The details of that blue-sky day seven years ago are still seared into Phil Callihan's mind like a first kiss gone awry, a gut-wrenching event he can't stop replaying on the grainy film of his memory, no matter how hard he tries.
Callihan, 44, a Michigan alumnus and a Wolverines fan down to the marrow of his bones, believes that the afternoon of Sept. 1, 2007—the one that featured the greatest upset in college football history—was the moment that everything changed for Michigan football.
And he's right. The Michigan program, put simply, hasn't been the same since precisely 3:40 p.m. CST on that September day, when the scoreboard at The Big House froze with numbers that now live in college football lore: Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.
"I remember so clearly walking out of the stadium that day thinking, 'This is the end for Lloyd Carr,'" recalls Callihan, who lives in Ann Arbor and writes for the Michigan fan site UMGoBlue.com as well as for Bleacher Report. "The national championship that Carr won in 1997 seems like a lifetime ago. The spiral can really be traced to Appalachian State."
In the 124 games before the Mountaineers rolled into Ann Arbor in '07—a rematch that will be reprised on Saturday at Michigan Stadium—the Wolverines were 96-28 (a winning percentage of 77.4). Since then Michigan is 49-41 (54.4). The Big Blue Nation has endured the Category 5 disaster of the Rich Rodriguez era, who never had a winning record in Big Ten play in any of his three seasons, and the ho-hum tenure of Brady Hoke, who, entering his fourth season in Ann Arbor, has a 15-9 conference record. No, they haven't exactly stirred the ghosts of Yost and Schembechler.
|Michigan Football 2007-2013|
|Year||Overall record||Big 10 record||Conference place||Coach|
For the true believers like Callihan, it's been an exhausting seven years. And today, a mere 48 hours before the rematch, when he closes his eyes he still can travel back to the hour of the unraveling...
Michigan athletic director Bill Martin was desperate. Needing an opponent to fill out its '07 schedule, Martin was running out of time as the calendar flipped from December '06 into the New Year. He eventually cut a deal with a Division I-AA team from Boone, N.C.: For a payout of $400,000, Appalachian State, coming off two straight I-AA national titles, would travel to Michigan for the Wolverines' season opener. In the narrative of the time, the Mountaineers were to be chum fed to the shark.
The Wolverines, it appeared, were loaded. They had started the previous season 11-0 and came within three points of playing for the national title. They had a senior quarterback, Chad Henne, who had an NFL arm, and an experience-laden offensive line led by tackle Jake Long, a one-man mauling machine who would become the top pick of the '08 NFL draft. The Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the nation. Hopes for a national championship were high.
But even before kickoff, the contest was freighted with history: It was to be the first live football game to be carried on the freshly launched Big Ten Network.
Michigan had lost only one season opener in the Carr era, which dated back to 1995. Las Vegas sportsbooks didn't put a betting line on the game because they thought it was such a colossal mismatch, and indeed most observers believed this would be little more than a glorified scrimmage for mighty Michigan. They were the 18-wheeler blasting down the interstate at 80 mph; Appalachian State was the bug about to meet its splattered fate on the windshield.
During the week, Carr told reporters that Appalachian State "would enjoy the experience" of playing before more than 100,000 fans. He was almost patting the lads from North Carolina on the head.
Meanwhile, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a summer heat wave gripped the town of Boone. In the week of practice leading up to the Michigan game, the Appalachian State players worked on their no-huddle, spread-option attack in triple-digit temperatures. Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore would play only 27 players against the Wolverines—an astounding seven players from that '07 I-AA squad would be selected in the NFL draft—but they were in the best shape of their young lives. And when Moore found out that the game-day forecast in Ann Arbor called for a sun-drenched afternoon, he couldn't have been happier. He was hand-on-bible certain that his players would be in better shape than the bigger, stronger and faster Michigan players.
Game time—12:07 p.m. CST—arrived. The press box was only two-thirds full, many regional media members opting to attend other games. No national writers were in attendance. At first, it seemed that this was going to be another giant feasting on a cupcake. After receiving the opening kickoff, Michigan's offense breezed down the field, like a machete through tall prairie grass. Running back Mike Hart, another one of the team's talented seniors who opted to return to school rather than enter the NFL draft, ran into the end zone to cap a 66-yard drive. The rout appeared on.
But then, moments later, Appalachian State wide receiver Dexter Jackson got behind the Wolverines defense and scored on a 68-yard touchdown reception. In the second quarter Jackson hauled in a 20-yard pass for another score. The Mountaineers were ready for battle and held a 21-14 lead after 20 minutes. For the first time, an oh-my-heavens silence fell over the blue-clad masses, all 109,218 of them.
The halftime whistle blew. Michigan trailed 28-17. As the Wolverines jogged to the locker room, boos rained from the crowds like lead balloons. Several Michigan players gazed up in wonder, as if living in a fog-like haze, as if they were as confused by the scene as the fans. Carr, his face already ashen, looked like a man being led to the gallows as he disappeared into the concrete catacombs of the stadium and the locker room.
But the Wolverines fought back. Led by Hart's 188 rushing yards, Michigan held a 32-31 lead late in the fourth quarter. They faced a 4th-and-6 on the Appalachian State 26-yard line. If Carr had opted to go for it and the Wolverines had converted, the game likely would have been over. But instead, he decided to try a field goal. It was blocked.
With no timeouts, the Mountaineers drove more than 60 yards in just over 60 seconds. Then, with 26 seconds left to play, Julian Rauch kicked a 24-yard field goal to give Appalachian State a 34-32 lead. The exits were jammed with fans when Henne completed a desperation 46-yard pass to Mario Manningham with six seconds to play. The Wolverines lined up for a 37-yard field-goal attempt, but safety Corey Lynch blocked it. For the first time in history, an FCS team had beaten a ranked FBS opponent.
Carr appeared bewildered in the postgame press conference, almost dazed, in shock. He stammered on about how much all losses hurt and how he felt his team was prepared. What was left unsaid—because it couldn't be understood at the time—was that this marked the end of something in Ann Arbor.
The upset was the lead story on SportsCenter. It made the cover of Sports Illustrated—even though the magazine didn't have a writer in the state when the final whistle blew. Michigan dropped out of the Top 25, which was the first time that had ever happened to a Top 10 team after a loss. And the next week Oregon traveled to Ann Arbor and spanked the Wolverines 39-7, its worst home loss since 1968.
"The Appalachian State game still hurts, even to this day," Callihan says. "But at least I saw something historical."
Yes he did. And in the pantheon of great upsets—that most seductively alluring aspect of sport—Appalachian State over Michigan now lives alongside N.C. State over Houston, Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson and USA over Russia.
There's only one unknown remaining from that afternoon in '07, a question that haunts the sleep of fans like Callihan: Will Michigan ever be the same?
Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which was published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama. Follow him on Twitter @LarsAnderson71.