and the Bucks the way we stare at Paris Hilton topless on the cover of the new Vanity Fair. Next issue, they'll be a new flavor-of-the-month on the cover, another star or starlet with a good press agent.
In theory, the Irish and the Wolverines are timeless, ageless beauty: Elizabeth Hurley at 40, Paul Newman at 80.
In reality, Texas and Ohio State played a game for the ages that turned on Texas split end Limas Sweed's catch of a 24-yard touchdown pass as he fell backward while wearing Buckeye safety Nate Salley with 2:37 to play.
The quarterback who threw that pass, junior Vince Young, gave another virtuoso concert, throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Horns with 76 rushing yards, and refusing to give in after Texas gave up a 10-0 lead.
Notre Dame's 17-10 victory, with the exception of a couple of Irish drives, set the cause of offense back a couple of decades.
Texas and Ohio State displayed speed, athleticism and a few once-in-a-lifetime plays. Surely no one has ever returned a kickoff the way Ramonce Taylor did for Texas in the second quarter. Taylor started to put his knee down after his foot crossed the goal line, broke a tackle while running backward in his end zone, circled around Stan White Jr.'s lunge and raced up the sideline for 35 yards.
The next Ohio State kickoff, Texas downed four yards deep.
On the other hand, there was Michigan. Sophomore quarterback Chad Henne, who played all of last season like a freshman impersonating a junior, picked Saturday to be a sophomore portraying a freshman.
He ignored a wide-open Jason Avant over the middle inside the Irish 5 in order to throw an interception to Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski at the Irish 1 in the third quarter. Henne fumbled at the Irish 1 in the fourth quarter, a mistake he may have gotten away with before instant replay.
Don't forget when Michigan turned the ball over on downs at the Notre Dame 5 in the fourth quarter. That's three trips to the reddest part of the red zone in the second half that resulted in two turnovers and no points. Henne completed 19-of-44 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but he didn't cross the 100-yard mark until the fourth quarter.
"We really settled down in the second half and blocked the Notre Dame front much better," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "We stopped ourselves every time. That certainly is a disappointment."
The most telling effect of the Wolverines' offensive ineptitude -- OK, besides the loss and the end of a 16-game home winning streak -- may have been the chilling effect it had on the crowd in the Big House, which needed only the opening possession to become the world's largest convention of librarians.
Michigan Stadium starts out the day quiet. The gates don't open until 10 a.m. Fifteen minutes before that, managers from Notre Dame scurried about their east side bench, muscling the Port-A-Cools into place and otherwise preparing their sideline. A few Irish players in warmup gear tossed the ball back and forth.
Coach Charlie Weis, in shirt, tie and slacks, stood around the 30-yard-line, squinting up at the flags flying half-mast around the top of Michigan Stadium.
"The wind shouldn't affect the passing game," he announced, almost as if to reassure himself. Then he walked back toward the tunnel that leads to the home and visitors' dressing rooms.
When Notre Dame won the coin toss, Weis ignored the current conventional wisdom and elected to receive. He wanted the ball, because he had scripted the opening drive with the idea of keeping the Big House as quiet as he had found it that morning.
The Fighting Irish came out in a no-huddle package of plays and kept Michigan backing up for the entire possession, right up until Brady Quinn threw five yards to a slanting Rhema McKnight for a touchdown. Notre Dame went 76 yards in 12 plays, not a third down among them.
"I wanted to take the crowd out of the game," Weis said. "This was a no-huddle offense but this was not a hurry-up offense. They're two different things. This was so that I didn't have to have guys not hear the play in the huddle. It was just so that we could take the noise out of the game."
Michigan never did have much to cheer. Notre Dame had only 5,000 fans and no band. By sheer volume, they didn't make much noise.
"It's the biggest stage to play on," Quinn said of Michigan Stadium. "As far as having a home crowd quiet for that long, the first drive enabled us to do that. Not having the crowd be a big factor helped our communicating, me talking to the offensive line."
Quinn told me this via cellphone. He called me some time after I crossed into Ohio on U.S. 23, a four-lane highway framed by a lot of corn fields. Either there's been a drought this summer or this is Division III corn -- it looks like I-A, only smaller.
"Did you see much of the game?" Quinn asked.
"I was there," I said, "but I left because I'm covering the Texas-Ohio State game, too."
"That's my hometown!" said Quinn, who grew up in suburban Dublin. "I'll kind of pull for Ohio State. It should be fun to watch."
We exited Route 315 at the campus exit, at 6:45 p.m., without a speeding ticket, thanks to at least a dozen people who warned me of Ohio state troopers eyeballing cars with Michigan plates. As we got on the traffic-free ramp, I allowed myself to think I would be at the stadium by 7:15 p.m. I could get onto the sideline, check out the players, maybe grab a nugget or two from the coaches.
The next quarter-mile took 25 minutes. I got out of the Town Car and walked the last 10 minutes. As soon as I melted into the throng of people, however, the difference in the two games became as clear as, well, day and night.
Decibels. Lots of them. In the stadium, blocks from the stadium -- it didn't matter. Ohio Stadium, unlike Michigan Stadium, goes straight up. The noise can't escape. It fits right into one of central tenets of TresselBall, as they call Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's brand of play.
He loves to use field position to pressure opposing teams. Texas started eight possessions between its eight-yard-line and its 20, right where the noise is the equivalent of three jet engines, or one Gilbert Gottfried monologue.
It never fazed Young.
"Playing in the Rose Bowl, playing at [Texas] A&M, Arkansas," he said. "We're used to it. We've had worse."
Weis' ploy to begin the game didn't go unnoticed in Columbus. Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis had planned the exact same gambit.
"We had planned all week to go no-huddle on the second series," Davis said. "The reason is exactly what Charlie said. When you're in a no-huddle and not checking your plays at the line, you have a chance of getting things going smoothly. Hearing Charlie gave me a sense of reassurance."
That second series? The Horns went 84 yards in 10 plays. Young threw a five-yard scoring pass to Billy Pittman, and Texas took a 10-0 lead.
Ohio State took the lead back in the second quarter, and kept it until Sweed's acrobatic touchdown catch. But the Buckeyes had to settle for too many of Josh Huston's field goals -- five all told. That left the door open for Texas and Young drove the Horns right through it.
Eighteen hours after the Town Car picked me up, the day is over. All the time, I have people tell me that I have a dream job. Next week, when I have only one game to cover, it will feel like it's part-time.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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